London is arguably the most mature workspace market in the world. But coworking is certainly not limited to the city. Around the UK, the workspace sector is absolutely exploding.
“There’s a tendency—not just in real estate but across many sectors—to be obsessed with London,” says Jonathan Weinbrenn, Managing Director at BE.Spoke and compere of the GCUC Manchester coworking conference on 1 April. “I love London but we need to acknowledge there’s life outside of our capital. There are really exciting towns and cities with superb educational institutions, exciting cultural attractions and thriving businesses, right across the country.”
At the upcoming GCUC Manchester, which is the first GCUC UK regional coworking event of its kind, Weinbrenn will moderate a day of talks, panels and connection. His hope is that the conversation moves beyond the WeWork debacle to focus on the positive movement in the sector.
He says his thoughts are with the WeWork staff who are being laid off—people who were “probably very committed, and had the best intentions at heart,” but adds there’s already been much discussion and debate and pondering around that story and it’s time to move away from that and look at the positive things that are happening.
“I hope the positive movement is going to be a theme and undercurrent of the conversations and the debate that occur in Manchester,” he says. “There’s so much more over and above the WeWork story, and that needs to be shouted from the rooftops.”
There’s quite a bit that regional coworking spaces can learn from each other. These smaller market operators also have insights and strategies that London-based spaces can learn from and integrate into their spaces.
“There’s so many good operators—mom and pop-type operators, midsize operators—who run regional businesses or even national businesses,” Weinbrenn says. “They don’t have the profile of WeWork, but they’ve been running successful operations, in some cases, for decades.”
He points out that these local operators may have an advantage when it comes to building community in their spaces.
“Coworking isn’t just a numbers game,” he says. “It’s about a sense of purpose and relationships. How many people are actually interconnected in a building of 2,000 or 3,000 people?”
While there are layers of technology that run through workspaces, the strength of the sector, for Weinbrenn, is about the personal interactions and serendipitous connections that happen—the opportunities to meet with people you otherwise may never have come across. The brands that will thrive balance community, sustainable business practices, and the evolving needs of their members.
For regional operators, Weinbrenn sees an interesting opportunity to collaborate and share access to amenities to bring more value to customers. He recently visited a workspace that had a professional-quality podcast room. He points out that, while not every space can afford to invest in such a space—nor is there necessarily a need for them to do so—that it’s wise to partner with other spaces to provide more value for customers. For example, another space may have in-house yoga classes or other offerings members want or need.
“Maybe there should be some reciprocal networking amongst operators where they can share facilities,” he says. “If they combine their efforts and share their resources amongst their client base it could be quite interesting.”
A tension between competition and collaboration exists for space operators but, for members, the more access a space can provide to amenities and services, the more value they see in membership.
As the space as a service sector continues its impressive growth, regional coworking plays an increasingly important role in its expansion and evolution. Therefore, conversations about the sector should not be limited to urban centers.
“If we all agree in principle that space as a service is a much more engaged and customer-centric model than traditional real estate, then why should it be restricted to the capital cities only,” asks Weinbrenn. “If we truly believe in this solution as an alternative to a very traditional, antiquated, outdated model, why should it be geographically restricted? We should democratize this and make it available to everyone.”
Weinbrenn explains that, as the UK increasingly transfers power from London to the regions, there are massive investments in infrastructure in regional areas and significant organizations, including the BBC and Channel 4, are moving some of their key functions out of London.
“There’s a strong argument for businesses to look at cities and towns across the UK where you can drive a huge amount of value through real estate to people,” he says. “These are amazing cities and towns that have great educational facilities, great cultural amenities, and they’re exciting places to work where—perhaps you could argue—there’s a better standard of living to terms of work life balance.” He adds, “When you put all these factors together there’s a really compelling case to say, ‘You know, there’s a big wide world outside London.’”
In advance of GCUC Manchester, Weinbrenn is looking forward to the unique connections and conversations that take place among space operators of all types at GCUC events.
“Our agile, space as a service community is really good at sharing,” he says. “I’ve never been in a sector that is so willing to open up and share ideas and share challenges. Operators from anywhere in the country can partake in GCUC for some stimulating debate around what’s going on in the market, and to share ideas about innovation and the way forward.”
Weinbrenn adds that, while the workspace market is exciting and “growing massively,” there will be challenging times ahead. One of the GCUC Manchester sessions he’s most excited about is a panel of workspace customers.
“There’s a tendency at flexible space events just to preach from the pulpit,” he says. “I want to hear from our customers. They’re our lifeblood. We need to have criticism and critique—positive feedback, but also negative feedback about what we’re not getting right and where we could improve.” He adds, “I’m really looking forward to seeing people there but also equally to learning a huge amount.”