In the July 13 issue of the Wall Street Journal, two articles sit side by side with no reference to one another. That they are presented as separate stories is both ironic and alarming.

The first article, “WeWork’s Top Rival: Anyone and Everyone,” talks about how WeWork is and will continue to face stiff competition from numerous players, big and small, in the now burgeoning coworking industry. This is simple enough. The article quotes a commercial real estate executive in New York, who says that for now they do not plan to enter the coworking market, but that they are mindful of it.

The second article, “Service Firms Feel a Chill,” discusses the flagging performance of the world’s largest real estate services firms- CBRE, JLL, Cushman & Wakefield, Colliers International, and Savills. The article pins the blame for this poor performance on both the changing nature of the industry and on the macro-economic impact of Brexit. While surely Brexit will impact the CRE industry, particularly in Britain and Europe, that is really only part of the larger picture. For some reason, whether it is a lack of peripheral vision or simply willful ignorance, few participants in the mainstream CRE industry quite manage to make the necessary connections to have a truly holistic view of their own industry.

The first article about WeWork, it might seem, is entirely unrelated to the second article about CRE, but of course it isn’t.
The massive growth of coworking reflects fundamental changes in how people are officing- in small startups as well as in medium and large firms. It decreasingly makes sense for large firms to lease based on the ‘one fixed work station per employee’ model on which the traditional CRE leasing model is based. That is, like individuals in the coworking world, many corporate employees now work ‘in the cloud.’ Sometimes they go into the office, sometimes they work at their kitchen tables, and sometimes they work at their local Starbucks. That such mobility-of which the coworking industry is a huge part- is unrelated to the decline in revenue among the largest CRE firms, is simply not a tenable notion.

Note that 51% of coworkers in the US are company employees, not freelancers, an important and telling change in the industry.

Where are these folks coming from? They are coming from companies that are, in a variety of ways, changing the way they use and lease work space. It is a leakage problem for CRE. There are, though, internal solutions. When, we ask ourselves at OpenWork, will large firms (CRE and their clients) put their fingers in the dike and build coworking-like environments where their employees actually want to be?

Author: Drew Jones, OpenWork Partner