The Four Commandments of sustainable co-working spaces

The Four Commandments of sustainable co-working spaces

Winter 2019 | Written by Catherine Shane

Flexibility, cost-effectiveness, attractive design that encourages social connectivity and sustainability. These are just a few of the reasons why professionals are ditching traditional cubicle offices for co-working spaces.

It’s a song and dance that Scott Glosserman is all too familiar with. “I’d work from home, but then after a while, my spouse would want the dining room table back,” jokes the 42-year-old film director, producer, writer, and, most recently, distributer (his company Gathr Films brings “social-impact” documentaries and films to movie theatres across the country). “So then, the next spot was some sort of local coffee shop. But then, they only gave me so much time before they wanted to turn the table. It was downright awkward. So where to next? Another coffee shop?”

If you’ve been studying real estate trends at all in the last decade, you’ll know the answer is a co-working space, essentially a shared office space—often housed in renovated storefronts or warehouses—that offers affordable and flexible working space for those looking to escape the isolation of a home office or, in Glosserman’s case, the awkwardness of hours spent at a coffee shop.

Since 2010 WeWork’s mission has been to build beautiful shared office spaces that also offer a sense of community. WeWork spaces are also flexible and offer a combination of private offices, boardrooms, and lounge areas.

Gathr in Ipswich, Massachusetts, offers professionals in this rural area a communal workspace to collaborate. Photo: Scott Goodwin

While modern-day iterations of co-working spaces date back to 2005, it’s a concept that has seen incredible growth in recent years. According to a study conducted in 2017 by co-working conference operator GCUC and Emergent Research, the number of these kinds of spaces worldwide has increased from 436 in 2010 to 14,411 in 2017 and they forecast that it will reach a whopping 30,432 spaces by 2022. That’s a result of a strong and growing freelance workforce: In 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 36 percent of the American workforce is freelancing, with the number set to surpass 50 percent by 2027. It’s also given rise to major co-working chains—companies like WeWork, Impact Hub, Alley, and District Cowork—which create these shared spaces in multiple locations in most major cities.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why make the trip to such a space when you could stay in your sweats and work from home?

“We don’t think of ourselves as just brick-and-mortar physical spaces where you can get some work done. Although that’s part of it, there’s more to it,” says Lindsay Baker, head of sustainability at WeWork, a now global company that transforms buildings into beautiful collaborative spaces for startups, freelancers, small businesses, and even large enterprises.

Founded in 2010 in New York City, WeWork now operates in 24 countries, offers 335 physical locations in 83 different cities, and has 325,000 members globally who work in industries such as tech, fashion, media and marketing, and more. “We’re a company that fosters community, business lines, education, and events—a healthy work-life balance. Because that’s the desire. To work in spaces that feel more vibrant, with a great diversity of people, and more communal amenities that you wouldn’t have access to in a typical office setting.” Or from home. Or a coffee shop.

Left: Gathr in Ipswich, Massachusetts; Photo by Scott Goodwin. Center: WeWork conference room. Right: The Foundry Building is a LEED Silver Class A, Energy Star-rated office building located in the heart of Georgetown. The building is situated on the C&O Canal and provides excellent window lines and abundant natural light from three sides.

Sure, the physical space and the core amenities that come with co-working spaces are likely the most appealing elements. “Think of it like a gym membership,” says Glosserman, who, in 2017, opened his own independent co-working space, Gathr Work, in downtown Ipswich, Massachusetts, in a 4,000-square-foot former paint store. (In addition to the large co-working chains centered around major cities, more and more “one-off” co-working spaces are cropping up in smaller towns and rural areas in old retail fronts). “You just come in and use the amenities. You’re not responsible for utilities, paying insurance, or all the other headaches that come with owning real estate. You don’t have to buy furniture, printers, mail machines, conferencing systems. You never see a bill. That’s all built into your regular membership fee.”

That means, for startup companies, there’s less of a risk because you’re not outright buying or renting an office space. “Simply put, we help businesses succeed,” says Baker, calling up a stat about how 45 percent of WeWork member companies say that WeWork helped accelerate their growth. “They save thousands a year in rent, fit-out costs, and broker and agent fees. Really, we’re lowering the barrier for entry, allowing new ventures to start up and create pathways for themselves that, eventually, lead to impactful and profitable careers.” And that’s not just attractive to small companies. Even mid-size companies to large corporations are turning to the model. While they often own or lease office space for the majority of their employees, they use shared workspaces for small teams and testing new partnerships. If the team is thriving, corporate co-working allows for adding space easily. If not, semi-permanent departments are free to dissolve or disband at any time. In fact, 30 percent of WeWork memberships are held by Fortune 500 companies, which includes the likes of Microsoft, General Electric, KPMG, and the British publication, The Guardian.

And while having that flexibility and low risk is important, there’s perhaps nothing more attractive than the design of the spaces themselves, which turns the idea of a “traditional office” on its head. These aren’t cubicled offices with closed-off corner offices. Though some of the spaces rented out by WeWork are located in office buildings, the majority are based in alternative spaces which offer loft-like unstructured, open-floor plans that are the signature of the co-working model. That’s because it encourages comingling, which is yet another highly coveted feature of co-working—because it connects you with like-minded people.

“If you’re joining a space like this outside of your typical social circle, you’re getting access to an amazing network of like-minded people,” notes Glosserman. “Need a CPA? A lawyer? An architect? A marketing guru? They’re all right at your fingertips.”

WeWork Spaces report to be 2.5 times more efficient with space than a typical office. Natural daylight, greenery, and more sustainable choices for building materials all increase the appeal of their spaces.

“In every space we design,” says Adrian Zamora, the lead in corporate communications at WeWork, “we are always thinking about how the design promotes interactions with people.” Signature WeWork design elements that bolster interconnectivity include open and airy central staircases, walls made exclusively of glass, and common rooms with cozy coffee shop–inspired seating, allowing for an uninhibited flow of energy. Foosball tables, game rooms, and communal desks where users work with others—it’s all key to creating a sense of community among tenants even though they work in different fields. “Everything is about encouraging people to bump into one another,” summarizes Zamora. Other customary features (see “Co-Working Design Commandments,”) include loads of natural light and greenery, ergonomic elements such as sit-to-stand desks, and eye-catching conference rooms.

Sustainability is key too—after all, what better way to attract members than with forward-thinking green, healthy facilities? Take, for example, The Foundry Building in the historic neighborhood of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., which is home to the co-working company, Carr Workplaces. On the surface, the industrial building dating back to 1856 is undeniably gorgeous, featuring exposed brick décor, bubble chandeliers, blonde wood, and murals (which, as their website says is “sure to impress members’ most effete of clients”). But it’s also a Class-A, Energy Star-rated building. “We use sustainability as a marketing tool when leasing to our tenants [which in this case are co-working companies],” notes Jessica Long, director of sustainability with JBG Smith, the REIT (or real estate investment trust) that owns The Foundry Building. “They, in turn, use that to attract members.”

The same goes for WeWork and Gathr Work. “Members are attracted to these green elements,” says Glosserman, whose wood in his 4,000-square-foot space is reclaimed from his farm (including a large conference table made from old oak). There’s also a hydroponic wall, where members can clip off romaine and other greens for salads and their sandwiches. WeWork—which reports that its buildings are on average 2.5 times more efficient with space than a typical office—also designs and manufactures all their own furniture and finishes, and then runs all their spaces. “That matters a lot when it comes to sustainability in a building,” says Baker. “Because we can run reports and call up data that shows how our spaces are performing, how people are responding to the lighting or air quality or internal temps. Then we can change direction to find the most sustainable solutions. Which we want to do because we do well if our members are happy and healthy.”

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