…powered by coworking

Is there a way back to coworking?

Over the past five years we at the OpenWork Agency have helped real estate developers and entrepreneurs around the world with their various “coworking” projects. I use quotes here because for anyone familiar with the original coworking 1.0 movement, these projects are typically much less ‘coworking’ and much more ‘office.’ That is, the very notion of coworking came online in 2005-2006 as a new modality of work where people (from different disciplines, companies, and industries) sat co-present at large tables while they did their work. This was the ‘co.’ In these spaces community was not just a word, it was a thing.

All sorts of non-work related conversations and relationships developed in the ‘co.’ So much so that eventually the mainstream world took notice and fell in love with coworking. At the center of the whole romance with coworking was the element of community. As a kind of antidote to the Dilbert-esque working lives that so many corporate employees are obliged to endure, coworking spaces were a breath of fresh air. ‘Wow. I want some of that.’

This is perfectly understandable because…coworking really was that great. Places such as Indy Hall (Philadelphia), Office Nomads (Seattle), Creative Density (Denver), and Beta Haus (Berlin), among others, offer qualitatively different experiences than the ones that we create for our clients. I’ll spare readers the violin concerto, but it is decent jumping off point for a deeper discussion.

Whither Coworking

While romanced by the ‘groovy’ elements of coworking, our clients are real estate professionals seeking new ways to maximize RSF (revenue per square foot). Some of our clients have already made their money, and ‘coworking’ is a passion project that does not necessitate aggressive returns, but even then RSF is not very far away. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and we are grateful for the work.

However, pretty much across the board, we see relative demand for open coworking (‘hot desking’) decrease as an overall percentage of the industry’s growth. The growth is in the demand for private offices. This has been clear for years. We are in coworking spaces all the time, and the site is familiar: the ‘coworking area’ has two or three lone people at their laptops, while the private offices (upstairs or in the back) are fully subscribed. Coworking has become a loss-leader, and obligatory part of the model to rationalized the use of the term coworking.

Glass Box Kingdom

Meanwhile, industry-behemoth WeWork has leveraged the poetics of coworking 1.0 to institutionalize the proliferation of tiny glass offices where peoples’ (particularly American) need for privacy can be satisfied. In our ‘ownership culture’ this is really no surprise. Yet, as the average per-person workstation footprint shrinks from around 300/250 sq ft (in the traditional office of yesteryear) to around 40-50 sq ft (in many WeWorks) today, one has to wonder about the quality of those work experiences.

It would seem that few people, in the larger scheme of things, are wondering. More and more large firms sign up for tiny glass box offices with call center-like layouts for their teams. While it might be a bit claustrophobic and oppressive (having traded out the failed open-plan office for a glass sardine box), at least there is cold-brew coffee and craft beer on tap. Community has thus been reduced to a few fleeting moments of co-presence in the ‘communal kitchen,’ where people share space while they pour a beer or a cup of coffee.

Confessions of a Coworking Consultant

It is hypocritical to point fingers. We help create these environments too. I confess. Yet, on some days and at some times, I do wonder about the fate of ‘proper coworking.’ I will not devolve into an etymological discourse about the meaning of words, I am just thinking out loud.

As part of the original coworking movement, originally as Conjunctured and now as OpenWork, we think about these things. I would hope that one day we just might try to figure out how to get back to coworking.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

The Two Disruptions of Corporate Coworking

Coworking Grows Up

In a little over a decade coworking has grown from being a scrappy officing solution for freelancers and startups into a multibillion dollar industry with thousands of operators around the world.[1] Defined as ‘a multi-company campus for companies of all sizes,’ coworking has established itself as a viable workplace arrangement for the sharing economy. Industry unicorn, WeWork, has helped define the market in much the same way that Starbucks helped define the coffeehouse market. It now operates over 250 locations in over 70 cities around the world, and is close to generating $1B in annual revenue.[2] Each time WeWork secures another round of funding (up to over $5B), its valuation soars to yet new heights (now at $35B), and animated observers argue over the merits of its business model and its valuation.[3]

The news and excitement surrounding WeWork’s phenomenal growth, though, obscures more fundamental economic and organizational shifts occurring around the coworking ecosystem. As coworking and shared workspace providers become increasingly focused on large, enterprise customers, the industry’s knock-on effect is growing. Indeed, the rapid growth of the industry as a whole is due in large part to corporate adoption of coworking, which now accounts, for example, for around 25% of WeWork’s members worldwide.[4] WeWork also claims that 22% of Fortune 500 companies have members working at their spaces.[5] The number of enterprise-company members grew by 90% in July of 2018 compared with July of of last year.[6]

Having ‘crossed the chasm’ from trend to mainstream adoption, this article suggests that it is time for firms to take coworking seriously, as an industry, and to develop a clear strategy for how to embrace it and leverage it as an opportunity to transform their companies. The challenge falls initially on corporate real estate (CRE) and human resource (HR) professionals, but the challenge and opportunity should be tackled across the firm. 

CRE & HR: Odd Bedfellows

Two disruptions come into play as more companies deploy employees to work in places such as WeWork, Industrious, and Spaces (Regus’ new coworking brand). The first and most obvious disruption is in the commercial office market (‘The Economics of Coworking- Winners and Losers’). As a real estate business (a rent arbitrage model of subletting leased space), coworking’s most significant impact has been within the corporate real estate sector. Through its success and growth, coworking is, at least indirectly, helping to accelerate the shrinking footprint of knowledge workers (in terms of sq ft per worker), while in doing so reducing both the demand for conventional office space and the cost per workstation and per employee per year. This creates pressures and opportunities, depending on where in the value chain you are situated.

The second yet emergent disruption lies within the domain of HR- talent attraction and retention, culture and culture management, engagement management, and the employment brand generally (‘The Human Side of Coworking’). As Gen Y and Gen Z knowledge workers enter the workforce in larger numbers, offering greater choice and flexibility to new hires with respect to how they conduct their work is increasingly becoming a necessary recruiting and management tool. Attracting and retaining young talent, though, is just part of a larger managerial challenge. Coworking presents challenges and opportunities for managing company culture, as well as new contexts for exploring cross-company and cross industry collaboration and innovation that have yet to be systematically explored in the coworking context. (See HBR- Managing Multi-Party Innovation, Nov. 2016).

I conclude the article with a framework designed to help companies engage coworking strategically, rather than reactively. In many respects we are still in the early days of coworking’s maturity as both an industry and as a new work location for corporate employees. Firms that develop a clear coworking strategy can move beyond the hype of coworking and leverage it to add value in new and innovative ways.

The Evolution of an Industry

Phase I- The Community Phase (2005-2010)

*Coworking as a “movement.” A community place for freelancers and startups

*Open spaces with open tables and ‘hot desking’

Phase II- The Commercialization Phase (2010-2015)

*Coworking becomes a business for freelancers, startups, small businesses and solo-preneurs

*Rapid growth in the introduction of private offices, and the slow decline of hot desking

Phase III- The Corporate Phase (2015-2018)

*Coworking becomes a business for firms of all sizes (particularly for large firms)

*80-20 Rule: 80% of floor plates of profitable coworking spaces is made up of private offices, while only 20% is devoted to hot desking

Corporate Coworking

Over the past three years the industry has grown largely due to increasing rates of corporate adoption (see Table 1). In 2010, for example, 80% of all new members of coworking spaces were either freelancers or members of startups or small businesses. By 2017, only 39% of members were freelancers and startup employees.[7] The changing constitution of coworking members doesn’t necessarily indicate a decline in the more ‘traditional’ type of member; rather, it underscores the inclusion of corporate users and the overall growth of the market.

When WeWork opened its first location in Vancouver in October 2017, it had little trouble sub-leasing the new space. In one lease, Amazon took up 80% of the 76,000 sq ft floor plate, sharing the rest of the building with a mix of other companies.[8] In April of 2017, IBM inked a similar deal with WeWork when it took possession of 144,000 sq ft at 88 University Place in Manhattan, becoming the sole ‘member’ of this WeWork location.[9] And in April of 2018 Facebook signed the largest single lease with WeWork, for around 450,000 sq ft in Mt View, California.[10]

The Economics of Coworking- Winners & Losers

WeWork has made visible what is known as the coworking premium– the difference between the rent paid for a space and the revenue collected from subleasing the space to multiple tenants. A 2016 Business Week article pointed out that in one of WeWork’s locations in Manhattan, where they had negotiated a lease rate of $45/ sq ft, they were earning $139/ sq ft, a 180% premium.[11] As real estate developers, asset owners, and brokers saw enough examples of this, something of a rent per sq ft gold rush ensued. 

Skeptics, though, are quick to point out that WeWork’s cost of expansion and burn rate cancel out the premium and that the business model is not sustainable. My focus in this section is not on WeWork’s finances as much as it is on why coworking (in general) is increasingly attractive to corporate tenants and how this demand is disrupting the value chain of the broader office market.   

According to research by CBRE, 44% of companies they surveyed currently use some sort of ‘flexible open platform office, and that 65% of companies in their study “expect to use coworking as part of their office portfolio by 2020.”[12] Research by JLL suggests that by 2030 as much as 30% of all office space will be some form of flexible office.[13] Today, less than 5% of the overall office market is made up of flexible workspace and coworking combined.* Predictions such as JLL’s, which anticipate the category growing from <5% to 30% of the office market in the next twelve years,[14] underscore the scale of change that the industry is facing.

Where is this demand coming from? On the surface, the cost per sq ft for private offices in coworking spaces might seem prohibitive. For example, a one-person office in a major market such as San Francisco or New York City might rent for $800/month. At around 45 sq ft per office, this is over $200/sq ft. If commercial office space in New York or San Francisco leases for $70-$80/sq ft, how can coworking be financially attractive?

Framing the coworking challenge this way is an apples and oranges comparison. If one looks narrowly at the cost per sq ft of an office in a coworking business, and then compares that with the per sq ft lease rate of a company’s HQ, for example, the difference is indeed staggering. Such an apples/oranges comparison, though, does not factor in critical variables and changes in the way officing is evolving in the sharing economy.

Calculated per employee, coworking is cheaper than traditional officing.


Historically, building owners and brokers have leased companies much more square footage than they typically need, or will likely ever need. Office space utilization rates hover between 40% and 60% at best,* which means that in the traditional model, roughly half of all workstations sit empty at any given time.

Shrinking workstation footprints

The average square feet per worker has been in steady decline over the past fifteen years, falling from around 300 sq ft/worker to around 150 sq ft/ worker today in the most flexible office arrangements. This was initially driven by the ‘sardine effect’ achieved by the open plan office, which is generally considered today to be a failure. It is being driven further down by the growth of flexible and shared workspace businesses. 

Activity based working ratios

Activity based working (ABW) has already introduced addressless officing to many companies, moving from a 1:1 worker/workstation ration to a 2:1 workers/workstation ration. This is premised on the assumption that not all employees will work at the office every day. Utilization rates in ABW offices can reach as high as 80%.*

Actual cost per worker per year

The sq ft footprint/ worker in private offices in coworking spaces can be as small as 45 sq ft. This means that, when you calculate the cost (in terms of workstations) per worker, per year, coworking offices are significantly cheaper than the annual cost/ worker in a traditional office. For example, in a traditional office in Chicago, where the price per square foot is $45 and employees are allocated 200 sq ft per person, the annual cost of that person (workstation) is $9,000. By contrast, if you are a company employee working in a 10 person office at a WeWork in Chicago, you will cost your employer around $6,000/year.*

These are only the cost calculations and do not include any of the social or productivity benefits that many coworking advocates claim are associated with coworking (see HBR, ‘Why People Thrive in Coworking Spaces,’ Sept. 2015). Here I am more interested in what those cost advantages (for tenant companies) mean for asset owners and commercial real estate brokers.. It is no secret that brokers’ business model is premised on locking corporate tenants into long-term leases (10-15 years) on large floor plates. The traditional commission structure necessitates this. However, now that there are clear and compelling alternatives- ABW inside firms and 3rd party coworking off campus- companies are re-calibrating their real estate portfolios and strategies.


One of the obvious advantages of coworking for companies, in addition to the cost savings, is the flexibility. If a firm needs a place for a team or even a department, for a period of only three to six months, they can contact their local coworking operator and (depending on availability) have that team in place and ‘coworking’ the following week. In the traditional leasing model, it would be difficult to get a showing of a possible new office location within a week, and the move-in date might be a year out. With move-in ready offices, firms can begin to re-think and rationalize their own real estate holdings, saving money in the process. A recent conversation we had with a large firm considering coworking indicated that they were looking to reduce their real estate costs by around $500M per year by shifting to a flexible, modular officing program.

The Challenged

For firms adopting coworking as a part of their workplace strategy, this increasingly seems like an attractive solution. For real estate professionals (asset owners, developers, brokers), however, coworking and shared workspace operators pose an existential threat. As technology enabled mobility combines with ever-shrinking workstation footprints, which leads to much higher rates of utilization, traditional real estate players are forced to adapt quickly. Many of the larger CRE firms- CBRE, Colliers, Cushman Wakefield, JLL, Avison Young- have very much received the message and are in a decade long mode of adaptation. 

The primary challenge will be in adjusting the financing mechanisms that underwrite leases that are effectively sublease arrangements. As financial institutions become more comfortable with this, again in large part driven by the example set by WeWork, more institutional lenders and equity investors will be in a position to boost the industry’s growth even further. Asset owners and developers who don’t make this adjustment will lose out on opportunities as more of their corporate tenants seek great flexibility and modularity in how they lease office products.

The Human Side of Coworking

The other disruption of coworking is currently less obvious than its impact on the real estate industry. In many ways this is a silent, though perhaps equally important in the long-term, knock-on effect.

In its early iterations (2005-2010), coworking was more about providing social and business support for independent knowledge workers and startups than it was a business opportunity, per se. The real estate transformation that followed was both surprising and unintentional. As taken-for-granted as the social dimensions of coworking were for early adopters relatively little thought has yet to go into what types of behaviors and communication styles are most aligned with multi-company coworking, what the leadership challenges are, and, importantly, what the cultural impact of having company employees ‘coworking’ with people from other companies and industries will be going forward. Will this erode or enhance the core culture of the company? Will the working culture at places such as WeWork spill over into the cultures of its member companies? Or, possibly, will the different member companies who cowork together create new types of workplace cultures over time?

The Culture Imperative

These questions are relevant to many firms as they reconsider their various flex-work programs and options. In 2013 former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announced that Yahoo! employees could no longer work from home, that they would need to report to the office to work around their colleagues.[15] Yahoo’s flagging performance, it was thought, would be improved if its employees could work co-present and collaborate together more seamlessly. The idea behind this was that with employees working physically together a greater sense of cultural unity could be nourished. Similarly, in 2017, IBM announced that their far flung workforce would also be required to report to a local office and be tethered to a physical workplace.[16] A growing consensus is that digital tools can facilitate collaboration significantly, but that a strong sense of culture does require some amount of co-presence and coworking, even if not on a daily basis.

As companies avail themselves of more flexible and cost effective workplace strategies, the physical places where company colleagues work together and build culture together are changing too. The data on worker engagement and satisfaction are instructive here. According to Gallup research, levels of employee engagement in 2018 in US firms sits at around 30%.[17] By contrast, research conducted by Emergent Research indicates that engagement within coworking spaces sits at around 84%.[18] 

Larger scale longitudinal research has yet to be bear out these differences in statistically reliable ways, but on the surface the comparison is interesting. Why do knowledge workers seem to prefer working in coworking spaces than at their companies’ offices? Is it because they are away from their bosses? Is it because of the proximity to different types people from different companies and industries?


Another challenging aspect of corporate coworking adoption is security. How can so many people from different companies cowork without there being IP and other types of trade secret theft? This is a critically important issue, and a good reason why some companies (given the nature of their industries) will never be candidates for coworking. At the same time, employee proximity to other knowledge workers- corporate, freelancer, startup- actually presents new opportunities for strategic collaboration and innovation.

To date, most ‘evidence’ of cross-company collaboration and innovation in coworking spaces has been anecdotal, but there is clearly potential for this to be more formal and systematic. For companies that have built in-firm coworking/innovation lab environments, such as Bosch, Verizon, IBM, and Jaguar Land Rover, the fruits of such collaboration are more tangible.[19]  Over time, it would seem that companies will want to turn the challenge of co-presence and security into a collaboration opportunity.

Employment Value Propositions in the Sharing Economy

For young knowledge workers who make up Gen’s Y & Z, the hyper social nature of coworking environments is appealing. More so than their baby boomer predecessors, they are comfortable with the ‘sharing of resources’ aspect of the sharing economy, whether that is in ride sharing, house sharing, or office sharing. Coworking is a natural extension for them. It is, simply, the logical workplace context and culture for the sharing economy.   

Going forward, as the war for talent heats up, more firms are realizing that in order to create employment value propositions (EVPs) capable of attracting and retaining top talent, workplaces need to be extensions of employees’ social lives. Asking young knowledge workers to bracket off their social lives when they go to work is a tough ask. EVPs that align with the cultural values of the sharing economy will be stronger employment brands in the near future.

A Strategic Coworking Framework

The coworking industry’s impact within the real estate industry and within its tenant organizations is still somewhat nascent. Coworking is that new a phenomenon. However, it is clear that coworking has turned out to be more than just a fad, as many skeptics have argued. The challenge, now, for both CRE and HR professionals inside companies that cowork, is how to adapt proactively in ways that enhance the strategic objectives of their firms.

The following framework addresses three broad areas- real estate, human resource management, innovation- that can help firms navigate the coworking opportunity.

Real Estate

1.    Rethink the logic and inertia of the traditional office leasing model. 

While many individuals in the commercial brokerage industry ‘get it’ and see the inevitable changes coming, their business model is more or less at odds with the objectives of large firms looking for more flexible, short-term, and social officing solutions. It is interesting to note that WeWork is developing its own brokerage unit as a way to cut the third party brokerage role out of its business model.* This should ring alarm bells for the brokerage industry.

      2.  Collect qualitative as well as quantitative data regarding space utilization inside your workplace. 

Committing to a 3rd party coworking operator only makes sense if your current workplace is not working, economically and/or culturally. Many firms are rushing to use beacons, badges and other purely quantitative sources of utilization data collection, but it is also important to understand the ‘whys’ behind the behaviors. Such data can be collected through ethnographic interviews and employee journey mapping that give employees the chance to talk about the employee experience.

Human Resource Management

3.  Better understand your workforce composition through self reporting surveys regarding workplace and workstyle preferences

A new generation of work style surveys (and passive data collection) helps companies understand how, when, and where individuals and teams work most effectively. Traditional batteries of psychometric assessments produce data that can be too abstract to be readily useful with respect to understanding precisely what types of knowledge workers make up your firm? Directly asking employees about workstyles and work preferences is a shortcut to getting a clearer picture of the composition of your workforce.

      4. Use the data to drive personalization, autonomy, and choice at both the individual and team levels

Central to empowering employees and enhancing employee experience is granting them choice and flexibility in terms of where they work and how they work. Among baby boomers this was considered a perk. Among Gen Y and Gen Z knowledge workers this is fast becoming a hygiene factor. 

     5.  Take advantage of the coworking opportunity to build open organizations with open cultures

 This is new territory and will not be attractive to some companies. However, interaction with employees from other industries and companies is perhaps one of the most exciting and latent potentialities of the corporate coworking opportunity. Currently there are no explicit protocols or platforms available to organizations to take advantage of cross-company connections, relationships and organizational experiments. 


      6.  Define what extrapreneurship looks like for your firm.

The coworking equivalent of intrapreneurship will be commercially viable innovation opportunities developed by employees from different companies. For companies that embrace the principles of the open organizational type,* this is perhaps the most strategic and growth oriented promise of coworking. For too long, CRE and HR have been viewed within corporate decision making as ‘support functions’ removed from the more serious business of managing strategy. Through empowering employees to collaborate with others to create new value, the potential for inexpensive, everyday collaboration and innovation is an untapped opportunity.

      7.  Consider bringing coworking in-house

For a variety of reasons- security and cultural dilution among them- it will make more sense for some firms to create their own coworking environments on their existing campuses. Some firms are already doing this. This is particularly attractive for companies that are stuck with underutilized real estate, yet want to enact some form of ‘spark space’ inside the company. This approach allows the majority of colleagues to cowork together frequently, and to possibly open up the workspace to outsiders such as suppliers, clients, distributors, consultants, etc.

Developing a Coworking Strategy      

For many companies, coworking is still something of a novelty The idea of allowing your employees to spend their days working around strangers from other companies can seem a bit threatening. Yet, as Gen Y and Gen Z employees become more prominent in our organizations, particularly in the context of the current talent war, the sharing economy work arrangement of coworking is becoming an everyday feature of the workplace landscape that companies need to understand and prepare for.

Coworking is here and growing as a new workplace for companies of all types and sizes, and the challenge is how firms can be adaptive and proactive rather than reactive. Perhaps coworking will be seen as just another place to locate a group of teams more cost effectively than can be done elsewhere. As purely a real estate solution, that makes sense. This is being firmly established within the real estate industry. 

However, as coworking continues to evolve and greater numbers of corporate employees are working everyday at places such as WeWork rather than at company HQ, other important people-related challenges and opportunities present themselves. As I have discussed here, developing a clear and future-oriented strategy for tackling these challenges can be a new source of competitive advantage for firms that take the lead in the coworking moment. 

Notes & References

[1] Steve King. “Global Coworking Forecast: 30,000 Spaces and 5.1 Million Members by 2022,” Small Business Labs/Emergent Research, Dec. 18, 2017. http://www.smallbizlabs.com/2017/12/coworkingforecast.html

[2] Ellen Huet. “WeWork, with $900 Million in Sales, Finds Cheaper Ways to Expand,” Bloomberg, Feb. 26, 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-26/wework-with-900-million-in-sales-finds-cheaper-ways-to-expand

[3] “The Capitalist Kibbutz: Big corporates’ quest to be hip is helping WeWork,” The Economist, July 12, 2018, https://www.economist.com/business/2018/07/12/big-corporates-quest-to-be-hip-is-helping-wework

[4] Shirin Chaffey. “WeWork is still growing phenomenally- and losing a lot of money,” Recode, Aug. 9, 2018, https://www.recode.net/2018/8/9/17671874/wework-q2-revenue-profit-loss-membership-statistics-adam-neumann

[5] Jack Sidders and Ellen Huet. “The Numbers Behind WeWork’s Growing Empire,” Bloomberg, April 24, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-24/the-18-billion-rent-bill-the-numbers-behind-wework-s-empire

[6] Rani Molla. “Big Companies are Fueling WeWork’s Growth,” Recode, Aug. 28, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/8/28/16214370/wework-coworking-fastest-growing-business-large-companies

[7] Ibid.

[8] Garry Mark. “It’s not HQ2, but Amazon just snatched up a bunch of space in Vancouver,” Financial Post. Oct. 3, 2017, https://business.financialpost.com/real-estate/property-post/wework-is-forced-to-find-a-second-vancouver-location-after-amazon-eats-up-its-first

[9] Konrad Putzier. “IBM to take entire WeWork building in landmark deal,” The Real Deal, April 19, 2017, https://therealdeal.com/2017/04/19/ibm-to-take-entire-wework-building-in-landmark-deal/

[10] Janice Bitters. “In Twist: Facebook agrees to occupy all of WeWork’s largest-ever outpost,” Silicon Valley Business Journal, June 21, 2018, https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2018/06/21/facebook-wework-mountain-view-lease-campus.html

[11] Article published in Bloomberg BusinessWeek in 2016 before they dropped the name “BusinessWeek’ and went to a paid service and removed archived BusinessWeek articles. No longer accessible.

[12] Andrew Broadbent. “Why Big Corporations are Moving into Coworking Spaces,” Entrepreneur, Jan. 22, 2018, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/307085

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Coworking’s unstoppable market growth,” JLL Research. http://www.us.jll.com/united-states/en-us/research/property/office/coworking-market-growth

[15] Claire Cain Miller and Catherine Rompell. “Yahoo Orders Workers Back to the Office,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/technology/yahoo-orders-home-workers-back-to-the-office.html

[16] Carol Kinsey Goman. “Why IBM Brought Remote Workers Back to the Office- And Why Your Company Might be Next,” Forbes, Oct. 12, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2017/10/12/why-ibm-brought-remote-workers-back-to-the-office-and-why-your-company-might-be-next/#5d5a554d16da

[17] Gallup Research. https://news.gallup.com/topic/employee_engagement.aspx

[18] Steve King. “Coworking is Not About Workspace- It’s About Feeling Less Lonely,” Harvard Business Review, Dec. 28, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/12/coworking-is-not-about-workspace-its-about-feeling-less-lonely 

[19] Gemma Church. “Fortune 500 Coworking: Are the Big Corporates Taking Over,” Allwork, March 19, 2018, https://allwork.space/2018/03/fortune-500-coworking-are-the-big-corporates-taking-over/

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

OPENWORK AGENCY Announces The Coworking 2020 Platform for Real Estate Developers and Change-Minded Companies

A turnkey consulting solution managed online- from concept to launch.

AUSTIN, TexasNov. 26, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — OpenWork Agency, a global coworking consultancy, has announced the launch of a Consulting as a Service (CaaS) offering for asset owners, real estate investors and developers. Managed online, the platform guides clients through eight phases of the coworking business development process.  The platform can also be utilized by organizations interested in achieving greater flexibility in their corporate real estate strategy.

“After working with clients around the world for the past four and a half years, we’ve identified the core needs and challenges that our clients consistently experience, and we’ve built a platform model to anticipate those thresholds and pain points,” said Andrew Jones, PhD, OpenWork’s Founding Partner.

The platform guides clients through the necessary requirements and phases to get a coworking business from an idea to a reality.  It is a flexible solution that can be adapted to the needs of a wide range of clients, from individual asset owners to global property companies.

“Many of our clients come to us with a desire to ‘get into coworking,’ but don’t know how or where to get started.  They are typically weighing whether they want to do a franchise or develop their own brand.  We are the white label coworking solution.  Our service more or less replaces the need for a franchise, because we help them through the whole development process.  They end up with their own brand and operation, and they are also spared the franchise royalty fee,” Jones said.

OpenWork Agency is best known for being the first full-service coworking consultancy in the world.  It specializes in helping clients maximize revenue per square foot, via the coworking premium. The agency has supported clients from individual entrepreneurs to multi-billion-dollar REITs.


OPENWORK AGENCY LLC. (www.openwork.agency) is a boutique, global workplace strategy and coworking consultancy founded by industry pioneers, Andrew Jones and David Walker. OpenWork has worked with asset owners and coworking startups throughout the world. Having been in the coworking industry for over a decade, members of the OpenWork team have published extensively, and have written both the first book on coworking as well as the first book on corporate coworking.

Start a coworking project with the Coworking 2020 Platform.

Contact: hello@openwork.agency

Original PRNewswire Press Release:http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/openwork-agency-announces-the-coworking-2020-platform-for-real-estate-developers-and-change-minded-companies-300754857.html

Start at the Beginning: The Corporate Coworking Feasibility Assessment

“It’s best to start at the beginning”

Over the past five years we have conducted coworking feasibility assessments for numerous projects around the world- US, Central America, Asia, Middle East, Africa. Most of the projects have been with building owners and developers interested in diversifying their portfolios by ‘getting into coworking.’ Some are very optimistic about making a go at it, while others seem quite unsure about this coworking thing.

Regardless of the client’s level of optimism, we always like to start at the beginning. That is, is a coworking project a good idea in this particular building in this particular city? Thus the growth of our coworking feasibility business.

Gone Corporate

In the first few years, developers were looking to build coworking businesses for ‘traditional’ coworkers- freelancers, startups, solopreneurs, etc. Over the past two years, though, demand for coworking has shifted significantly towards corporate users, who now make up the fastest growing segment of coworking members.

Yet, across the broader corporate landscape, relatively few companies have yet to embrace the coworking model (on campus or off campus), and there are still some pockets out there where people don’t even know that coworking is a thing. In these cases, it makes sense that they have access to a feasibility assessment process similar to that which real estate entrepreneurs have been using for the past several years.

The Corporate Coworking Feasibility Assessment

To address this emerging need, this week we have launched our Ten Part Corporate Coworking Feasibility Assessment. Combining design, utilization, behavioral, and financial metrics, we integrate a combination of CRE and HR insights to help firms determine if coworking is right for them. We provide an honest assessment and recommendations, and we understand that coworking will not be right for many firms. We do no hesitate to make a ‘No Go’ recommendation. For those firms where it does make sense, we bring to bear our ten years experience in the industry to help guide along the way. This might result in selecting a 3rd party coworking operator such as WeWork or Industrious, or it might be in helping them design and operate an in-firm coworking space of their own. Just depends on the results of the feasibility process.


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Coworking and the Open Organization

Coworking and the Open Organization

Coworking is not that big a deal

In some ways many of us make too big a deal about coworking. One could argue, as some do, that it is just a (different) place to work. Like just desks and chairs, punctuated by locally roasted coffee and craft beer. And, frankly, there is something to this point of view.

The question, though, is in what type of context does the physical work environment sit? That is, what else is going on in the organization? Is there fixity and hierarchy, or is there fluidity and democracy? Big questions, for sure, but in order for (corporate) coworking to ever be more than just a new and cool and cheaper place to work (embraced in order to shrink real estate costs), the company itself needs to be open to more than just ‘new ways of working.’

The Openness Imperative

In his 2015 book, The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has quietly provided us one of the most important management books of the past 20 years. Extending the business philosophy of ‘open source,’ from which Red Hat finds its history and purpose, the book suggests that when a company’s default operating system, with respect to how people communicate, disagree, experiment, fail, learn, and innovate, is “open,” good things happen.

According to the Open Organization Field Guide, there are five principles behind open organizations:

  1. Transparency
  2. Inclusivity
  3. Adaptability
  4. Collaboration
  5. Community

(Compare these with the founding values of the coworking movement, articulated many years ago by Alex HillmanTony Bacigalupo et. al:

  1. Openness
  2. Collaboration
  3. Sustainability
  4. Accessibility

…and you can see the like-mindedness…)

In the field guide, the authors point out that common outcomes in firms that embrace the Open Organization framework are:

  • Greater Agility
  • Faster Innovation
  • Increased Engagement

I’m not sure there is a company in the world that would say ‘no’ to these sorts of outcomes. Research from the past three decades underscores the basic fact that companies with an ‘open cultural operating system’ are reliably more innovative and industry-leading than their ‘closed’ counterparts. Part of this is having some version of 20% time (the way Google used to do it), which many companies have instituted in bits and pieces, and part of this, quite simply, is making senior leadership accessible and allowing junior staff to weigh in on important decisions. Giving employees a real sense of ownership in the actual outcomes of projects is sometimes a non-starter in more traditional firms.

Some firms that get it right:

  • Red Hat
  • W.L. Gore
  • Morning Star
  • Patagonia
  • SAS
  • 3M
  • Automattic (Word Press)
  • Rackspace
  • Valve
  • Zappos

The Open Work Connection

Another part of the ‘open operating system’ of these firms is the choice and autonomy they give employees with respect to where, when, and how they work. Not only are they encouraged to generate new ideas for product development or process improvement, they are empowered to do their work in rather fluid ways. The coworking-like approach to working is just one part of a larger commitment to openness. This needs to either start with or be strongly supported by senior leadership. Even the most visionary HR or CRE leader will be forever stuck in a support role unless the company views workspace in the context of its broader approach to innovation, agility, and cultural evolution.

Looking back, I should have made these connections years ago. When we ran Austin’s first coworking space- Conjunctured– we had people from both Red Hat and Automattic (as well as Lyft and Airbnb) working in the space. One of Red Hat’s design teams, whose HQ is in North Carolina, worked daily at Conjunctured. In this simple and subtle example, coworking and the open organization came together quite naturally.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Culture Eats Real Estate (too)

Puzzles & Roadmaps

“Since when did employee engagement in our tenant companies become our business?” The Chief Strategy Officer of one of Singapore’s largest REITs posed the question in the middle of a tense session about how they were looking to reposition their office portfolio. They wanted to ‘activate’ some of their offices buildings in such a way to be more attractive to young knowledge workers. They were looking at building a coworking brand. They feared that their portfolio was becoming stale.

Our answer was tentative, but in retrospect probably a decent one. “Well, the stickier your spaces and the more engaged are those who work in them, the more likely you will be able to retain them as tenants.” To which our client replied with a question, “So it is less of a B2B thing, and more of a B2B2C thing?”

That was a breakthrough for them, and a revelation for us. As a workplace strategy and ‘coworking’ consultancy, our clients are real estate developers, asset owners, brokers, and entrepreneurs whose curiosity is peaked by the coworking/shared workspace phenomenon. On the one hand there is the cool factor, given coworking’s idealistic roots in the Bay Area startup scene. Even the most traditional real estate professional seems to be attracted to coworking. On the other hand there are the economic factors affecting the entire office market. Where is demand heading? Will younger knowledge workers want the same product as their parents? Should we have coworking in our portfolio? If so, how much, and how fast? Can we make more money via the coworking leasing model (vs. the traditional model)? How do we underwrite projects that have such an uncertain future? How do we manage risk going forward? If we don’t do something (the classic innovator’s dilemma), will our products remain relevant in the coming decade?

Over the past four years we have built our business on answering these questions and helping asset owners ‘get into’ coworking. Prior to that, we were coworking space owners/operators, going back to the beginning of the industry. This article is a pause, or a moment of taking stock, in an industry experiencing hypergrowth. Coworking is indeed a part of the real estate industry, despite what some people might claim. Though elsewhere we discuss how it is more than just this. However, the extent to which coworking is impacting the real estate industry more broadly has as much to do with the power of culture, and how that shapes demand, than is generally appreciated. In this respect, Culture (big C Culture, not little c ‘corporate culture’) is the silent driver behind coworking’s success and the real estate industry’s incorporation of it as a new (and disruptive) leasing model.

Work and the Sharing Economy

Like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft before them, coworking businesses such as WeWork demonstrate that some people (nearly two million at last count) are comfortable conducting their work in shared spaces with employees from other companies and industries. This reflects a generational comfort with sharing all sorts of things- houses and apartments, cars and car rides, tools, labor, etc. The overarching values that define the sharing economy are important here- collaboration, autonomy, community, flexibility, protean careers, reputation. Taken altogether, these values sit behind social transportation, social travel, and now the social workplace (i.e. coworking/shared workspaces).

With respect to the social workplace, we would be mistaken to assume that coworking is purely the domain of freelancers and startups. To the contrary, the industry’s off-the-charts growth over the past two years is being driven by the adoption of coworking by large firms and their employees. For example, in 2010 85% of members of coworking spaces were freelancers and employees of startups. Fast forward to 2017, and only 39% of coworking members were from the freelancer/startup demographic.

The knock-on effect of the corporate adoption of coworking is significant, and is currently altering the office leasing industry. Most of the coworking story is told through numbers, as the real estate industry is a ‘per sq ft industry.’ However, without the scale and scope of changing demand- which is in part an expression of the generational values of the sharing economy- it is highly unlikely that asset owners, investors, underwriters, and developers would have let coworking ‘in the door’ as a credible and viable leasing model across the office market landscape.

The aha! moment in the evolution of the industry occurs when large firms realize that, because of new technologies and anytime/anywhere work, they simply don’t need as much real estate on their books as they once did. Modular, flexible leasing accomplishes two things simultaneously. First, it can significantly reduce company’s real estate spending. Secondly, the kinds of workspaces offered in coworking spaces are more aligned (than their own offices) with the aesthetic and social values of their younger employees. This naturally puts pressure on the corporate real estate industry, which sees demand for its traditional product shrinking. All parties are now animated.

Space and Capital As Commodities

It is often said that prostitution is the oldest industry in the world. Perhaps this is true, but if so then the real estate industry is a close second. Collecting rent has been a part of the human repertoire since the domestication of plants and animals in the Near East some 10,000 years ago. Real estate’s centrality in most of the economies in the world is based in this history. It is, arguably, the backbone industry on which most economies sit.

Because of this, the industry is understandably ‘set in its ways.’ Conventional practices around lending and underwriting, leasing, credit, risk management, etc., are highly conservative for good reasons. So many people build wealth through real estate of various sorts that whole economies would be put at risk, as we have recently seen (2008), if rules are loosened too much.

When coworking came along in 2005, several years before the Great Recession of 2008, it was up against a CRE industry that was disinterested if not downright dismissive. The very idea that multiple sub-tenants would be contributing towards the lease requirements was a non-starter. How many will there be? Who will they be? Who do they work for? How credit worthy are they all? And, what is this thing called coworking anyway?

Anecdotal evidence among coworking operators in the early years of the industry (2006-2010) confirms this industry reaction. For many people it was difficult-to-impossible to get an asset owner to lease space to a coworking business. As for borrowing money from a traditional bank, this was absolutely out of the question. It was not until 2008-2009, when the full effect of the recession was spreading across the country, that building owners watched as more and more of their buildings became vacant. They faced an interesting dilemma: Either they could stick with their traditional terms of a 5-10 year lease for a single, credit worthy single tenant and receive $0 per month, or they could ‘experiment’ with coworking and sign a lease with a young entrepreneur for a year or two at a reduced rent rate and earn something.

Many of these early coworking businesses failed, which confirmed the fears of many in the real estate industry. However, many others thrived and in doing so encouraged others to start their own businesses. As unemployment climbed steadily between 2008 and 2011 to as high as 9.1%, millions of knowledge workers in the US and Europe gravitated to coworking spaces for both social and economic opportunities. The combination of looser leasing requirements with rising unemployment created a perfect storm for the growth of the industry.

WeWork, the industry leader, was founded in 2010, and by early 2018 has over 300 locations in 61 cities around the world and a valuation of $35B. WeWork is the sharing economy unicorn that most people still don’t know about. Largely because of WeWork’s success, but also because of the successful growth of other brands such as Knotel, Industrious, Convene, Work Bar, Tech Space, among others, money is pouring into the industry worldwide. It is estimated that in China alone there are around 3,000 coworking spaces, though getting an accurate count has proven difficult. The largest coworking space to ever come online, interestingly, is GoWork in Gurgaon, India. Being built in two phases, GoWork will be nearly 1M sq ft when completed. Other ambitious projects are being built in China as well, which underscores that coworking is no longer simply an American freelancer phenomenon.

Abundance of Space

The rapid growth in the number of coworking spaces, and thus the overall number of workstations (or ‘hotdesks’) for rent, simply added to a significant glut of office space, both in the US and internationally. When you take note of the standard space utilization rates of corporate offices in the US, which hover between 40%-50%, you have a picture of abundance/poorly managed space. Business such as Liquid Space, which is a marketplace for office buildings and coworking spaces to sell short term work and meeting spaces for people looking for flexible solutions, was born of this very abundance. Some have dubbed Liquid Space the Airbnb of office space. Similar types of platform marketplaces have sprung up around the world to broker the availability of excess office space.

This excess is driven in part by the traditional leasing norms favored by asset owners and brokers. For decades, tenant companies leased around 300 sq ft per person, which is significantly more than most people need. Over the past five-seven years, given the pressure being placed on brokers by the shared workspace industry, this number is coming down significantly. Allocating 150-200 sq ft per person is not uncommon today.

In WeWork locations, for example, single workstations are around 40 sq ft per person, with the total allocated per person (including common spaces), now being down between 65-90 sq ft per person. For traditional asset owners and brokers, this is truly disruptive. What has become quite clear is that in the traditional model tenant companies are being leased much more space than they either need or could possibly ever utilize at meaningful rates. This is the core industry-wide realization that has set the industry in motion.

Abundance of Capital

As Clayton Christensen and Derek van Bever have argued quite persuasively in an HBR article, both large firms and investment shops are awash in capital. Indeed, there is more cash on the books in corporate America than ever before. This is both good and bad. As they argue in “The Capitalist’s Dilemma,” Christensen and van Bever outline the process whereby firms hoard cash and recycle that cash via share buybacks and increased dividends as a way to manage institutional shareholder demands and expectations. An ideology of scarcity leads to the hoarding, despite the record levels of cash already on hand. That is, there is not a scarcity of capital, but rather an abundance. The result is that firms are not investing in their own businesses (or in their employees), but are rather engaged in what they call ratio management- IRR, RONA, EPS, etc. As long as these ratios are well managed, analysts reward firms with glowing reports and further investment. According to Christensen and an Bever, this is not a desirable state of affairs.

On the other hand, though,, the abundance of capital has turned out to quite fortuitous for the fate of the coworking industry. Many billions of dollars have been invested in the industry thus far, with WeWork receiving the lionshare of that. In a single round in 2017 WeWork received a $4.4B investment from Softbank. Smaller industry players also routinely receive rounds of funding in the range from $40M to $100M. In this respect, the abundance of cash is being acknowledged concurrent with the recognition that the global office market is at a once-a-generation inflection point of opportunity. Investors of all sorts- technology and real estate- are pouring in.

Space as Service

While coworking continues to be a feel good story in the popular media, its real impact in the office leasing industry can be seen in the numbers. According to recent research by JLL, coworking and flexible space (combined) has been growing at a rate of 23% since 2010, and it “has emerged as the primary growth driver within the office market.” As of Q2 2017, “expansion from this sector claimed more than a quarter (29.4%) of the total US office absorption over the past 24 months (18.1 million sq ft).” By Q4 2017 over 51M sq ft of real estate was being lease as coworking/executive suites/flexible workspace.

Fifty one million sq ft of executive suites/shared/coworking office space is still less than 5% of the over 1B sq ft of office space in the US. “Given industry shifts, flexible workspace and shared amenity spaces are projected to encompass approximately 30% of the office market by 2030.” This means that over 300M sq ft of office space will be leased as flexible office space (including coworking spaces) by 2030. Using standard industry projections, this suggests that by 2030 the coworking/shared workspace industry will be a 36B/yr industry.

Asset owners and investors are drawn to the numbers. Because of the decreasing footprint per workstation, combined with the premium charged for both the flexibility and social atmosphere that are part of most coworking memberships, operators can generate significantly more per sq ft via a coworking operation than the asset owner can through a straight lease to a traditional tenant. For example, in a 30,000 sq ft space, an efficient operator can generate $115-$130/ sq ft, while they might pay $45/sq ft to lease the space. The rent arbitrage in between these two numbers gets everyone’s attention. Generating these returns is not necessarily easy, but as the industry matures and operational best practices become more commonly known, it is likely that more asset owners will want to convert some portion of their office portfolio to this higher risk/higher yield leasing model.

The Power of Culture

Peter Drucker is generally credited with coining the phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Countless CEOs and consultants have repeated it over the years, which is now a kind of maxim. We all know that even the best laid plans can be scuppered by a disconnected or switched off team that is not rowing in the same direction to execute company strategy. Rarely, though, do we think about the relationship between culture and the real estate industry. After all, real estate is a commodity that (theoretically) is in scarce supply, and the laws of supply and demand are supposed to apply. While this remains the case for the most part, a new ‘wild card’ has entered the picture to skew demand in disruptive ways.

Whether as freelancers or as employees of large firms, young knowledge workers today simply use products differently than previous generations. They experiment, prototype, graze, and move on. From our work with dozens of companies and hundreds of company employees, it is clear that for many young employees today the idea of working at a fixed workstation every day of the week is no longer very attractive. While their Baby Boomer counterparts do want to nest in their offices with pictures of their family and pets, for Gen Y and Gen Z this is anathema to a dynamic, social career that is fluid, collaborative, and autonomous. That is, the core values that young knowledge workers bring to work are simply different than those of previous generations. Coworking, in the independent workplace sector, and activity based working (ABW), in the corporate context, are elaborate accommodations of these shifting generational values.

The industry shifting impact that coworking is having on the office market, I suggest, is being driven by the shifting cultural demands for new ways of working. Such values differences are sometimes subtle, and it is always difficult to “prove” their influence. However, to the extent that the real estate industry- one of the oldest and most staid industries in the world- is now accommodating these value differences, is a testament to the power of culture.

The values-challenge posed by the sharing economy also present enormous opportunities to asset owners and their large-company tenants. Large property managers such as JLL, CBRE, Colliers, Cushman and Wakefield, and Avison Young have been actively researching coworking and the sharing economy’s impact on their portfolio properties, and many asset owners are already engaged in converting some part of their portfolio to shared and amenity spaces that cater to the social and cultural needs of younger knowledge workers. Following cultural demand, but also drawn to attractive rent arbitrage numbers, portfolio diversification in the direction of coworking is underway.

On the corporate side of the equation, there is significant movement too. Many large firms have embraced the coworking movement and have employees working from various spaces around the world: GE, Silicon Valley Bank, Salesforce, Dell, Unilever, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Uber, Amazon, KPMG, Lyft, HSBC, Merck, The Guardian, Accenture, Marriott Airbnb, etc.

From a consultancy perspective, the corporate embrace of coworking is one of the most interesting. Our work with coworking ventures around the world allows us to see, first hand, places where thousands of employees from hundreds of companies work on their own work in shared spaces. What might Drucker say about these places?

The Social Building

WeWork, the industry leader, already sees itself in the ‘culture business.’ In their new ‘onsite solutions’ division, where they propose to manage company campuses for them, part of the value proposition is that those employees will be able to have a WeWork experience while doing their company’s work. With its sharing economy credo leading the way- “we build spaces and communities that help people make a life, not just a living”- WeWork is well on its way to eating both culture and real estate. The company’s recent contract with IBM, wherein they will manage the entire IBM campus at 88 University Place in Manhattan, is the first well documented case of campus/culture outsourcing in the industry.

It is unlikely that there will be a mass exodus of company employees to coworking spaces or a mass conversion of traditional offices to coworking-like arrangements anytime soon. However, it is clear that in a variety of ways the cultural forces behind coworking and the sharing economy are having an impact on the real estate industry (and their corporate tenants). Economists typically view culture as an ‘externality’ that only needs to be accounted for when the laws of supply and demand are out of sync. Today the cultural values of the sharing economy might be an ‘externality’ within the broader scope of the economy. Over the next decade or so, as Millennials become the largest generation at work, with Gen Z close behind them, the ‘externality’ of culture very well might eat other segments of the economy as well.

A quick return to that client conversation back in Singapore. Over the course of nearly six months of working together, the CEO and his team were finally able to distill what it is they are trying to achieve in their portfolio. We want to ‘activate our buildings,’ they said. ‘We want our buildings to be social places where young people want to work.’ And finally, in a most poetic turn of phrase, they put it this way: ‘The buildings are the hardware. We are already good at hardware. What we need is the software that brings the buildings to life.’

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Corporate Coworking is a Thing: Now What?

Over the past five years more and more companies- small, medium, and large- have embraced coworking as part of their workplace strategy. It is now widely accepted that coworking is no longer just for freelancers, startups, and solopreneurs. When firms such as IBM, Amazon, and UBS take up whole buildings under WeWork’s coworking management system, it is clear that the coworking industry has hit an inflection point and is heading to a new level of maturity.

What are the specific elements, from a corporate perspective, that are driving those rising rates of adoption? There are many, but I consider a couple here.

1. The real estate angle is an obvious one. As firms scale up and down, and as company employees seek greater choice and flexibility in how they work, fluid workspace solutions help firms avoid costly long leases for offices that go underutilized. Traditional office utilization rates rarely get above 60%, which has been a structural problem in corporate real estate for years. Of course, this is great for asset owners and brokers, who happily lease tenant companies more space than they need, but for companies and employees it seems that that changing..

2. Another driver, as yet not sufficiently explored, is the issue of productivity and employee output among workers who work in coworking spaces. Recent research suggests that working in open plan offices not only leads to greater frequency of illness in offices, but that workers in open plan offices are also 15% less productive than their office-bound counterparts. This is food for thought for workplace strategists.

Working in the Fish Bowl

Perhaps this is why many (if not most) corporate employees who work in coworking spaces do so within private offices within the spaces. Yet, in this transition, the square footage per worker has continued to shrink to around 40-50 sq ft (down from around 150-250 sq ft per person in the traditional office, and now down to around 100-150 sq ft in the corporate environment). This raises an important question that needs addressing. How small can the sq ft per worker shrink before these private offices cease to be desirable and productive places to work?

Where is the Academic Research?

More academic research needs to be conducted on corporate employee productivity in coworking spaces before we can know how it differs from declining productivity in open plan offices back at company HQ. Such research will be critical as companies continue to consider coworking as part of their workplace portfolio.

Now that coworking has proven to be a real thing, it is time for academic researchers to play their part in terms of generating actionable research to help companies in their ongoing decision making processes regarding their workplace strategies.


This article authored by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

The Economics of In-Firm Coworking

As I have suggested recently, the key drivers behind the growth of corporate coworking have been for the most part real estate drivers. The economics of this simply make sense, despite the skeptics. If one looks only narrowly at the price per square foot for a workstation in a private office in a coworking space (such as WeWork), the ‘cost’ of coworking at first appears astronomical. With a closer look, though, the math of coworking is quite interesting.

Some Comparisons

Consider, for example, a market where the price per sq ft for Class A office space is $45/yr. If we use a total sq ft per worker of 183 sq ft (much smaller than even a decade ago when it was closer to 250-300 sq ft), this comes to a per worker/yr cost of $8,235. Note that this is inclusive of the common spaces allotted per person, assuming an actual workstation footprint of between 80-100 sq ft.

By contrast, in the same market, the per month membership fee at a WeWork will range from $700/mo/person (for a 1 person office) to as low as $450/mo/person in a larger office with 8 or 10 people. Using an average of $575/mo/person, the annual cost of that worker is $6,900.

If one focuses, as some coworking critics do, on the cost per sq ft of just the workstations within a WeWork, there is indeed a potential for sticker shock. If one is looking at a 1 person office at a WeWork, the price per sq ft can reach as high as $180 sq ft. But this is precisely the wrong way to look at it, as it is more or less comparing apples and oranges.

The Coworking Disruption

Among other disruptions around the social norms of sharing workspaces with people from different companies, coworking is also consistently putting pressure on the size of the footprint per workstation across the office industry. In some coworking spaces, a workstation can fit within 40 sq ft, which is a half or a third of a workstation footprint even in a dense open-plan office (not to mention the massive amount of sq ft allotted in yesterday’s corner offices).

Workstations in conventional corporate offices are slowly shrinking in this era of the shared workspace, yet there is still a norm/practice of lavishing massive amounts of (often underutilized) space on knowledge workers. This is due, in large part, to the legacy systems and practices of asset owners, brokers, and corporate real estate professionals.

The awkward truth is that the “system,” such as it is, is designed to lease more space to tenant companies than they (will ever) need. Under the warning/scenario that “you wouldn’t want to be short on space if you grow and need to add staff,” companies enter into long leases on floor plates they will utilize (most likely) at around 50-60%.

And the world turns. The REITs feed dividends to shareholders, brokers receive their commissions, and CRE professionals receive their kudos. Looking at these industry dynamics from a 35,000 ft perspective, it is perhaps not too extreme to say that commercial (office) brokers may easily go the way of the travel agent. But that is for another article…

Coworking Economics Inside the Company

The first step in re-calibrating what an office is and what a workstation is, in the spirit/economics of coworking, is to deal straight on with the Great Utilization Dilemma. In this era of cloud computing, worker mobility, and cloud officing, it is no longer the case that people need to go to ‘their’ office every day. By definition that means tons of empty workstations everyday. We know this from the coworking world. People come into the space some days, but not others. It depends on what they are working on. Flexibility and choice are largely what coworking is about. This is the stuff of the 40% space utilization rates that are commonly reported across the office industry.

What follows here is a brief what if scenario that asks:

If a company in a specific city with a specific number of staff members is looking for an officing solution, how would an in-company coworking model compare, financially, with a traditional leasing model?

The purpose of the comparison is to help bring about a shift in thinking. Rather than viewing coworking strictly as a 3rd party alternative to the (same as it ever was) officing norm, I am suggesting that coworking, in some form, can become a new norm.

The Basics:

  • Acme Company has a staff of 600 people
  • The cost of Class A office in their market is $45/yr

Note that in the comparison below, I bake in the inevitable poor utilization rates that most companies experience into the coworking model, and account for workstations for only 60% of the staff. This assumes that many people work from different locations (office, home, coffee shops, vacation, etc) in a given week. Granted, these are extreme comparisons, but that is the point. The stark contrast is intended to be illustrative of the potential disruptive economic advantage of the in-firm coworking model.

Traditional Officing Model

  • Space for- All 600 staff
  • Sq ft/Person (total)- 183
  • Sq ft/Workstation- 90
  • Total Sq Ft Required- 110,000
  • Cost/Worker/Yr- $8,235
  • Lease Cost/Yr- $4,950,000

Coworking Officing Model

  • Space for- 360 (60% of staff)
  • Sq ft/Person (total)- 85
  • Sq ft/Workstation- 45
  • Total Sq Ft Required- 30,600
  • Cost/Worker/Yr- $3,825
  • Lease Cost/Yr- $1,377,000

This is indeed a simple and crude comparison, and is presented in the spirit of provocation. There are numerous institutional forces that will never want to see the economic model of coworking applied to everyday officing solutions in companies. At the same time, though, I would think that when (tenant) companies begin to look closely at the numbers, they might be intrigued.

Operations & Transitions

Finally, simply allocating space according to coworking principles is likely not enough. Coworking works because of the many soft and squishy things (operations, events, programming, etc) that differentiate it from activity based working. For corporate coworking to take off as a viable, long-term officing model, some level of intentional programming and operations will need to be included.

Incorporating coworking operations and programming will inevitably add some costs back into the coworkng model. Even still, on the whole, in terms of both the costs and the effectiveness, the coworking office, in our opinion, will soon prove to be an attractive strategy for companies interested in coworking but who also want to keep their employees together under one roof.


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Corporate Coworking: On Campus or 3rd Party?

Twenty five percent of WeWork’s members are ‘corporate coworkers,’ and the company now boasts that 22% of the Fortune 500 companies have employees who work in their spaces. At the current rate of growth, some 40-50% of coworking members will be corporate users within five to seven years. With firms such as GE, Samsung, Microsoft, Dell, HSBC, Accenture, Unilever, Amazon, Salesforce, Google, and IBM leading the coworking headlines, large firms are turning out to be enthusiastic adopters. It would seem that the corporate adoption of coworking is at least part of the story behind WeWork’s eye-popping $35B valuation.

The growth in the corporate coworking market provides exciting new opportunities for all operators, not just for WeWork, and is one of the driving forces behind the maturation of the industry. It is likely that many operators, or at least those whose infrastructure can support corporate usage, will benefit from the rising tide. From the operator side of the equation, it is difficult to find a down side.

The Why and the What

For tenant companies, though, these are still relatively early days of coworking adoption, and the process is perhaps not as straightforward as may appear at first glance. First is the question of why companies are buying employees memberships and allowing them work offsite at 3rd party coworking spaces (such as WeWork).

  1. Often, companies make the plunge into coworking when they are in transition between leases or purchased properties, using the spaces essentially as temporary office space (similar to the case with Regus over the years).
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  3. In other cases companies are opting to shrink their fixed real estate footprints (and costs) by embracing a more modular and mobile approach to officing. Recognizing that utilization rates are consistently quite low (between 40-60%), coworking represents an approach to ‘right sizing’ a company’s officing usage.
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  5. In yet other cases, there is some evidence that some companies are embracing coworking in order to attract and retain top talent. As Millennials and Gen Z become more prominent in organizations, demands for greater choice and autonomy in workplace practices are being baked into companies’ employment value propositions (EVP).


Then there is the question of what the other benefits are for those companies who have employees coworking in 3rd party spaces?


  1. First is the increase in interaction and collaboration with knowledge workers from other companies and industries. The thinking here is that these serendipitous encounters will lead to innovation (in the form of new products and services) for the companies whose employees are engaged in such interactions. Surely there have been tangible examples of this type of innovation over the past several years, but until sufficient academic research validates this, such claims remain anecdotal.
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  3. Another benefit lies in the sheer freedom that a coworking membership provides a coworker (corporate or freelancer), where an individual can work more or less when and where she chooses. Building a culture of choice, empowered by coworking, seems to be a no-brainer in terms of nudging company culture in that direction.
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Challenges & Requirements of 3rd Party Coworking

While these benefits may or may not be material for participating coworking companies, it is nonetheless the case that there are significant problems and challenges for companies that embrace 3rd party coworking. There are individual and team level practical/tactical issues, and there are much deeper cultural level challenges that present themselves as well.

Tactical/Practical Issues

  1. Individual employees and teams must adapt to not having much (if any) ownership over their physical environments. Within cramped ‘private offices,’ individuals have less privacy and ownership than they probably did in their previous open-plan office. Pictures of your dogs and cats might need to go onto your phone from here on out.
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  3. Individuals need to amp up their powers of concentration, as the relative levels of chaos can be extremely high. With hundreds of workers from dozens of companies milling about and doing their own things, the skill of focusing on one’s own work comes at a premium.
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  5. Individuals need to develop skills of digital collaboration, as only a handful of company colleagues might be physically co-present in the space. From project management, to simple communication, to storage and document management, one’s “office” more or less shifts to the cloud.
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  7. For managers whose team coworks, they need to once and for all move past ‘line of sight management,’ and also embrace the full suite of digital management tools. The old notion that ‘how do I know that my people are working if I can’t see them working’ has to go out of the window.
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  9. In parallel to this, managers must also further develop their abilities to clearly communicate company vision and strategy to keep team members aligned with strategy and rowing in the same direction. Coworking necessitates new types of communication skills that are fit for purpose.


Cultural Issues

Over the past several years Yahoo!, Bank of America and IBM reversed years of remote working policy and have called employees back to the office to work co-present with their colleagues. The idea, simply, is that when colleagues spend more time collaborating and working together, there is an increase in social bonds and cultural cohesion. Social ties not only build trust and enduring relationships (i.e. the stuff of culture), they also allow for more opportunities for cross-functional, cross-departmental collaboration. If one is working in relative isolation (from the bulk of one’s colleagues) in a coworking space, then such broader collaboration opportunities are more difficult to achieve.

If insufficient attention is paid to a company’s cultural health, then several critical areas of company life can be undermined:

  1. Community: Community is an everyday thing. It is made up of mundane and unrehearsed interactions. Take these away and a company’s overall sense of community weakens.
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  3. Communication: How companies communicate, both formal and informal messaging, varies widely. While technology can relatively easily replace formal communication, informal communication is still best accomplished face-to-face.
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  5. Collaboration & Innovation: The opportunities to work with colleagues from different parts of the company can be easily sacrificed if teams are plucked out the the hub and paced among strangers. From a collaboration and innovation perspective, it makes sense that creativity benefits from proximity and density.
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  7. Cultural Identity: There is no question that coworking spaces have their own cultures, and that members can become a part of those cultures. From a company perspective, though, this does little to reinforce its own values and goals among its employees.


Coworking on Campus

To date, much of the impetus behind the growth of corporate coworking has been real estate driven. As discussed above, these reasons are clear and straight forward. In other areas of company life, such as the ‘people and culture’ dimension, the consequences and challenges of 3rd party coworking have been insufficiently addressed.

This is not to suggest, in any measure, that coworking is a poor officing choice for companies. Rather, it is a question of where. Elsewhere we have discussed the deeply positive aspects of coworking, and we anticipate that more (not fewer) companies will eventually embrace coworking as a modality of work as part of their overall workplace strategies. We think that coworking on-campus is a logical next step in the evolution of corporate coworking.

On-Campus coworking (to be discussed in greater detail in Part II of this series), has the potential to address the real estate issues at the heart of the first phase of corporate adoption, while at the same time it can address the ‘people and culture’ issues that are currently being mismanaged.

Still in its early days, coworking as a mode of working remains associated with 3rd party operators such as WeWork (and the thousands of others). Over time, though, it is likely to become more and more just the way that companies work. At that point in time, the ‘co’ might just dropped away and become ‘working.’

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Recommended Reading – Top Articles on HR Policies in the Future of Work

In the spirit of today being Independence Day (in the USA), it felt especially fitting to honor the global discussion around company policies that encourage independence within the evolving employee workforce. At OpenWork Agency we believe that employees who are honored with choice, flexibility, autonomy, and decision-making rights are more productive, healthier, and ultimately contribute to a more innovative-driven company culture. However, given the stronghold of outdated management styles, the policy structures in place that empower employees to work in this “new way,” are often underutilized (and underestimated in value) today. This conversation is catalyzing within companies all over the world. HR Directors, C-suite executives, and Corporate Real Estate pioneers are ruminating over how to evolve company HR policies and CRE strategies in a way that revitalizes company culture at the same time it improves the company’s bottom line. A progressive + pragmatic approach to the realities of a modern, evolving workplace strategy will ultimately enable companies to prosper in today’s ‘Future of Work’ environment.

The following are a number of thought-provoking articles recently published in June and July that highlight these important topics and discussion around evolving workplace policies:

OWA’s Recommended Articles Discussing HR Policies in the Future of Work

JUNE 05, 2018 – Think about the ultimate impact that having an engaged distributed workforce has on your company. You have the freedom to hire the best people not just in your country but the world. Then, you are empowering these talented employees with the responsibility of getting their work done from wherever is most convenient for them, putting the focus on results and execution instead of number of hours spent at the office. What does that translate to? Happier employees and better execution, which translates to a better product, which translates to happier, more loyal customers.

The Art Of Managing A Mobile Workforce

Jun 27, 2018 – We are seeing a dramatic shift toward a more distributed workforce as employees are increasingly prioritizing some aspect of remote work, while organizations are quickly understanding how they can benefit from it. In fact, of employees 50 years or older often work away from traditional offices already, along with 70 percent of millennials – and this number is growing. Gartner predicts that half of the future workforce will work outside the traditional office setting most of the time by 2020.

Eight Ways To Determine Where Your Company Policies Have Room For Flexibility

JUNE 11, 2018 – As an organization, it’s up to you to determine how flexible your policies should be, and whether you want to allow all — or just some — staff members to take advantage of remote work.If you need some help figuring it out, eight members of Forbes Human Resources Council offered their advice for crafting policies and communicating them effectively.

The challenges of HR in the disruptive world

JULY 2, 2018 – You might wonder how innovation is related to HR. Think of it this way — innovation is all about putting your users or customers at the very centre of what you do. And many organisations are not able to innovate all because of the misconception that innovation means new technology.

Why flexibility is the key to the future of work

JULY 4, 2018 – As we progress further into the future of work, offering flexibility to employees needs to be seen as having a positive impact on the business as opposed to a favour given to those who have to ask…Sheamus was the first to speak on the importance of flexibility and how businesses need to see it as an asset, both in terms of utilising the advances in technology as much as possible, but also in reducing the cost of physical real-estate office spaces that don’t have to be used all the time.

Companies should give freelancers the same onboarding as staff

JUNE 27, 2018 – According to Deloitte’s “2018 Human Capital Trends” report, which surveyed more than 11,000 business and HR leaders around the world, 37% anticipate a growth in contractors, 33% expect an increase in freelancers, and 28% predict an increase in gig workers by the year 2020. Today, however, only 16% have an established set of policies for non-traditional workers, only 32% track the quality of contract work, and only 29% track compliance with contact terms. Overall, only 45% of HR and business leaders provide these workers with training, and only 54% offer formal onboarding.

“You can’t keep contractors and freelancers to the side in a company, you have to treat them as part of your overall workforce ecosystem, and figure out how they’re going to play with your full-time employees,” says Erica Volini, Deloitte’s U.S. human capital leader and coauthor of the “Human Capital Trends” report.

Cultural Transformation of HR in the Digital and Cognitive Era

June 13, 2018 – HR professionals around the world are undergoing a major change, redefining the meaning of their position in their organizations. So accustomed to dealing with issues of organizational culture, HR is now facing a cultural shift in its own role in this digital and cognitive age. Because every change brings risks, it is natural that you might be thinking about how to handle all this. Be bold: Try, fail, learn fast, and adjust the course. Use data to guide your decisions and confirm your intuition. Embrace technology, but stick to your beliefs in people. Be the guardian of organizational culture—and a living example of it.

Thanks for reading. Follow OpenWork Agency on LinkedIn to receive our posts related to future of work, the evolving nature of HR & CRE, coworking, and innovation. 

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