Interview: Jean-Yves Huwart

Jean-Yves Huwart, founder, SocialWorkplaces.com, Brussels, Belgium
Jean-Yves Huwart, founder, SocialWorkplaces.com, Brussels, Belgium
Could you start by outlining the key functions and objectives of Social Workplaces?

We have been involved in the Coworking movement since 2010 (that year we organized the first Coworking Europe conference), and started to link up coworking communities from Europe and beyond. From a few dozens coworking spaces in operation around the world eight to ten years ago, we have witnessed an increase to up to 13.000 units as of today worldwide. This is according to the Deskmag Global Survey 2017 which is supported by SocialWorkplaces.com.

Through these years, we have had the opportunity to interview and talk with many tenants and operators. We have become more and more convinced that what coworking brought, first for freelancers and start-ups, was an actual re-invention of the function of the workplace, broadly speaking, for the digital age. This was for any kind of workplace, any category of employer. Once the ability to access your production tools has become ubiquitous, why is there a need for you to have a workplace? For us, coworking provided the answer: people need to be in touch with other people with whom they to be with, both for their personal equilibrium as much as for professional reasons. This is especially important at a time when routine tasks can be more and more automated and when workers are requested to provide more creative and social outputs. We call this the Social Workplace, inspired by the coworking experience.

How would you define specifically a coworking workplace relative to shared office, public workspaces (community centres, libraries), mixed workspaces, maker spacers and business centre workplaces? Is a membership/partnership/cooperative model rather than a lease-type model core to the concept? Are there significant differences between approaches in Europe and North America?

Coworking is open. You can show up any time and propose yourself to become a coworker. Someone will walk (normally) towards you, be hospitable and make you comfortable. People flow in and out. This is similar to a hotel, a restaurant or a gym. It is service driven. Usually, coworking spaces also create a proper identity and, thus, a sense of belonging that is at the root of the creation of communities.

Shared office [models] are more closed. Certainly [in this model] you will be around the same people in the same building all time and this doesn’t impede social interaction. However, it will be more static. But those models are not exclusive between one another. More and more business centres open up coworking services within their buildings and hire a community manager to build up an emotional relationship with and between their tenants. The added value is no more – or less and less – in the provision of a facility; it is in creating a pleasant environment and experience.

Europe and North America are not that different, I would say, in terms of offerings. Big US cities, however, have a higher density of startups and digital workers. So we see bigger players, bigger spaces in the US. That said, it’s just a matter of time before we see Europe catching up in terms of growth.

Who are the current main users/members of coworking workplaces; what is the trend in terms of who will be the main users in the future; e.g. HOK/Cornet Global 2016 report (Coworking: A Corporate Real Estate Perspective) suggests employees in corporation with traditional office space are also now a significant and growing percentage of users/members?

Freelancers are the bigger users so far. They are the historical first tenants because in the beginning spaces were smaller and did not necessarily have the capacity to accommodate bigger teams. The population of freelancers is growing everywhere, however, as the new working generation looks for more freedom and self-achievement. Plus, big companies’ headcounts keep shrinking.

Sideways, we see more and more employees within coworking spaces. So far, corporations have started to authorize people from their innovation departments, for instance, to work from coworking spaces in order to be in touch with the local start-up scenes. In terms of numbers, this trend is still marginal, however. On the other hand, fast growing SME’s do not hesitate to put all their teams in coworking space offices. We think it’s just the beginning. The Office in the cloud (the cloud here being the coworking spaces) will become mainstream.

What are the most important attributes of a successful coworking workplace; e.g. shared services, social interaction capability, flexible (varied and funky?) work areas, IT support, collaborative programming (seminars, etc.). What are emerging attributes…for example, cloud access; private work spaces, meeting rooms, mix of coworking and shared office arrangement?

Coworking spaces don’t bother with IT support usually but they do provide a stable, secured internet connection. That’s it. Tenants’ tools are now in the cloud. Besides, today, neither startups nor freelancers need traditional assistant support. Sure, there are exceptions, but those are outdated services with the new generation of digital nimble companies as far as we see it. Again, everything is in the cloud. Spaces need to offer new kind of value added services if they want to keep their revenue per user at the same level as in the past. Indeed, they need to provide a space with human focused connections, interesting events, social moments, fun and networking. This is what gives value nowadays, not forgetting flexibility and the opportunity to scale up or down easily.

Within the industry/sector what is the relationship between two core coworking workplace models represented by: 1) large international firms like Regus, Servcorp and WeWork; and 2) smaller independent operators?

The analogy with the hotel industry is for me the most relevant. You have Accor, Shangri-La’s, Holiday Inn, Best Western proposals, aside of AirBNB’s, Bed & Breakfast, independent hotels, camping or even couch surfing. These can be fully complementary. Each reaching out to different needs, profiles or customer expectations, all according to the context of the booking. These accommodation offerings are not mutually exclusive, I would add. Depending on the context, you may consider to stay at a Regency hotel because your need is professional only, you don’t look nor have time to socialize or discover a city. But on holiday time, the hospitality of a Bed & Breakfast or the fun of couch surfing might suit you.

With hotels, etc., we speak only about a few days, however. The main difference between the need for lodging and the need for a workplace is the duration of the stay. With a workplace, you commit for a few months, at the least, not for a few days. The quality of the social experience than become a much higher driver of choice.

What is the significance of secondary coworking spaces such as those promoted by hotels, coffee bistros, add-on coworker spaces in corporate head offices, colleges and universities, community centres, libraries, maker spaces, etc.?

Again, the element of duration is key here. Working from a coffee shop during one or two hours (depending of the battery life of your computer) might be fully convenient. Noise and comfort are not critical, in this case. This will be another story when you have to stay eight hours a day, five days a week. You probably will look for a proper work environment.

What is the role/significance of LiquidSpace or similar apps that use the Airbnb approach to attractingworkers? Could this approach impact the length of memberships or even the very concept of time defined membership in coworking spaces?

Liquidspace and the likes are like Booking.com for hotels. They are sales channels and helpful online directories. The dimension of service is critical, though. If the space fails to provide the required hospitality and quality of service, the trust will be broken. This is a service business. Forget it, and you will lose.

The HOK/Cornnet Global study raises the issue of upcoming renewal of leases for many coworking workspaces, indicating that many are based on five year leases negotiated at a time when lease costs were lower or for under-utilized space that is now in demand areas. Is this an important concern in Europe?

It’s still a bit early to say, as the wave of bigger, stronger spaces is less than five years old, overall, in Europe. However, this is certainly a very big challenge ahead. We are not aware of accurate data about this. A lot of coworking spaces, through their activities, have brought a lot of value back to properties – sometimes to the whole neighborhood within which they operate – and have not been rewarded for doing so. I would advise any coworking operator to really consider this when negotiating. That being said, we hear more and more of landlords getting in touch with coworking operators in order to partner up. I’m personally a strong believer in this kind of mutual partnerships where risk is shared.

What is the growth potential of demand for coworking spaces over the net decade? HOK suggests overall it will stabilize around 2% -4% penetration of the office market and that saturation is now becoming an issue; Your ongoing survey with Deskmag indicates significant growth in members from 2011 to 2017 but as the numbers rise, the actual growth rates of spaces and members are steadily declining annually (88% to 22%; 104% to 41% respectively).

We saw those figures. As far as we understand it, this includes business centres as well. To me, the turning point will be when coworking space operators will be able to host companies with 200-300 people or more while providing mutualized support services. This will create convivial environments within full office buildings, with [the coworking operator] becoming a concierge, facilitator, connector, ecosystem builder, etc. Social Workplace will become the standard then; and, no employee will accept to work in the old-fashioned, dull closed and dry offices have experienced in the last decades. Then, expect the penetration rate [of coworking] to become much much higher.

In Summary, what is the future of Coworking workspaces over the next decade; what will be the key trends?

This is just the beginning [but] it will evolve under many shapes.

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