Let’s Get Real Episode 37: The End of the Employee Experience: Are We Moving Towards a New Future of Work?
Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast
Key Takeaways & Discussion Points
- How do you enable a great working experience, at a coworking space, for example, if you’re no longer commuting into a popular downtown area?
- What is the “screw it” mentality, and how has it affected the future of work?
- Have we missed the deadline for creating a meaningful in-office experience?
- Why don’t companies trust their employees to do their work, no matter where they are?
- We’re moving towards a future in which everyone has 3+ streams of income and companies no longer form employer/employee relationships — the “lifetime career” is no longer
- As survivalists in a rapidly changing world, can we trust employers to uphold their end of the bargain in terms of providing financial security?
- How do we define career success or success in life in a world of intangible outcomes?
- How can companies enable people to feel like they’re a part of the company’s success?
- What are the benefits of a coworking space over a traditional office?
- The purpose of the office today is for (global) collaborative work, and socialization — so the office needs to become a venue for this
- Sandra Panara – Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix
- Kevin Anderson – VP, Enterprise Workplace Solutions at Upflex
- CommonGrounds – Malaysia’s largest co-working community and co-working space
- John Doerr, “Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs” (2018)
Hey everyone, welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work. I’m Sandra Panara, Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.
Have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future podcasts? Please drop me a line at [email protected].
I’m excited to introduce to you today our special guest, Kevin Anderson. Kevin is a proud Philadelphian, born and raised in the area. He’s had quite the journey so far, including being a three-time NCAA Golf Championship qualifier while attending Rutgers University Camden Campus in Division 3. In his professional life, Kevin has been a three-time founding US sales hire at PropTech and co-working start-ups such as CAD Management, OfficeSpace, and CommonGrounds. He’s even closed deals with big name clients like Sirius XM, Unity Technologies, Slack, Sonos, and Netflix. Kevin’s expertise doesn’t stop there. He’s also a former leadership team member at JLL’s Flex by JLL and currently serves as the VP of Workplace Solutions at Upflex.
Outside of work, Kevin is a huge fan of the Grateful Dead! So grab a cup of coffee or your favourite beverage, sit back, and enjoy this conversation with Kevin Anderson.
Hi, Kevin, really happy to have you on today! We did have a chat several weeks back and I really enjoyed that conversation. So, tell us a little bit about yourself!
Hi, Sandra! Thank you so much for having me, and likewise, I enjoyed the conversation. As a fan of the podcast, I’m really thrilled to have been invited on. I’m calling you from my apartment in Philadelphia, PA, I’ve lived here for the past 7 or 8 years. I’m native to just across the bridge, a town called Delran, NJ. I’ve been working pretty much my entire career in PropTech and coworking. I got started at a company called Qube Global Software, which is now MRI Software. We work with a company called Common Grounds workplace, sort of the WeWork competitor in the 2018, 2019 start-up coworking environment. I worked in some PropTech companies that you might have heard of, OfficeSpace software, now Upflex, and I’m a former JLL employee as well, on the flex space team there. So, I like to joke around and say I’ve got the most experience in commercial real estate for somebody with absolutely no experience in commercial real estate.
I’ve always been enamored by how people spend their time and what makes people tick. I’ve always had a lot of fun thinking about how the world could be different without having a 90-minute commute and I’m constantly thinking about this stuff. So, I’m really excited to be on the show and to chat with you about the future of work and how we’re all going to spend our days!
That’s the thing that really intrigued me when we spoke last time, it was a very colorful conversation, which was great. I hope to copy that or have something similar today. First off, why coworking? What is it that attracted you into that space?
As with everything in my life, I would say, the people. I was attracted to it because of who was leading it, the investors behind Emaar Properties, specific enterprises, really great, established and thoughtful real estate companies and the leadership team. Most specifically, the CEO at the time, Jacob Bates.
Jacob was a client of mine, turned friend, turned mentor, turned best buddy and lifelong friend. I met Jacob, as I mentioned, he was a client of mine, but I ran into Jacob at CoreNet when he had just started Common Grounds. And we were talking about the changing dynamics of work and what at the time was a very forward-thinking conversation about activity-based working and activity-based offices. Jacob was the Head of Real Estate at Unity Technologies prior to joining Common Grounds. Can we talk about some of his office projects where they were the first company to diligently use movable wall technology, and they incorporated that into their workplace strategy and how they change teams and have scrums of engineers?
So, when we got to talking, Jacob said a lot of things that just made sense to me. As I mentioned, I started in PropTech, not commercial real estate. I’ve never signed a 100-page lease, there are a lot of things that know that I don’t know, but a lot of things that Jacob was saying at the time made sense to me. I think at the time, Slack was getting ready to IPO, and we would talk all the time about how 8 or 7 years before the IPO, Slack was a video game company. Isn’t it wild that they’ve now got to sign a 10-year lease? They’ve got to make this crazy decision that might outlive their business?
So it was mainly just the flexibility and I’m a curious guy by nature, I like it when things make sense. It just made sense to me, as someone who was thinking about real estate, but also as a person. The office should be dynamic, the office should change, and it should give me the feeling of Norm walking into Cheers, instead of a feeling of absolute dread.
I’d be lying if I said I sat down and thought, I want to be involved in coworking. It was just being involved with the right person at the right time, and then following what made sense. And since then I’ve continued to meet more people and the more people I meet, I see such a diversity of thought and opinions.
But I think at the end of the day, we all just want to live a good life. We want our work to be something that makes us feel that we’re living a meaningful life, and more importantly, fuels the rest of our life. I want to do other stuff! I want to fix the future of work, but I also want to go to a ball game. I want to take my girlfriend to Paris. You know, I’m a human being. As we start to be more involved with each other through social media and different working styles, I think we realize that we can take the mask off a little bit. We are actually people who just have a lot of the same shared experiences. A long answer to a great question.
It’s interesting that you talk about the human experience and the things that we all seek. I feel like the pandemic has made us all reflect on that a little bit. It sort of takes you out of your day-to-day humdrum go to work come home eat sleep rinse and repeat. I think probably the fallout of that is what we’re experiencing right now, where people are thinking about themselves and what’s important to them and re-establishing their priorities and figuring out where work fits into that. Whereas before, work was the number 1 priority.
Now is that to say work isn’t a priority right now? No, because obviously you still need to work in order to pay the bills, or at least the majority of us do. But how do you make the best of both worlds? Because it’s not an either/or, they definitely need to complement each other.
I’ve heard, from talking to various people about the whole in-office experience that the need or desire for people to go back into the office is based more on the experience. Yet the employee experience or user experience hasn’t really been fully defined.
I met the lady from Blackstone at IFMA when we were doing a roundtable, and she said something really interesting. They had done a study at their company — they basically decided on a location, but then realized that people weren’t really using the location. They were dumbfounded as to why that was occurring. And in comparison, they looked at another office location. It was because of what was around it, it wasn’t because of the office or who was there, but rather the supporting activities that could be done after work or after you had that meeting that really drew people in. It’s about location. And what’s interesting to me about coworking is that the offices tend to be in CBDs. The traditional experience has always been, you go downtown to have any half-decent experience. But now we know that people don’t want to do the commute. So how do you enable a great experience when you’re no longer commuting into a downtown popular area?
That’s a great question. How do you cultivate an experience without forcing people to go to a downtown commute? Not to backtrack, but one of the first things you said was about how we came to this realization collectively through COVID about what we want to do. And it’s not just eat, sleep, work repeat.
Also, I would say a lot of companies didn’t really help us feel differently. There’s a combination of that plus this sort of human awakening, and then people getting laid off and not being treated well during the pandemic. It’s been an insane whirlwind job market since the pandemic, which we’re only 3 years removed from the beginning of.
So, I’m just trying to say, we didn’t really help ourselves with a lot of those things happening at once. We’re all realizing, oh my God, I’m a human being, I’m going to die someday. What I want to do while I’m here has skyrocketed, like country club memberships. And they’ve held through this recessionary period because of the “screw it” mentality. I think a lot of economists are calling it that. Screw it, I’ll max out my credit card, I’ll carry a country club bill, because I’ve been waiting 10 years to join, I’m not going to wait another 5. Because what’s going to happen in the next 5 years?
I think we’ve all become a little more aware of the moment, and I think that’s what companies need to take advantage of to be able to cultivate this experience. They need to be able to create moments. We’re both in the real estate industry, centered around conferences and handshaking, and you’ve got all these different people through all walks of life, but we share a common interest, a common goal. We end up just talking shop — you and I could be talking about anything right now, but we want to talk shop because we enjoy it.
I think the first step for companies is to introduce an element of letting go and an element of trust in our employees. We don’t need to know that you’re in the office sitting next to your boss and know that you’re sending emails. It’s actually more like, we want to let you come into the office and shoot the breeze and talk. It would attract me into the office if I could put an in-office message and say hey, I’m in the office, hanging out with my work homies who I see once a month, maybe I’m going to be in the moment with them and spend my time with them rather than sitting in a zoom meeting in an office. It’s 90 minutes from my house instead of at my house, where I can pop in and see my dog when I want to.
So, I think trust and letting go and allowing people to mingle in ways they want to.
And getting back to something else you said, it’s about cultivating the experience through the users in a way that’s thoughtful. My girlfriend works for a medical device research company, and she’s a psychology PhD. With that, I’m learning a lot about survey design and how thoughtful these medical device companies are about how they make their products and how much money they spend on where the labelling is. Spotify’s got like 100 PhDs who sit around for 3, 4 straight days and think about where the play button is going to go on your phone so it’s easy for you to hit play when you’re jogging. But workplace experience is usually left to 2 or 3 people with good taste who are severely undermanned and severely underbudgeted, to cultivate where we spend 80% of our lives.
That’s a really, really good point. For the last little while I’ve been contemplating the whole concept of cultivating a worker experience, and I’ve said this in the past, but is it too late? I am of the belief that people have realized they need to be in the moment. So it’s up to me to determine what kind of experience I want to have. So can a company actually cultivate an experience? For me, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think so. Maybe for others, yes, because it’s such a personal thing. It’s the same idea of trying to control what the experience is going to be, when really, as people, we dictate that virtually every day. I’m either going to have a good day or a bad day, or it might start out good and go sideways because of other people. But ultimately, it’s the mindset. It’s the way you think about the type of experience you want to have and where and what’s good enough for you.
I’ve heard many times the idea that people can’t just think about themselves, they have to think about the larger team, the benefit of the team. Which I agree with, but I also think we should also have an autonomous state where the team can decide. It’s not all or nothing, it’s the flexibility even within the team of who can be present and can’t be present and not necessarily because it’s going to detract from the experience.
I can speak from experience both at my current job and also where I worked previously where we were 100% remote, because the company was national. We had quarterly meetings and the preference was that the local team members went into the corporate head office for those meetings. But that’s not to say that, on that particular day, for whatever reason, if you couldn’t make it in that was frowned upon. You just dialed in remotely. Most people made the effort. Whatever worked for them. And that’s what made it. I think that’s what made it work, is that you felt like making the effort, but you’re not being pushed to be physically in the office one, two, three days a week. That’s the expectation that I think made it a lot more palatable. And it’s not because it detracted from the employee experience by any means because you went into the meeting rooms and guess what, you were on screen, you were communicating with people in a different province or state. So, what’s the difference between doing this from home or doing it in a meeting room with people who are in the same city, other than you get to share a lunch and maybe have a couple of laughs with those people? But if that’s something I value, and those are people I want to interact with, again, that’s a personal choice, isn’t it?
I’m a sales guy, I’ve been a sales guy my whole life. I used to sell candy bars at my mom’s dance recitals when I was ten years old. That’s who I am as a human being. And part of the sales life since the dawn of time has been that if you hit your numbers, you can kind of get away with what you want, within reason. You can take clients out golfing, you can decide not to come into the office that day. When you’re a salesperson who hits their numbers, you’re given that trust, when really it’s probably actually just a fundamental right of a human being. You’re entering into a contract with us as an employee/employer relationship. Our business depends on you, your livelihood depends on us, maybe we should trust each other.
It’s easier to say when there are black and white targets in a function like sales, but can’t we do that across all of our business lines and create targets that your groups are held accountable to and have been included in and agreed to be held accountable to, rather than just being told what to do. Part of being a salesperson is knowing that you need to say things a little bit differently to get what you actually want. I think that companies need to start to learn that lesson — so much of life is about how the message is received. Let’s think about how these emails about having to go back to the office are being received by people, rather than how they look on LinkedIn or Forbes.
So, I think it’s about understanding your audience and speaking to your audience like they need to be spoken to, not how you speak. If I’m communicating right now to people in Podcast Land and they don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s my fault. Because I want them to know what I’m saying. I think you have to understand that to get people to buy in to your workplace strategy, especially if it’s going to be one around physical infrastructure.
I think that’s it. I made a post a couple of weeks ago on LinkedIn talking about how companies are buying our time, as employees, so there’s an expectation that I need to show up. But then, I’ve worked as a consultant where a company has contracted to buy my time and they’ve paid more for my time, but I worked way fewer hours than I do when I’m working at a severely discounted rate as an employee and I don’t have the luxury of freedom, even though I’m technically delivering the same thing.
So, it’s interesting to me to think about how that’s different. If you’re still buying my time, you’re still paying for a deliverable, one way or another. And yet companies feel like they need to have more control over where and how you do your work when you’re an employee vs when you’re a consultant, or you’re hired on as a contractor and you’re the one who dictates how work is going to happen.
That’s a great point. That’s a tough thing to respond to, because you’re 100% right. Another thing that’s interesting about it is from a work perspective, there’s something that’s been there in the background that nobody’s really talking about, and it’s the question of what is it that we’re heading towards? People are referring to it as the gig economy, but companies have fewer legal ramifications or obligations because you hire people on as contractors, which releases them from a lot of stuff because they’re working as independents.
But then how does that play out, when you think about it from a future of work perspective. Is employment from a status perspective going to remain the same, or will it change because that’s the only way companies can free themselves of legal liability? And I don’t know, from a legal standpoint, whether that’s even true.
We’d need to ask the lawyers!
But it’s interesting to think about, if you’re hiring someone on as a contractor, and I know for example in Canada, to be considered a contractor, you have to have multiple jobs, it’s not like you’re working for one exclusive employer — then you’re considered a proper contractor. That, I think, eliminates the legal liability in terms of where work happens.
Like I said, I’m not 100% certain, but it’s interesting — if that’s where things go, what does that mean from a pay perspective? What does it mean from a location perspective, for where, when, why, and how work happens, where you have complete autonomy and control over that as a person versus a company just buying your knowledge or your services rather than buying your time as a person who reports to work from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.
I think that will have to happen. It’s interesting having this conversation across borders, because right now, and the American economy is a little bit different from the Canadian one, but I think the economy on which our world is built will necessitate that change.
We’re seeing right now, how long are companies going to over-hire and then lay off a significant percentage of that over-hire? It feels like anecdotal information, but a lot of my friends who have been unemployed for a while are now becoming gainfully employed very quickly.
So, it seems to me like people are starting to realize that we overreacted to the overreaction when we cut too many people, now we need to hire more. I think that macroeconomically, when we have a federal government that messes around with interest rates, that impacts companies’ balance sheets in a way that has nothing to do with employees and now the employee account needs to be drastically reduced. That’s the easy button for satisfying the boards and satisfying the markets.
And you nailed it, a big reason why people don’t want to come into cities to work anymore is that they can’t afford it. They can’t afford to live close to the city. Like, how nice would it be, Sandra, to be one of those dudes on Mad Men? They’re making $136 a week in 1965, and they’ve got a 3,000 sq ft house and an apartment in Manhattan. I would love to go into the office every day if it meant I could stay over in my apartment in Manhattan, rather than, I guess sleeping at the office if I have to work late!
I think that, in order for people to afford the way they want to live, they’re going to need to adopt secondary, third, fourth, fifth streams of income. And then employers will realize that and say, OK, everyone’s got 5 jobs, 5 careers at a time, so we’re going to start to pay these folks like contractors. Then that also brings in questions of how that would work with regards to healthcare, why is healthcare tied to employment in the United States? There are a lot of things that can be fundamentally changed with the stroke of a pen. That would enable people to embrace the fact that they can have 5, 6, 7 opportunities at a time and control their time.
Yes, that’s actually quite interesting that you said that, because I think that was an “a ha” moment for a lot of people. People got laid off, and some got rehired, but a lot of people decided to go out on their own. They said you know what, I can’t rely on an employer for my future. They’ve been upskilling during the pandemic, or that time working from home enables them to do a sort of side project while they’re gainfully employed, that enables them to do it on their own. So, they make the choice to basically be their own boss and do multiple things based on what they’re passionate about, the things they cafe about, so they’re not relying on a single source of income. Then when interest rates go through the roof and their job is on the line, they’re not at the mercy of someone else, dictating the kind of lifestyle you can live.
And that just goes back to what we mentioned earlier, about how employment is going to have to change. It’s going to have to, because the trade-off used to be, I’m going to take that job that I maybe don’t love, I’m not passionate about it, I might spend a bit too much time away from my family so that they can be secure, and the mortgage can be paid. So there can be a car in every driveway and a chicken in every pot. But that trade-off doesn’t exist anymore. Sorry, I shouldn’t say the trade-off doesn’t exist, it could still exist, but a lot of companies are not holding up their end of the bargain.
Then you have people who have been laid off, they’ve gotten hurt, they’ve gone through hell the last 3 years of the pandemic. And they’re thinking, what am I going to do with myself? I don’t blame them for not thinking, I’m going to go get a new job. Because what is that anymore? People are survivalists. We’re going to adapt.
My parents’ generation, and the generation before them, they had a career, and they maybe had one or two jobs. My brother who’s 6 or 7 years older than me, his generation is going to have maybe one or two careers, completely different career changes and 4 or 5 different jobs inside those careers. I’m 30 years old, my generation is going to have 10 careers over our lives. And I think with Gen Z and Alpha behind them, they’re going to have 5, 6 careers at once. What do you do? I’m a real estate property consultant, a stand-up comedian, and a drop-shipper for Amazon, and I caddy on the weekends. That’s what I do. Because that’s how I want to spend my time, not because I need a secure position.
This goes back to the connectivity between all of us — you don’t get your news by reading the same paper as everybody, you get your news from a lot of different sources and it’s very easy to realize there’s a lot more going on out there in the world than we thought. It makes me maybe a bit less secure, but it opens up a hell of a lot of opportunity. I think one of the really great positive sides of the pandemic is all of these companies that now exist to enable employment across the globe, and how many more people now have opportunities to do things in 2019 that were just impossible, and not accepted by silly requirements like being in the office. There are a lot of talented people getting great opportunities they never would have before because of the chance that was forced upon us. Imagine if we fully embraced the change!
I think that’s absolutely true, even just from personal experience, the whole world of work has literally opened up. Before, your opportunities were limited to the city you lived in, and maybe even more restricted based on how far you were willing to commute. I live 2 hours from downtown Toronto, so it’s got to be a really, really good opportunity for me to even consider the commute. My preference is to work from home, and I’ve been lucky to always have had that opportunity. But now there are opportunities that you never would have had exposure to before, whether they’re full-time employment or contractual work.
It’s interesting, the narrative around the globalization of work, which has been around for a number of years, is the negativity of it, you know, third world countries are going to take your jobs. Well, that might be true, but it’s a balance. Companies are going to go after opportunities because it’s more cost-effective to hire in some other country vs their own. But by the same token, you have a skill set that you can take to the market.
Like I said, I’m a Gen X-er, I’ve worked for 4 large companies. I’m working at a start-up right now, but I’ve worked for large organizations in my career, and they would sometimes do things I wasn’t particularly crazy about, but the money was good, and the opportunity was great. I learned to say OK, there are things I want to do in my life which are centered around owning a home and all of the things that my generation wanted to do. I have a millennial daughter who, because of Mom, was able to get into a home.
But there are friends in her circle for whom buying a house is out of reach. She often argues with me and says her generation doesn’t care about owning, why does it matter if she owns or rents. And I said, technically, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as you’re happy. It really doesn’t.
But it kind of made me think about how priorities are different. They would rather live and experience and do different things. And even when you think about just work — she lost her job. She was working for a tech company and lost her job just before Christmas. And she was like, I’m doing it on my own this time. So, she’s doing multiple things and she loves it. She said she gets out of bed every morning looking forward to her workday, because she’s doing all the things she enjoys doing and has complete control over who she works with, where she works, when, the tools she uses, and all those things. They’re not dictated to her, what to do to be successful.
So, when you were describing this new way of thinking about work-life from a Millennial point of view, what about how success is defined? Because I’ve heard that many times over, that the generation is either lazy or not motivated or they have no initiative, and that’s not how you become successful. Well, how do you define success? What is it?
That’s a great question. A lot of what we’ve talked about is very intangible. I think success is a lot easier to define in the trades or in those types of careers that were a bit more popular or in demand 50, 60 years ago. My dad’s a contractor, and when we drive around town he says, I built that house. I framed that house. I build that deck. You should see the kitchen I did in that place. There’s a sense of pride in his accomplishments. Look what I did. You get to marvel at what you did.
I think a lot of the work being done by the tech boom does not give you this same sense of satisfaction. That’s why you see a lot of people who have made money not working very hard, working diligently, doing what their told, spending their time which is their most valuable asset, but not breaking their backs. But they’re unhappy because they’ve don’t have that sense of tangibility, and I think what your daughter is feeling is that feeling of tangibility.
I think as generations change and grow, we learn that everything is a pendulum. And the pendulum right now is swinging back towards real moments. And you can’t blame us, we’ve spent 2 years inside our houses not being able to do anything we wanted to do. I think companies that start to enable real moments will help people feel successful. And then if people feel successful, they feel productive, if they feel like they’re part of a team, then those success measures can be agreed upon and established and probably more easily and achieved, because you know what you’re looking for.
I have a great book by one of my mentors, John Doerr, “Measure What Matters”. If you can let people get in on the process of creating values and creating the goals — we can all have different priorities, but if we have the same values, it’s easier to define success. Success, for me, is when I don’t have to wake up with a sick stomach about what I have to do today. Success for me is my coworkers asking me, How’s Nicole doing? Success for me is playing golf every Saturday and Sunday with my buddies at the club.
I think people just get caught up in dollar amounts and statuses, and a lot of that was stripped away during the pandemic. Having a lot of money was cool during the pandemic, but you’re still stuck inside your house. Success is starting to be less defined by titles, especially because titles are super duper inflated everywhere you go these days. I think that will stop being a thing soon. And money and status symbols, less “I own this, this is mine” and more about “I’ve done this, look what I’ve done”.
I felt successful when I didn’t work for 3 weeks and went on tour with Dead & Company. That felt successful to me. And that’s something nobody can ever take away from me. I think companies need realize that enabling people to just feel like that is just as valuable as being able to measure the new productivity statistic of the year. Let people get in on the ownership. I think about this a lot.
I think about the people who are in really serious knowledge working management positions in corporate North America right now. These are the kids who spent billions of their parents’ dollars on the Sims — they want to express themselves. I’m one of them, I’ve got stickers all over my laptop, stickers all over my high school notebooks. People want to be expressive. People want to identify with something — I’m a Deadhead, I’m a Disney Adult, I’m a sports fanatic.
And they would love to identify with their company, but right now, companies are just so clueless to that fact. And they’re so concerned over their bottom line that there’s a lack of trust and a lack of big-picture thinking. There aren’t a lot of people looking themselves in the mirror thinking, maybe this isn’t working.
I think part of it is also the expectation that in order to be successful with a company, you have to fit their mold. Their way of doing things. And when you don’t, it’s frowned upon. So, that may have worked way back when, but things change, things evolve. I know we’re all tired of blaming stuff on the pandemic, but it’s been 3 years, and things have changed. Peoples’ mindsets as they think about life and their priorities and how they want to live, and does work fit into that, it’s different from the older generations, me included. I’ll be the first to admit. Not that I’ve strived to climb the corporate ladder, I mean everyone did that way back when. But I had my hardships, as a single mom for many years, you just ate it and did it because you had bills to pay. There were things you had to do.
And that might be different going forward, because if this situation had happened back then, I don’t know what I would have done, it would have been just crushing for me. But with these experiences, you go into survival mode, you get creative, it’s fight or flight. You think, how do I ensure that I’m not in this situation over and over? How can I rely on myself? That’s probably the best definition of success for me, when you can figure out how to stay afloat and not depend on someone else. That’s going to dictate whether you can maintain a lifestyle, and you can’t beat that.
That’s a tough spot to be in, when all your eggs are in someone else’s basket. We all know that feeling, and it’s tough. That’s very well said, I couldn’t agree with that more.
So, from your perspective, what do you see as being a fundamental difference between people working in coworking spaces versus the traditional office?
First of all, coworking spaces certainly spend a lot more money on their offices. By and large they’ve spent a couple hundred bucks a foot. So, the sites themselves are fundamentally different. I don’t mean to speak with a broad brush, but typically with an office, you get what’s available at the time in the city where your CEO lives. You need to sign a lease, what’s the nicest building at the time? A lot of locations are just stumbled upon, and a lot of the infrastructure of the building is antiquated. And who’s going to spend a lot of money right now redesigning their corporate office? There are a few select niche companies with the money to do so, but realistically, in the economic environment we’re in right now where you’re trying to trim the fat, who’s going to take on this six-figure design project to make the space more attractive? It’s probably not happening.
Whereas with coworking spaces, again, speaking with a very broad brush here, there are a lot of exceptions, but: most of them are less than 7 years old. They’ve spent between $120 and $220 per square foot. They’ve had a team of four or five really smart people research that location, figure out the walkability score, how to make it the most successful for everybody, it’s got newer technology systems, it’s accessible, it’s got hospitality. There’s somebody there at the front door saying, Hey, Kevin, what’s up, that Eagles game was sickening last night, wasn’t it? Versus going into the elevator, waiting in line, then going to your cubicle.
It’s a great question with a stupid answer: they’re nicer. They’re not half-wall cubicles, their furniture is new and shiny and comfortable and have different types of seating. If I look around my apartment here, I probably have seven different types of chairs, and I use them all. Nicer touches lead to a frictionless experience, and there’s still a lot of friction going into the office, no matter where you’re going or how great it is, there are uncontrollable things that are going to happen to you on your way there, but you can control the controllables in a coworking space, and they’ve got people on site that are going to help you. They’ve got newer systems and they want to hear your feedback. They’re constantly spending money because their business is the office, and not just a by-product of what they think the office should have been when they started the company.
So that’s my bold and underlying point, these offices are their business. And for the first time, these coworking operations are the ones that rely on hospitality and the daily incremental revenue that comes with that hospitality. They’re in it. Whereas a lot of major landlords, they’ve had it on easy street for 100 years. It’s lather, rinse, repeat with a lot of the agreements that have been done, because your customer is not the end user, the employee, rather it’s the capital markets.
Whereas for a coworking operator, the customer is the customer. When I go into the office, I want to be treated like a human being, not just a vehicle for a nice financial situation. So that’s what I’m seeing as the bottom line.
That’s really insightful. So, thinking about the office and what you were saying about the office experience, I hear this a lot about hospitality and how hospitality is what’s going to drive demand whether in a typical commercial building or with coworking — I struggle with that. A lot of the times you get companies that will compare to the hotel experience. But the hotel experience serves a very specific purpose. Yes, there’s diversification in the hotel industry because you’ve got the coffee drinkers, the lunches, the events, that kind of stuff.
But at the end of the day, the majority of the business that goes into that space is vacationers, business travel, and they need a place to sleep. Now AirBnb came in and tried to disrupt that, and they probably did, I don’t know what their market share is now, but hotels do continue to exist.
I don’t see how that same philosophy of hospitality would help businesses, because an office is an office. There’s no diversification in an office, yet anyways.
So that’s key: “yet”. If the office is going to exist as it does today, it’s not going to exist anymore. I think it’s fair to say that most of the time, the office sucks. You’re a little too close to the toilet, too close to the guy whose breath smells bad. The conference room video tech doesn’t work. You’re at a zoom meeting in the office. That’s just a fact of life.
If we rewind 100 years — and don’t quote me on this — the first office in recorded history, I think, was in London or somewhere in England in the 1700s, and there’s this whole dossier on why it was built, about how we’ve got men who need to make things happen. And there are two types of things that need to happen: work that requires privacy and work that requires collaboration. And that was a few hundred years ago.
So, now, my opinion is that there are two types of work still: your job, which is a combination of in-person and collaborative work that can be facilitated anywhere on the globe at any time because we’ve got laptops and iPhones.
And the other type is socialization. People need to know who you are. Whether we like it or not, part of your job is making sure your boss knows you’re working hard. Making sure everyone in the company knows that you’re not a pain in the ass. There’s a lot more politicking in the everyday life of the office worker than there was when the office was built.
So, if the office is going to survive, it needs to be a place where people want to go and convene, like an Athletic Club or a Country Club. Somewhere you want to go because you want to be in the mix. I don’t want to be forgotten. People are starting to say, the Gen Zers, the TikTok kids, they want a bit more leadership — duh, why would I have a boss if they can’t teach me anything? So, make the office a place where your boss can teach you something that has nothing to do with the company. Make the office a place where I can go and do things that I can’t do normally because they’re too expensive these days. Like a VIP concert experience. And I know I sound crazy. I think about the Metaverse a lot, there’s some cool stuff being done there, but also when I see meetings held in the Metaverse that look like a WeWork, and people are wearing Metaverse Banana Republic clothes, I shiver. We could be having this meeting anywhere. We could be having it at Cheers, or Gringotts Bank. And we’re having it at a WeWork?
And then I start thinking, well, they’re in the office. Landlords are giving away $300, $200 a foot. That’s all the money in the world. You could do anything with that money, just make it what your people want. Let them pretend it’s the Sims, and build your own office. And then it’s back to your question, which is very valid, but it’s almost unanswerable. If you don’t want to do that, then why have an office? Because you want to watch me do stuff? Nobody’s with that anymore. The toothpaste is not going back in the tube. You want to go to a concert right now? Tickets are $1000 for the mezzanine. And people are going. But you couldn’t pay anyone to go to the office, the way it exists right now.
Kevin, thank you very much for your time, this has been a fun conversation! I’m sure there’ll be many more.
Absolutely, this was a lot of fun for me! Thanks for putting up with my schtick.