What’s the role of Coworking for Built Environment teams, post-crisis?
This article was originally published in February 2020 but has been refreshed in light on the Coronavirus pandemic and it’s long-term implications on how people in the AEC industries will work in the future.
Seemingly overnight, millions of people working in Architectural, Engineering and Construction (AEC) related fields were forced to work from home for an indefinite period of time, due to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Sparkling city center offices lay bare, leaving an eery silence with not even the hum of the printer.
So how have Built Environment professionals responded?
It’s not possible to design & construct remotely
This is what many had assumed. However, when left with no choice, most companies and employees found a way. Enabled by advancements in technology, employees found ways to be innovative and to continue to meet deadlines.
DBEI, the organisation behind AEC technology conference BILT conducted an informal Twitter poll which asked “How are you finding working remotely in a deadline driven industry?”.
The result (which must be taken with a pinch of salt due to i) small sample size, ii) likely bias towards technologically savvy BILT followers, iii) it’s a Twitter poll) showed that 50% of respondents are finding it easier to work from home than in the traditional office environment.
It got me thinking, what lasting changes will this bring to how AEC professionals deliver their work?
So what will change?
If you keep abreast of real estate news you will be familiar with the plethora of content discussing how the commercial real estate industry will change post-COVID. If you’re looking to catch up, this conversation with Anthony Slumbers is a good place to start.
To summarize the main points:
- Existing office spaces are only suitable for old styles of working.
- The world has changed. New ways of working will become the new normal.
- Not just “how” people work will change, but also the type of work they do. For example, structured, repeatable, predictable work will be increasingly automated. People will not go to the office for focused work (as this it better done at home).
- Office space of the future will enable the things that make us human: connection, empathy, design, judgement, critical thinking, collaboration, communication.
How will AEC companies respond?
Whilst Anthony is right to highlight the longer-term influence of automation of tasks on how office space will be used, I think there is a more urgent point.
Put yourself in the shoes of an AEC boss. They have watched their prized office spaces lie vacant.
At the same time, they have seen eye-watering amounts of lease payments leaving their company accounts. Money which ultimately comes out of project profits as overheads. All whilst design and office-based production has continued, albeit as a lesser rate.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that in every company, decision makers are planning how much of their office space they can rid of over the next 12 months.
But it is not a binary choice for employers. Send your staff to the office, or let them work from home. I believe a third option should also be included in the mix. Coworking spaces. I see the existing PRE-COVID distribution of desks between Fixed Office / Coworking and Home-based to look like this:
As companies dial down on the amount of fixed office space they lease, I can see a model whereby employers ditch up to 75% of their fixed office space, allow more employees to work from home (multiple days per week), and lean on Coworking spaces to add flexibility into the mix. Something like this:
Coworking Spaces for AEC teams
Prior to COVID-19, Coworking was changing the working world. We’ve all heard about the rise and fall of WeWork, but did you know that prior to COVID-19, a new Coworking space opened in London every 5 days?
They are not opening for fun, there was a huge demand for this type of space as what we value in office space is changing. Once social distancing measures relax, I believe there is still a bright future for Coworking, and Forbes agrees with me.
But is this another Future of Work trend that every other industries take advantage of whilst AEC companies sit, watch and say “that’s not for us“?
What is Coworking?
Instead of owning office space, you share with teams from other companies. How much you share with the other companies is very much dependent of your preferences.
- permanent office space with shared facilities (you’ll have your own four walls and a door, but will share a kitchen and communal spaces with others),
- fixed desk space – in most coworking spaces there is a large area of open-plan desks to be used. A fixed desk arrangement means you ‘own’ the desk and can leave stuff there overnight (i.e. monitors, keyboard etc).
- flexible (hot) desks, on the other hand, are first-come-first-served on a daily basis. These are the cheapest option. With this arrangement, most coworking spaces also offer part-time membership, like 10 days a month, for example, for an even lower cost.
Meeting rooms are shared and booked centrally.
Coworking is typically characterised by a strong sense of community.
Whilst you are not working directly with your fellow coworkers, you get to learn snippets of their business and these become really valuable as it facilitates collaboration.
It’s also typical to have a community-run events schedule whereby members talk about something that interests them, or a project they are working on.
Traditional barriers to AEC Coworking
Information security – this is of course a valid barrier, but not one that is insurmountable. Risks must be assessed as you would for any other office space, and mitigations put in place in line with your companies attitude to risk acceptance. When I was in BloxHUB (an awesome Built Environment focussed coworking space in Copenhagen) they were busy building four walls around a corner of the office for a startup that wanted to be completely enclosed for data privacy reasons.
Cost – this shouldn’t be considered a barrier. Normally the cost per desk in a Coworking space is considerably lower that a private office space. For example, in London, it can cost an employer between £650-1000 per employee per month (pepm) in a private office space, compared to £200-400 pepm in a coworking space.
Coworking is just for startups? This is a misconception and will rapidly change over the coming years. Innovative teams from large companies are slowly realising that there is a huge opportunity available to them, for the reasons mentioned in the section below.
Dis-association from you main office – I believe the days of the monolithic ‘HQ’ for AEC companies is coming to an end. Some companies believe that moving a team to a coworking space will lead to a dis-association from the main office. Leading to resentment from colleagues in the traditional office space. I think this is old-fashioned thinking. Working habits are changing and there are significant benefits to working in this way, so a move towards Coworking is not a dis-association, more a broadening of the horizon and opportunity landscape, for the team and the wider company.
Coworking benefits for AEC teams
Collaboration – if Anthony Slumbers’ predictions are right, venues of future work will need to be optimised for collaboration, communication, decision making. And coworking spaces are built for all of these things.
Flexibility – sometimes AEC projects can be uncertain. Working from a coworking space gives your team agility. Typically, you pay on a rolling monthly basis, so you are not tied into an annual or 5-yearly lease, as you would a traditional office space.
Diversity of community – what I enjoy most about working from coworking spaces is the diversity of people they attract. For the first 5 years of my career, I worked either on site or in a traditional engineering/ construction office. Now I converse daily with graphic designers, programmers, project managers, marketers, sales experts from completely different fields. Finance, e-commerce, fashion, marketing – you name it, I’m sure you will meet them at your Coworking space. This brings huge benefits to me. I get to learn about how they work and how that differs to my AEC background.
Some coworking spaces are specifically geared towards companies working on built environment projects, like Build Studios in London, or BloxHUB in Copenhagen, or Maria01 in Helsinki (not specifically for AEC startups, but there’s a lot of them there!) .
This brings even more benefits, like:
Winning work and collaborating on opportunities: it’s very common for teams that meet in Coworking spaces to work together on projects. It makes sense. If you can start a new contract with a company you know and trust that works in the same building as you, why wouldn’t you?
Exposure to innovative built environment startups: or vice versa… for startups if gives them to opportunity to learn from (and sell to) traditional AEC firms.
Talent pools – similarly to the effect of Science Parks, Coworking spaces allow companies to scout and recruit high quality talent at low cost to the employer. But be careful how you go about this, you don’t want to gain a reputation in your space as a poacher!
So as AEC companies plan how their staff will work in the future, I hope this guide is useful.
I believe over the coming years, more and more AEC companies will look towards Coworking spaces for their flexibility, collaboration possibilities and community culture.
They could also save a few bucks, recruit a unicorn and even win their next job too.
If you are working in the built environment sector and from a coworking space, drop a comment below, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences!