By Elizabeth Hyde - 19th March, 2021
For years, PLASTARC has advocated for more flexibility in workplace strategy supported by more flexible spaces. The need for this flexibility has grown more urgent in the wake of the changes brought on by COVID-19. Two popular strategies—coworking and activity-based working (ABW)—have the potential to make workplaces more adaptable and higher-performing. But many organizations that may be considering them for the first time may wonder how to choose the right approach, or even be unaware of the differences between them.
For our latest webinar, PLASTARC convened a panel of experts from corporate real estate, business development, facilities management, and environmental design to discuss emerging trends in coworking and ABW, as well as why the demand for each is predicted to increase. Panelists included Joe Brady, CEO-Americas and Michelle Bodick, Managing Director of Sales & Marketing, both of The Instant Group; Jerome Chang, architect and Founder of BLANKSPACES; and PLASTARC Founder and Executive Director Melissa Marsh. The conversation was moderated by Amy Rosen, Sociospatial Designer for PLASTARC.
In opening remarks, Rosen clarified how coworking and ABW differ in achieving flexibility. In coworking—sometimes also known as a serviced office—people or companies who may or may not be otherwise professionally connected pay to utilize shared office-like amenities in the same locations. ABW, on the other hand, describes a work style that allows employees to fluidly move between settings in response to their own needs or preferences.
Brady kicked off the conversation with an observation: “I believe office is having a retail moment.” Drawing on examples from his past tenure at Walgreens, Brady spoke about the impact of technology, choice, and optionality on customers as they transitioned from exclusively shopping in brick-and-mortar stores to accessing brands in half a dozen ways via their personal devices. He then illustrated a parallel between how individuals spend money and how they might earn that money in the future—through a widening range of modalities, especially virtual ones. After all, “in-person” attendance comes at a steep cost to the employee: Recent research reveals that leading up to 2020, workers in Metro New York devoted an average of 1.5 to 2 hours per day to commuting; annually, this cost roughly $1,100 if taking public transportation or $7,000 if driving. “The notion of flexibility beyond the traditional office makes sense and cents,” Brady quipped.
Bodick elaborated upon the implications of treating workers like consumers. While hub-and-spoke occupancy concepts—which feature a central headquarters with a network of regional satellites—were historically fiscally motivated, she projects that attracting and retaining talent will be the driving forces in the long run. “Companies will start assessing their demographics, footprint, and functions, then drill into how and where they access those workforces.” Additionally, capturing “urban flight” will be of interest to many and could mean establishing distributed teams across geographical areas that are not currently served by global coworking providers like WeWork and IWG. Consequently, employers might experiment with short-term leasing options through local small business owners or declare telework as the default, supplemented with membership at “touch-down” sites that employees can opt to rotate between at their own discretion.
The transition may not be easy for some organizations. Chang anticipated the challenges of partnering with landlords who have not previously delivered coworking offerings—or at least other forms of hospitality: “It’s the equivalent of asking grocery stores to become restaurants, to go from selling raw and packaged foods to sit-down, full-service dining.” With industry analysts estimating that 20 to 30% of commercial office spaces will eventually be coworking-related (in contrast to the 2 to 3% at present), simply acquiring the square footage necessary for this shift must entail a willingness to embrace trial-and-error.
Despite initial drawbacks, the rewards will be ample. According to Marsh, the wellness benefits of both coworking and ABW environments are substantial. Merely granting people the autonomy to shape their daily workplace experiences—even if that only means exerting control over the thermostat or lighting—results in measurable boosts to employee satisfaction. The mass customization enabled by these new approaches and the resulting consumerization of workplace result in better experience for all.
Marsh also pointed out that both models offer avenues to promote diversity. At a literal level there is a physical expression of diversity represented by a variety of space types, furniture and configurations. This, in turn, makes more room for cognitive and social diversity by permitting individuals to adjust the multisensory attributes of their surroundings to suit. Lastly, as Marsh stated, “The whole world opens up when you move off of a 1:1 desk to person ratio.” Employee onboarding is no longer limited by seating allocation. This can facilitate more diverse staffing by eliminating a layer of logistic barriers in the hiring process.
There is plenty of opportunity to remake spaces, noted Orpilla. The market for coworking and ABW reminded him of the narrative crafting he did with client Uber. “We realized the ethos behind the product was attainable luxury. It’s saying, ‘I want choice, but the choices have to be richer and broader,’” he explained. Much like riders can order anything from an UberX to Pool to Black, based on preferences or circumstances, so we can expect a growing desire for comparable levels of curation in the workplace.
Moderator Rosen wrapped up the conversation, “It’s fascinating to witness the push and pull from all the different stakeholders. Everyone is navigating what to pursue and what to give up.” As the immediate public health risks recede, it will be interesting to see how organizations react to this moment, and what innovations in space occur as a result.