Connected Solutions

GWA Conference Recap: Coworking Operators Pivot to Achieve Success


In a normal year, the coworking industry would have gathered to celebrate one of its biggest annual events, the GWA Conference. The GWA had to pivot and reimagine what the conference looked like in 2020, as coworking operators similarly need to adjust their business in order to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Among the highlights of the two-day event, Dale Hersowitz, Yardi vice president of coworking, spoke about how operators will need to look at efficiency, business automation, sales and marketing, door access control and other elements of their workspace to maximize potential for success moving forward.

As Hersowitz explained, prior to the pandemic, coworking operators were so busy with an expanding industry and increased demand that it was hard to focus on back of house tasks. This year provided an opportunity to step back and analyze which processes can be automated and how they will lead to a more efficient business. Tasks such as meeting room bookings, desk reservations and amenities or service purchases are among many tasks that members can accomplish themselves via self-service options that don’t engage any staff. For operators, having a tech solution that automates these tasks is imperative to save money, time and manual effort. For example, connect billing and IT services in the same integrated system creating a quick, safe and efficient process for the member when making a purchase, but also a hands-off and reliable transaction for the operator.

From a sales and marketing perspective, it has become apparent that the rise in corporate clients is a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future. With the pandemic affecting businesses of all sizes, and many employers implementing remote work policies, there will be a large influx of corporate users in coworking or flexible workspaces. As Hersowitz said, attracting and retaining a corporate client is more than just delivering a private office and extra Starbucks coffee. From an IT perspective, your network security will need to satisfy the requirements of corporate prospects with the flexibility to meet those standards on the fly. Financially, most enterprise clients will need more than a simple invoice, they will need detailed analysis of their charges and the necessary communication with their decision-making teams.

Access control has grown in popularity alongside all other forms of touchless interaction. Door access control provides a revenue-generating service that also leads to increased safety and security for members and staff. It provides the ability to control access to any door at any time, while giving staff visibility to exactly who has entered the office and when, without manual documentation.

The need for automation and contactless interaction has only grown because of the pandemic. However, it seems day-to-day business is at a new normal, rather than a bump in the road. The changes that coworking operators can make to better serve clients today are also the changes that will carry the industry into a more productive long-term future.

Key Industry Takeaways

The suburban coworking market, the rise of enterprise customers and evolving member needs were just a few of the other trends discussed at the GWA conference:

The rise of suburban coworking is here to stay. Data from Instant Offices, as presented by James Rankin, leader of their research and insight team, shows that the demand for workspace outside of central business districts (CBD) is vastly outpacing demand inside CBDs in New York City and Paris, France. In both New York and Paris, demand from commuter towns is up roughly 40% in 2020. The discussion around hub and spoke models continued throughout the event. While panelists made it clear this is not a mass exodus out of downtown areas, it is clear that repositioning retail and multifamily assets to flexible workspace is a long-term trend. Workers want to be closer to home and coworking operators can capitalize on this shift.

From a landlord’s perspective, Annie Rinker, director of office innovation with Hines, said that prior to the pandemic, developers knew they could get away with a lack of communication with clients because buildings went up and they’d be filled in a thriving economy, seemingly irrespective of client/landlord relations. However, there is much more planning that now needs to go into a multiuse building, because tenants may feel occupying prime real estate space is more of a luxury. “We need to reconsider office space and what it will look like,” she said. “We need to develop buildings to support workers in the future… because the office is a want, not a need anymore.”

Enterprise customers are not only a growing sector of the coworking community, they will remain users of shared workspaces for the future. For example, Blackbaud, which had 25% of their staff remote pre-COVID, has now seen that number grow to 50%. In the session “Meeting the Needs of the New Flex Office User”, Mick Heys, vice president at IDC, presented an August 2020 study showing that over 77% of respondents were working in a physical office pre-pandemic. However, after a vaccine is available, only 66% of workers said they’d be back in the office full-time. Coworking operators would be wise to target that remaining 11% of workers who have said they won’t return to an office at all.

In terms of what members are seeking most, security – for both the physical space and IT infrastructure – was a prevailing theme throughout the conference. IDC predicted that roughly 65% of workers will include health and safety alongside social, environmental and humanitarian criteria for employment decisions. In addition, fractional membership offerings that allow for part-time use of a workspace are growing in popularity, indicating flexible membership solutions are here to stay.

We discuss flexibility so often in the shared workspace industry, but it doesn’t just refer to the physical components of a space. Yes, operators need to be able to turn common areas into partitioned desk space and there need to be alternative revenue-generating uses for event space, but flexibility can also refer to the fact that hotels and multifamily buildings are now jumping into the coworking world. Marriott, for example, is in the early stages of converting areas in their hotels to workspaces, whether it be a block of guest rooms, a meeting room or ballroom. College campuses are also becoming hot spots for coworking, as universities often own much of the on-campus housing and can partner with local operators.

Overall, the conference provided an optimistic look not only at the state of the industry nine months into the pandemic, but the long-term future of flexible workspaces as well. Ashley Buckner, COO of Carr Workspaces, shared the three components for operators to focus on post-pandemic: increasing revenue streams, client retention and amenities workers can’t get at home like social interaction, phone/podcast booths, print/scan/copy services and more.

We look forward to the 2021 GWA Conference and hope it can return to an in-person event where thought leaders throughout the industry can share insights and experiences in an atmosphere more conducive to networking.