Reporting from Coworking Europe 2022
Tom Mulvaney, the Flexible Space Association’s Treasurer and Chairman of UBC, represented the Association at last week’s Coworking Europe conference. The event brings together industry representatives from around the world, and this year took place in Amsterdam. Tom has written for us on what he learned.
Delegates gathered in person for the first time in three years to update, educate and reconnect after the enforced hiatus of 2020 and 2021. Anything they lacked in numbers was more than made up for in variety and enthusiasm. The 320 attendees travelled from 38 countries as far afield as Australia, Japan and USA; as exotic as Kuwait, Egypt and Georgia and as poignant as Ukraine – more of which later.
There were 51 speakers from 21 countries, with the UK well represented, indeed, Instant Offices’ own James Rankin kicked things off with a scene setting view of ‘Cautious Opportunity’ for the industry as we all come to terms with the long-term fallout from the Pandemic. The UK also provided one unexpected panellist on Day 2 (Me!) as last minute stand-in for the original who’d nipped off to hospital as his wife went into labour. No further news on that by the time I left, Friday evening, but I hope it all worked out happily.
The venue, B. Amsterdam, is a humungous 40,000 m2 5-storey cube of a building with a single storey tail. One of those contemporary pseudo-industrial types of place, high ceilings in the larger gathering spaces, exposed M&E, hard floor coverings. In places it reminded me of a Students’ Union building of a big University. Ideal for the event though, close enough to Schiphol and Hotels, a big central space to accommodate the exhibitors and delegates with numerous large anterooms to cope with breakouts of 100+ people. B. Amsterdam has endured just as difficult a Pandemic as any, losing 50% of their members and team but is now building back and currently supporting 400 customers and 3000 coworking members.
So, apart from learning to avoid being in the wrong place at the right time to get roped into an unexpected and consequently unprepared speaking role, what else did I learn at CE22?
- Flexible Space is the only sector of the commercial property industry that is growing or expected to grow over the next year. That’s quite a statement but supported by empirical and anecdotal evidence from the body of research undertaken by Instant. This is likely to see further participants drawn into the sector, hunting for growth, providing opportunities for landlords, operators and service partners alike – but also stiffer competition in an economy that is not expected to grow next year.
- If not an outright contradiction, there’s something inconsistent about some of the emerging themes. On a sustainability and work-life balance ticket, there is a reported and understandable reluctance to go back to the daily commute. Some Continental operators are withdrawing car parking spaces in order to discourage people from driving to work. Yet coworking in all the big capital cities is booming…. Curious. Amsterdam is apparently at 91% occupancy and equally strong situations were reported by IWG and WeWork representatives for Paris, Rome and Madrid. Indeed, one multi-national operator stated that ‘if you’re not full in Amsterdam, you’re doing something wrong.’. Is the distaste for the commute being overcome by the desire to leave the loneliness of WFH behind? Are the Corporates being quietly more insistent on a return to work? Or is it that Hybrid working has secured a greater grip on the working week making Wednesday the busiest day followed by Tuesday and Thursday whilst Mondy and Friday have a Holiday High Season feel to office footfall and commuting?
- A difference of opinion emerged about the future for ‘Serviced Office’ – or private offices as it seems to be called by our Continental colleagues. Claims that the old Serviced Office model is dead were not supported by figures from Aggregator, Upflex, whose booking platform reported that the greatest number of inquiries are for private offices but that often there isn’t the capacity or availability to satisfy demand. There seems to be plenty of life in the old dog yet as well as growing demand for meeting rooms. That is not to say that the younger demographic are not looking for something different – closer to the open plan, funkier designs, membership models of coworking that we are used to seeing in the UK, but they are clearly not yet the dominant buying force.
- Despite booming capital cities, people still require a better reason to commute as personal time management and environmental concerns have challenged and probably permanently changed our attitude to ‘going to work’. Better reasons to commute will include the desire, indeed, necessity to collaborate with colleagues in a way which is a really tough gig on Teams or Zoom. Still, the Work Place, more than ever, must be a Great Place and not just for current employees but those you wish to attract in the future.
- The Metaverse is coming but is not welcomed by all. One multinational buyer of flexible space now uses the Metaverse in most staff recruitment and onboarding processes. Going further she said ‘its use is expected by Gen Zs.’ This real time augmented reality experience may be for early adopters at the moment – but like smart phones and WiFi are likely to become and integral part of doing business in years to come, with significant implications for ‘the office’, especially, the traditional office.
- The Third Space is very much a topic in vogue neither the Head Office nor WFH but another more local space to meet, work and (possibly) play. Thus, avoiding the hassle and carbon footprint of a longer commute whilst retaining the collaborative and social aspects of groups gathering in places to work.
- Continental Europe is suffering as much as we in the UK are, with high inflation, energy costs, the threat of recession, the great resignation and scramble for talent. Contrary to most media reports we are not the sick man of Europe or worse than our nearest neighbours on almost every count – we just have some poor-quality politicians and a free press with 24 hours to fill.
- A presentation from Helga Moreno of Ukraine had her audience captivated and tearful at times. You think you’ve got problems – try waking up to a war none of you believed would ever happen. Try relocating your business whilst staying one kilometre ahead of the shells. This was a story with so many facets, not least, resilience under extreme circumstances – Flexible space operators in Lviv now have bomb shelters with WiFi and Phone signals guaranteed despite what’s going on in the streets. Flexible space is being given over freely to any business supporting armed defence, others have made space available to refugees as they pass through. The sector has responded remarkably, humanely, heroically. Count your blessings.
- And finally, the pedestrian crossings in Amsterdam have an interesting subliminal feature. On red for the pedestrian, there is a very slow, dull ‘Ping’ emanating from the traffic lights. Once the green man is illuminated this changes to a rapid, loud, closely spaced ‘Clicking’ making it very difficult to resist breaking into sprint or at the very least a fast walk, – perhaps that’s the idea?
I left the diehard core to their Friday night pub crawl to make my way home, happy to have reacquainted myself with some old friends who are now all keen to come to the FlexSA Conference next year. Satisfied also that the industry retains its appeal to all age groups and professions and has the talent, resolve and enthusiasm to prevail, no matter what is thrown at it.
15 November 2022
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