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- Category: Coworking Industry
- Three flexible workspace experts share knowledge and experiences on how to stay competitive in a growing market
- Flip Howard of Meridian Business Centers, Christine Andrews from Acme Works and Coworkaholic’s Mike LaRosa joined a webinar moderated by essensys
- The session covered five key elements – Design, Services, Operations, Technology and Community
Everywhere you look there’s mounting and inescapable evidence that the flexible workspace market is experiencing rapid global growth at a rate never seen before.
But growth comes with challenges, not least a sharp rise in competition. How do independent operators stay competitive in a growing market? What can older spaces do to keep pace with new design trends? How can business centers appeal to the coworking crowd without losing loyal clients?
These questions, and more like them, were discussed at length during a webinar on July 24th featuring three flexible workspace experts, each hailing from different parts of the industry:
- Flip Howard is the founder of Meridian Business Centers, a traditional executive suites brand established 16 years ago.
- Christine Andrews is the founder of independent coworking space Acme Works, based in Toronto.
- Mike LaRosa is the publisher of Coworkaholic and a partner at AgoraRDM, a real estate development and management consulting firm.
In a session moderated by essensys, this combination of experience and perspective generated an insightful discussion to help flexible workspace operators adapt and pivot in today’s rapidly evolving market, covering five key elements – Design, Services, Operations, Technology and Community. Our top takeaways are as follows.
- Design: Stay in your lane. Be authentic and true to your culture.
How do flexible workspace operators stay abreast of new design trends? Authenticity is key, and Flip Howard stressed that operators shouldn’t attempt to “throw in” coworking elements if it doesn’t suit their culture.
“Don’t try to be cool by adding a ping-pong table or free beer if it doesn’t fit the rest of your space,” he said. “Keep in mind the overall look and feel of your space, and stick with that. Don’t add bean bags if your space and your clients are more traditional.”
Mike LaRosa concurred, advising against trying to “be everything to all people” in order to compete against the likes of WeWork. “We’ve seen so much growth and opportunity in niche spaces. Don’t try to cover everything. Determine what your audience needs – for example, a podcasting studio – and provide it.
“Know who you are, embrace who you are, and stay in that lane.”
For operators seeking ways to improve or freshen up their space, Christine Andrews recommends borrowing ideas and inspiration from the home environment.
“At a macro level, think about the blurring of work and life. When you’re finishing your space, whether it’s a new or an old space, think about adding touches like soft seating, artwork, and objects you would find in the home.”
- Services: Ask your members what they need.
When it comes to choosing which services to provide for your clients, the panel had a simple solution: ask them.
“Our community loves it when we ask for their input,” Andrews noted. “Whether it’s a quick survey or a town hall, or simply going around chatting to members, it’s the only way to really find out what’s important to them.”
And the result might be surprising, as Andrews notes that members ask for anything from a dry-cleaning collection service to yoga classes.
Taking this further, LaRosa noted that virtual office and mailing address services are an important part of the coworking offering – even though many coworking operators aren’t yet taking full advantage of virtual office services – as most members need some sort of mailing address facility. “There’s a lot that coworking operators can learn from traditional business centers in this respect,” he added.
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- Operations: Make referrals your new marketing priority, and let unhappy clients walk.
When it comes to finding new clients or members, Andrews has a single trusted formula:
“There is nothing as powerful as a recommendation from an existing member,” she says.
“Marketing starts within your community, so it’s your job to make sure they’re happy in your space and that they’re equally happy to recommend you to others. Show them how to do it, and even offer a small reward or incentive if you want to.”
Taking the concept of happy communities further, Howard had an interesting story to add.
“We started a policy recently where if people wanted to leave, for whatever reason, we just let them go. We didn’t try to hold them to a 6 or 12-month clause. Amazingly, after implementing this policy, we found that the number of people moving out actually went down!
“If you have people in your center who don’t want to be there, it creates bad feeling for your culture and your community. If they want to leave, or have to leave, there’s no point keeping them to a clause. Let them go!”
- Technology: Data helps you provide a better workspace.
According to Howard, traditional executive suites historically had access to very little data and subsequently knew virtually nothing about their clients.
“Having a software that allows you to make data driven decisions is the only smart way to run any business in 2018,” he says.
Likewise, Andrews values the ability to track who is using her space and how they’re using it in order to improve the workplace experience.
From the amount of time members spend using Wi-Fi, to which rooms they use the most – such as meeting rooms, or private phone booths – this data enables operators to improve and fine-tune their services to provide a more relevant workplace to their members, which is essential as the market becomes more competitive.
- Community: The best communities start with the right people.
Building a strong and happy community is less about organising events, and more about finding the right person to create and nurture your membership culture from the get-go.
“We hire from the hospitality industry,” says Andrews. “Community managers aren’t an easy hire – it’s a completely different skill set. Administration can be learned, but in most cases you either have the hospitality ethic or you don’t.”
The key is to be willing to move away from traditional hiring processes to find the right candidate.
LaRosa added: “It’s not just about changing titles from Center Manager to Community Manager, but also re-evaluating your actual job description. For instance, serviced office operators would often do secretarial work but community managers do a lot more concierge-style ‘soft touches’. Take a look at your roles and freshen them up.”
For Howard, attitude is key. “We’ve been behind the curve on this one. We tried changing job titles [from Center Manager to Community Manager], we do happy hours and events, it’s going well but we’re still working on it.
“The most impactful thing we’ve done is actually quite simple. We introduce people to each other in a good old-fashioned way, and this really works.” Howard noted that the number of new clients doubled when prospects were introduced to existing clients and members during tours, compared to those who weren’t.
“It’s such a simple solution, and it’s so impactful.”