When most people think of a flexible workspace, they think of co-working. The high-profile rise and fall of WeWork has imprinted the idea of techies sitting shoulder to shoulder at bench style desks surrounded by beer kegs and foosball tables. Co-working was only ever a small subsection of the larger category of flexible office but it was the one that stuck in people’s minds.
Now the pandemic has closed offices and co-working locations were some of the hardest hit. Small organizations and independent contractors have learned that much of their work can be done from home, so why waste money on desk space? But at the same time it has taught larger companies, which account for the vast majority of the office market, the value of the agility that a flexible office can provide. With the economic future uncertain and the role of the office in the new paradigm of work unclear, demand for flexible office solutions is all but inevitable.
As larger enterprises examine how flex can fit into their real estate strategy they are doing so through a very different lens than the average co-working tenant. Most large organizations define flexibility when it comes to offices as short lease terms and the ability to easily expand, contract or change their office footprint. In CBRE’s recent Global Occupier Survey, companies were found to be deferring leasing decisions and to reduce their space usage in accordance with lower economic growth expectations. When asked what role flexible office space will play in their long-term real estate strategy, 50 percent of respondents said it will play a role with 23 percent expressing it will play a significant role. The growing interest in flexible space by large companies has caused a broadening of the very idea of flexibility when it comes to office.
“We think about flex in every sense of the word. It isn’t just about the flexibility of the workspace, it is about the flexibility of how it is consumed, the flexibility of experience,” said James Shannon, Chief Product Officer at essensys, a software and technology provider for landlords and flex space operators. “We talked to landlords about what they wanted from the holistic building experience and we found out that they wanted things safe but seamless.” Safety for landlords comes in various forms. It can mean safe from physical threats in the workplace, cyber threats in their networks or infectious threats from COVID-19.
“We realized that in order to provide the level of security that enterprise clients need and the frictionless experience they want, that access control had to be at the heart of the tech, not as a separate solution,” Shannon said. Most buildings have their access control data in a local server which makes granting access a multi-step process. This isn’t adequate for a flexible office, where access might need to be granted to dozens of areas with the push of a button. By utilizing cloud infrastructure, creating and sharing permissions can become automated in a way that creates a truly seamless experience. This same design also helps the platform create scalability for landlords as new properties, permissions, and automations can be easily added on.
Another hallmark of co-working is the extracurricular activities. WeWork sold themselves (to clients and investors) as more than a workplace. It touted the importance of creating a community and, of course, sold itself as the best company to create it. But unlike freelancers and startups, who may be looking to outsource their company’s culture, large enterprises already have their own programs in place. Boston Properties has been an early adopter of flexible workplaces with their FLEX product. Their Senior Executive Vice President, Bryan Koop, explained that they learned early on that events and activities were not something that large corporations were looking to their office provider for. “We heard over and over again that our clients didn’t want the sales pitch around community. They had already made their own community and culture and just wanted space to be able to hold their own events.”
The new term that is slowly replacing co-working as the way we define flexible offices is “flex suites.” It does a good job of explaining that, unlike co-working, companies have their own offices. As Koop found out it wasn’t just office space that many clients wanted to control. “We originally designed our spaces to have only shared conference rooms but so many clients asked us for a private conference room in their own space that we now build them into each suite,” said Koop.
He also said that branding was a bigger issue to enterprise clients than he expected, as many wanted the ability to put their own logos and personal touches to their space. “The insight of client branding really helped us understand the essence of our flex product. Where co-working was all about ‘our Space, our Brand, our Community’ we position ourselves as ‘your space, your brand, no distractions.”
The case for including flex suites in space planning for both companies and landlords is clear, but giving it the right feel while integrating amenities and functionalities can be a complicated puzzle. Many technology solutions offer one piece, but both operators and occupants need a holistic solution that simplifies the workplace experience, not complicates it. While many solutions are scrambling to find the right mix, users require a platform that provides secure digital infrastructure, effective space setup, seamless operations, and mobile-first occupier experiences.
The debate about what the future of the office looks like is ongoing but it’s safe to assume that flexible solutions and flex suites are going to be a part of it. Spaces that offer flexibility are going to be more attractive to occupants and will go at a higher rate than competing buildings. Bringing solutions together into a single digital layer minimizes risk, simplifies operations, and enables the in-building experiences that today’s occupiers are looking for. The definition of a flexible office continues to evolve but the right technology will be there making it possible at every step.