Coworking spaces: A new approach to office design

Why the most sought-after corner office is the one that’s shared.

Bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to the future of office space. Image credit: franckreporter/iStock
Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to the future of office space. Image credit: franckreporter/iStock

Skyscraper construction hit an all-time high last year, with a record number of supertalls completed in 2018. In China, 88 buildings were erected, measuring more than 200 meters high, while in the U.S., 13 skyscrapers lined the horizon. But while these glittering buildings are ready to house some of the most well-known FTSE 100 companies, the biggest change in office design is happening at ground level. 

As architects look skywards, a raft of new developers are taking over former industrial buildings and turning them into coworking hotspots for new, thriving industries.  A former bus making factory in London has been turned into a hub for creatives, while a former battery factory in Madrid has turned into a home for Google and 50 start-up companies.

And it’s not just former factories or warehouses being given a new lease on life. Coworking companies have set their sights on heritage buildings too. The trading floor of the 100-year-old Minneapolis Grain Exchange in the U.S. is now covered in beanbags and meeting tents and is the flagship space for the coworking brand Fueled Collective.

Conventional office spaces are taking a back seat across many coworking offices. Image credit: Deagreez/iStock
Conventional office spaces are taking a back seat across many coworking offices. Image credit: Deagreez/iStock

The numbers

Coworking has come a long way since programmer Brad Neuberg launched the San Francisco Coworking Space in 2005, inspired by computer hackers, would meet up to share what they had learned. According to the 2018 Global Coworking Survey, an estimated 1.7million people would be working in 19,000 coworking spaces by the end of the year. 

The figures for WeWork,  the largest player in the game is a clear demonstration of what the future work environment will look like. After launching its first space in SoHo, New York, in 2010, WeWork now has offices in 341 locations in 65 countries across the world and has become the largest private office tenant in Manhattan, with 50 coworking spaces in the city. The company recently took over the historic Lord & Taylor building in the Big Apple, parting with a cool $850 million to purchase the Fifth Avenue property. 

Three triggers have created the recipe to success of coworking spaces – the rise of start-ups, the ability of technology to make the workforce geographically mobile, and millennials embracing the sharing economy.

However, if you thought coworking tenants were all small app developers and bloggers, think again. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Burger King have all taken up spaces in coworking offices, which has proven successful for all parties, as not only do the start-ups learn how to scale up, the shared setting helps more established companies to spot trends.

Rapid growth

The coworking space market has seen rapid growth in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and is expanding from major cities to secondary cities in Western Europe and North America. But, not every city has been able to handle this rapid growth. Researchers from Curtin University in Perth, Australia,  studied 20 coworking spaces in the Western Australia capital and found town planning policies hadn’t yet caught up to this new way of working. While local innovators were still managing to drive coworking spaces forward in the city, the researchers found significant barriers to establishing these spaces largely due to land-use permission controls. There were also queries over what type of company could work in a specific building. 

Work produced at coworking spaces is not easily able to be categorized. Image credit: nortonrsx/iStock
Work produced at coworking spaces is not easily able to be categorized. Image credit: nortonrsx/iStock

According to John Williams, the head of marketing at coworking company The Instant Group, these barriers are not felt around the world. The London-based company, whose clients include Amazon and American Express, has never had an issue with city planning, largely thanks to the city’s mayor, who supports SMEs and entrepreneurship, and the fact town planners were excited about regenerating areas across London.

Williams said those who’ve been slow to embrace the power of a coworking space in London were financial backers. 

“Planning is not really the issue,” he said. 

“What is slightly holding the market back are valuations recognizing the potential of coworking space and lenders, therefore, being comfortable with the use of space.”

Forging new spaces

As the financiers catch up to this new way of working, coworking spaces are still forging forward and taking their recipe to various parts of the world, such as Bangkok and Mumbai, where the shortage of space puts land at a premium. Where coworking was once seen as a way to fill empty buildings, it’s now being recognized as an industry in itself, with the arrival of big players such as WeWork and JustCo.

In fact, coworking has developed at such a rapid rate in Asia, there is the expectation that coworking spaces need a clearly defined unique selling proposition (USP) to stand out from the pack. A table in a communal space where you can plug in your laptop isn’t enough for millennials wanting to embrace a work/life balance. 

Singapore is a shining example of the change, with recent additions to the coworking market including a coworking space with a crèche, a coworking space with private member’s club and a coworking space with a gym for healthcare professionals. Grace Sai, co-owner of coworking company Found8, which is a partner of Google, said during a recent interview with Bloomberg that coworking spaces were about to become the mainstream. But given WeWork recently announced new additions to their design team, including vanguard Mexican architect Michel Rojkind and celebrity Danish designer Bjarke Ingels, it looks as coworking spaces are part of the mainstream already.


Claire Turrell

Freelance journalist Claire Turrell has lived and worked in London, Dubai, and Singapore. When she’s not busy writing, she is riding motorbikes off-road in Cambodia, diving in Oman or learning Muay Thai in Thailand.