Karl Breeze, CEO at Matrix Booking
Sharing is caring for UK SMEs post-pandemic as they seek to establish affordable and attractive workspaces in the hybrid working era.
A lot has been made about what the office means to businesses following this era of COVID. We know that many employees are seeking a choice about how and where they work – a choice that can often be segmented into the office as a collaboration space, and home as a focus area.
And yet, in October last year, commercial landlord, Workspace Group reported via The Times that there had been a pick-up in lettings and office use among small and medium-sized businesses. Far from being just a corona rebound, a follow-up report in April this year seemed to corroborate this trend. Occupancy rates at Workspace’s serviced offerings are now back at pre-COVID levels, and enquiries have risen year-on-year too.
At first glance, these figures seem to go against the grain of thought leadership rhetoric this past year. Surely, if everyone has demanded to work from home, then it would be a huge risk to explore new office domains? Perhaps, therefore, the question isn’t whether companies are seeking out new workspaces, but, rather, what kind of office space and dynamic they now need.
For some, it may be a simple downsizing effort, or a first step towards a reimagined brand space. But for many, the shared office proposition may just be the perfect solution to ensure affordable scalability without losing a physical presence.
The benefits of sharing
In general, it’s no secret that the pandemic has fuelled a shift in working patterns, with the consensus forecasting reduced demand for office space. Longer-term, this is still the expectation, with so many employees afforded the opportunity to work from home, at least some of the time.
This trend is even more pronounced and significant among SMEs and startups who are more likely to give workers flexibility, but less able to afford excess, unfilled rental space.
Shared offices are extremely attractive as a solution, to this end. Addressing this financial aspect first, the benefits are pretty clear. On its own, a business must carry the burden of a leased workplace alone, regardless of how ‘used’ it is. Depending on the level of flexibility given to employees, a small business or startup with very little room for error, financially, could be paying for an empty office. Combatting this, the idea of bringing two or more companies together, to share that burden and stand a greater chance of filling paid-for spaces, is an obvious tick in the ‘pros’ column.
However, there is perhaps a more cultural benefit that also shouldn’t be ignored. While, it’s true, there are great numbers of the UK workforce enjoying the ‘emails from the sofa’ experience, 88% of workers genuinely crave a hybrid dynamic. This includes spending time in the office. However, if that prospective office is just one large empty room, then they may as well stay at home for that vibe.
By co-habiting and increasing the likelihood of filled space, the best attributes of the traditional workspace actually come back to life. Call it nostalgia, but re-entering a buzzing, dynamic, eclectic scene might just be the spark to lure people back more than they were originally intending.
If anything, by indulging a shared space, the prospect of socialising at work is taken to a novel and exciting level. New faces and different cultures being brought together, physically, may be a lowkey talent-attraction (and retention) ploy, as well as just a money saving move.
A win-win in the new business world
Looking forward, for those who do go down the shared route, they will have to make sure they manage the transition carefully and logically, to avoid swinging the trend too much the other way.
Beyond the potential for a rebound effect and novel excitement to kick in, there is the more gaugeable consideration that SMEs and startups tend to grow at a quicker pace than larger enterprises. This is partially where the issue of excess office space has arisen, with smaller businesses renting according to future expectation, rather than current need; before having that future volume of office capacity undone by the pandemic.
The challenge of knowing how much space is needed – both now and in the future – will still apply to a shared space. And that’s why the shared office transition should be made with data in tow. The excitement among workers to reengage with their employers’ HQ could easily lead to oversubscription of desks, especially given that new-wave offices are likely to be reimagined as well as downsized. Similarly, boardroom space may also be at a premium for collaboration sessions, onboarding activity or meetings with external stakeholders.
Businesses in this new realm will need real-time, collaborative and transparent data that everyone can tap into, to ensure these obstacles aren’t hit. This means communal insight into access control via occupancy sensors to ensure that this shared space is secure for not just your own business, but your cohabiter. Logistically, it also means solutions dedicated to desk and meeting room booking, visitor management and flow trends in and out of the space.
In a single-occupancy workplace, the only company set to miss out by not getting a handle of these trends and capacity requirements, is the business itself. With a shared dynamic, there is also a sense of responsibility and community that deserves more than just a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ approach.
When carried out correctly, and with digital assistance, however, this leaning towards shared offices could be more than just a saver of individual businesses. It could, in fact, be the perfect platform for SMEs to thrive on, in the new business world.
For a segment that thrives and relies so much on agility and scalability, saving money and satisfying employees in tandem, is the holy grail. Ticking both these boxes will need a helping hand from simultaneous digital transformations, but could be a much-needed win-win for UK business after such a volatile and uncertain period.