A Flex Office Future Post-COVID
We catch up with coworking provider Venture X to discuss their new centre and market changes.
A year ago, you signed up for your flagship UK office at Chiswick Park, how have the past 12 months been for you?
Securing the right space, design, fit-out, launch and a pandemic thrown in for good measure, bumpy ride? A bumpy ride sounds right and bar the impact of the pandemic, which has been significant of course, it’s been a great year for us. We’ve opened Venture X Chiswick Park, the first Venture X in Europe, and are proud that it’s home to a really diverse mix of businesses. Being an operator in this sector is such a privilege, meeting people and businesses from such an array of industries; from high-tech to family law and everything in between.
Chiswick Park– what was the reasoning behind this location as your UK flagship?
Chiswick Park really is quite a unique proposition – 1.8m sq ft of grade-A office space, set in these beautiful surroundings, and just 20 minutes from both central London and Heathrow. We wanted to open up all of its benefits to businesses which might traditionally be too small to take space in the park. It also fits with our strategy of targeting ‘live-work’ locations, where there’s a strong local business community, that as owners we can integrate ourselves in, yet also a large proportion of individuals commuting to a central hub for whom a local, professional, vibrant workspace would be appealing.
Have you had to adapt your Chiswick Park office to adhere to social distancing guidelines, if so how? Have you had to put in place any additional processes i.e. Cleaning?
We’ve put in place a range of measures - installation of SaniStations, new one-way systems, we’ve limited capacity in meeting rooms, kitchens, and desk areas, and enhanced cleaning protocols to name a few. I think the key will be to adapt as we move through the coming months, as we all learn more about this virus, and as more people return to the workplace and footfall increases across workspaces generally.
The past few months have caused financial distress for office tenants, have you found yourself going above beyond what you expected to be doing? Additional support, payment deferrals etc.
We’re taking the same approach we would do in any other period of stress for our members, and that is to consider everything on a case-bycase basis. To do so requires a high level of transparency about impacts – financial or otherwise. We look to take a flexible, empathetic approach, but it also needs to be commercial. Sometimes assistance isn’t just the landlord-tenant commercial relationship, but where we’ve helped our tenants access
specialist advice or supported government grant applications.
With business uncertainty at a high, what level of appetite are you seeing for clients to return to the office or even new client enquiries?
With office memberships there seems to be a split between larger firms which in general, have not yet decided the time is right to return to the office, and smaller firms which have been back for some time. Often with the latter the principals live close to the office. An extension of this pattern is desk memberships, where we have seen a big increase in enquiries over the summer from those for whom working at home has simply run its course. Overall, new enquiries have been picking up week on week since around mid-June but are not back to pre-COVID levels just yet, with a fair amount of window shopping (and virtual tours) as you can imagine.
Many businesses have successfully adjusted to mass working from home – some have hailed this as the death knell of the office – what are your thoughts on those comments?
The changes to work practices being accelerated now are going to be positive overall once we get through the noise and pain of this volatile period. Working from home in a greater proportion is here to stay and presenteeism will hopefully be consigned to the bin along with coming to work with a cold. In short, it looks like employees are set to have more flexibility and control over how and where they work for the time being – although an ailing jobs market could certainly temper this. More flexibility doesn’t mean less accountability though, and firms will get better at measuring productivity and valuing contributions from employees.
Offices have been evolving slowly to meet these changes with flex space leading the way in many respects, and they will be as important as ever for building successful teams and driving performance post-COVID. Tech as an enabler of home working has come an incredible way. But it has not yet replaced in-person interaction for those businesses for whom training, mentorships and social activities play a key role in building teams. People will return to offices with less frequency and hopefully more impact than before, and we as operators have to be adaptable enough to offer the products and services that facilitate this.
What do you think the future holds for the flex market – further product evolution, rising costs, move to more urban and non-city locations, lack of appetite or increased appetite for flex space?
The pandemic will act as an accelerant to the growth of this sector in my view - both demand and supply – once the
shorter-term pain subsides. In the last 12 months the flex market has received an incredible amount of media coverage, first with the rollercoaster of the WeWork IPO and its fall-out, and then as one of the potential big winners/losers coming out of the pandemic. UK businesses understand the flex market better than in any other country, and every lease event will prompt more “traditional” office tenants to consider the coworking option. On
the supply side every week brings coverage of new players entering the market. We’re seeing major retailers and hotel operators moving into the space with greater purpose, and the planning framework seems set to support this.
As more than just small and mediumsized businesses now have some level of flex space, are we now at the point where flexible (serviced offices) are mainstream when businesses are searching for space?
I think it’s getting closer to being mainstream certainly. The challenge, which I think we’re overcoming, is for us as a sector to persuade larger corporates that we can provide the levels of security and infrastructure they’re comfortable with through traditional leasing. Secondly, we need to show that they can retain their sense of corporate identity and scale with clients, staff, and stakeholders. If we can do that, then decision-makers will find it hard to ignore the benefits of flex and coworking.
What are the next steps for Venture X in the UK?
Opening new locations, and in Ireland too, and I hope to be able to announce our next two locations soon. We’re interested in talking to anyone looking at investing in the sector and understanding how franchising within coworking and Venture X can add value to their assets.
Dthree were chosen by Venture X to design and build their new flagship coworking centre in Chiswick Park. The design offers members a flexible and collaborative modern workspace with a high quality and professional feel enabling businesses to grow. The 14,000 sq ft space took 12 weeks design development followed by 10 weeks construction.