With the broken promises of WeWork and the constant innovation in co-working and co-living, it’s not easy for casual observers to separate the wheat from the chaff. GDR Senior Consultant Eric Coulon believes it’s time to bring the principles of hospitality and placemaking – wellness, care, community and respect – back into the workplace.
A few days ago, I met up with a friend in his London office…or more precisely by his desk in a shared workplace…or even more precisely at the table where he managed to establish his encampment for the day, between the busy open kitchen and the noisy printer.
The place made headlines a couple of years ago when it opened its indoor bicycle ramp and basketball court, but in 2019 it just felt loud, frankly cramped, and not exactly ideal for a tech consultant whose job requires focus and who’s moderately keen on lunchtime dunks.
We endeavoured to have a chat about a side project we both run outside our old-fashioned 9-to-5s when a ‘success manager’ – read correction facility staff – urged us to move to the ‘ideation space’ – read beanbags by the bins – if we were to have a brainstorming session, and to clear the desk if we would be more than 30 minutes away. At this point I felt like an inmate in a dystopian prison ironically decorated as a nursery school.
Meanwhile on LinkedIn, my friend Tina, a Paris-based copywriter, was documenting her enjoyment of a quiet solo-brainstorm in a Batignolles café.
The place felt more inviting to grown-ups and much less chaotic. I bet her brainstorm was more productive than ours. As ever, Parisians do it best.
The changing paradigm
Flexible working is about to get more expensive, or more crammed. Today four out of five people in Europe work in the tertiary sector, which is most likely to be office-based. As real estate prices in major cities keep rising, renting vast office spaces has become a luxury that only a few can afford.
The failure of WeWork’s IPO shows us that the ‘future’ is not quite here yet, the shared workspace provider being more of a real estate revolution than a work revolution. This is quite a misfortune for their venture-capital backers, who are struggling to get out of the “WeTrap”. The company is actively raising new funds as it could end up with no cash by the end of November. A former SoftBank executive even suggested the start-up could be worth “zero“.
However, there still remains a class of people willing to ride Adam Neumann’s bloated unicorn: landlords.
Hot desking, agile working, standing meeting… are these really productivity-enhancement techniques or just a penny-pinching ploy to strip workers of any form of comfort? Despite already sky-high rental prices in major cities, WeWork offers a model in which its financial losses work as a subsidy for landlords. This cannot be sustainable, not for employers, not for WeWorks’ backers, and maybe not even for employees, for whom the hidden cost of the modern workplace is stress. Penny-pinching initiatives like hot desking, initially designed to save on rent, end up stripping workers of any form of comfort and take their toll on employees’ mental health.
Acknowledging the importance of mental health at work opens up new opportunities for shared workspace. The World Health Organisation has described stress as “the health epidemic of the 21st Century”.
According to the Greater London Authority Mental Health report, mental ill health costs London businesses £10.4 billion each year in lost productivity. Studies show that the top stress factors at work are related to the office environment and employee/employer relationships. Factors like performance or success do not even make it in the top 10. This shows that solutions rely first and foremost in designing the right amenities and interactions for the workspace.
Co-working x Co-living – the Bleisure trend
In this context, a new trend called Bleisure (the blending of business and leisure) is emerging. Bleisure operators are thinking about new rituals and potential engagement opportunities for employees, inspired by the world of hospitality.
For instance, co-living and co-working are mixed in freelance-traveller-friendly Roam, a workspace answer to Airbnb. Fancy working from a beachside open space in Bali, or from a former archbishop’s mansion in San Francisco? Then Roam – which claims to have the most advanced co-living space on the planet – is your go-to.
A similar proposition launched by Santander bank proved quite successful. The concept cleverly provides small businesses with what they need most: free office space.
In the world of hospitality, Hoxton Hotels are turning their lobbies into shared workspaces, hinting at how hospitality can be the true vanguard of the workspace. Lyf, a brand-new co-living and co-working concept launched by Ascott in Singapore, is the logical conclusion of this. It provides concierge services, craft workshops and networking parties for their resident-entrepreneurs.
Care in the workplace
Just like in hospitality, wellness, comfort and care should be at the heart of the workplace to foster collaboration and imagination. A few months ago, media giant Havas revamped its London base near King’s Cross with the aim of regrouping all its entities under one roof and fostering more collaboration between employees. Chris Hirst, chairman and CEO of Havas UK, explained that the building is designed with the “collision of people and ideas” in mind. “The more we interact with each other in communal, inspiring spaces, the more likely it is that solutions that cross boundaries will appear for the benefit of our clients,” he said.
But a Havard Business School study recently revealed that open spaces have been proven to reduce the level of collaboration between employees by a whopping 70% compared to prehistoric closed offices, replacing face-to-face interactions because of an increase in emails. Perhaps Havas’s “collision of people” will not bear fruit when it comes to increasing collaboration.
A totally different approach was undertaken by Grammarly, who provides its employees with nap pods. Likewise, media giant Bloomberg’s new billion-pound HQ in the City of London has been designed to foster cooperation and imagination with an on-site art gallery and a restored Roman temple. It includes a new public space at its heart that is both for employees and local community members, creating a sense of place – literally ‘placemaking’. It’s also a sustainable building with extensive use of natural light that recycles its rainwater.
Privacy and proximity
In a more modest approach, we’ve seen a rise of privacy and proximity in the work environment. This is illustrated by the recent surge in women-only business clubs in NYC and London. The Wing offers a space for businesswomen to discuss new ideas, workshop and prototype their concepts. And all of that in the comfort of a supportive and non-judgemental atmosphere.
This is a new addition to a long list of corporate, yet human, open, yet private, reinventions of the workplace where life and work merge in a way that is not detrimental to mental health and productivity.
To build a future-proof workspace, operators should embed wellness at the heart of the space, just like a hospitality operator would do, and move away from the open/hot/flex mantra that has finally proven to lead to poorer mental health and lesser collaboration. The future is caring, and we’re all for that!