SINGAPORE (Mar 5): When Dr Shravan Verma started his company, an on-demand medical house call service called Speedoc, he chose to do so from a co-working space. “It allowed us to get the outreach we needed in the initial stages,” Verma tells The Edge Singapore. “We had a special partnership with the co-working space, where the members got a special code. They really helped to market and advertise in those early stages when [we were] not really known. That is why co-working spaces work better than if you were isolated away from everyone.”

Co-working spaces are popping up across Singapore’s business district, with players ranging from global operators such as WeWork to local players such as JustCo. Priced from $450 to over $1,000 a month, they boast amenities and perks such as showers and free weekly drinks. But operators of these environments say the real selling point is membership in a community.

“We do not see ourselves as a co-working space but rather a global community. Our collaborative, inspiring and like-minded community attracts small companies looking to grow as well as large enterprises looking to innovate, and WeWork is a solution that bends and flexes to a company’s needs, regardless of size or infrastructure,” says Turochas Fuad, managing director of WeWork Southeast Asia.

“By setting ourselves apart from being just a conventional co-working space or serviced office, WeWork is the response towards this shift in how people live and work — one that’s focused on meaning — by providing an environment for our creators to thrive in. With our buildings having the right mix of design and function, we create physical and digital places where ideas can be exchanged and creativity can thrive.”

Mixed reviews

This emphasis on culture means that those who show up are often looking for more than just a quiet place to work. It also means that co-working spaces are not for everyone.

Serge Genetet, president and CEO of wellness start-up ikeegai, is a fan. He hired a mobile app designer for his start-up through the co-working space community. “You meet new people every day. We’re talking about 20 nationalities in this space, with 30 different business models in completely different markets,” says Genetet, who is a member of co-working space Impact Hub.

When ikeegai was in the early stages of development, Genetet met Tan Shen Hui at Impact Hub Prinsep. “[Tan] was working here as a freelancer, and we were looking for someone who could help us design our screens, user interface. We started to engage her on a per day basis as a consultant, but then we discovered it was a perfect opportunity for her to join the company permanently. And I would never [have been] able to do that in a classic corporate environment,” he says.

But Gabey Goh, content marketing lead at audience solutions firm CtrlShift, has had a more challenging experience at her previous jobs. “I found that a lot of time was taken up trying to find an open table or seat on crowded days. If an event was being hosted, you had to relocate halfway,” says Goh of her initial hot-desking experience at a co-working space. She later worked out of a rented private office.

Goh also was not enthused about the constant conversations and events. “[It] depends on the type of company and role you have. For client-facing roles, the in-built networking options at a co-working space would be beneficial; or if your company’s business is in line with what the co-working space is about. For example, Impact Hub is big on social enterprises. So, a lot of like-minded start-ups end up being based there and find other start-ups that they could learn from or partner with in pursuit of a common vision,” she says.

“For the most part, I ignored the community and events portion as it was not relevant to my work and was a huge source of distraction and noise.” Goh adds that while the start-up culture is often thought of as a 24/7 always-on culture, she has found that co-working spaces are not really buzzing at all hours. “I was typically the last person left sitting past 8pm on most days.”

Building a community

Shared offices have been a staple of the business world for a long time. They allow start-ups and small companies to keep their overheads low by sharing the cost of meeting rooms, photocopiers and receptionists with other similar companies.

But operators of co-working spaces claim to be more than office landlords. Andee Chua, community lead at co-working space Impact Hub, is responsible for facilitating collaborations and ensuring members are plugged into the community. He also helps facilitate community programmes for members.

“If we get some companies coming in and I don’t know how to help them, I’ll be honest with them and ask what exactly they are looking for from this space. Some people don’t have the right knowledge of what [a co-working] space is. To them, it’s just a space,” Chua says, although he adds that companies may take up space at Impact Hub even if they are not sure how the space will help them.

WeWork has developed a Members Network app that allows its more than 200,000 members to collaborate in person and digitally. “This also helps our members discover business opportunities within the network. We see amazing things happening every day — members helping members, people giving feedback to one another, inviting each other to events — it’s exciting to watch,” says WeWork’s Fuad.

One of the members at WeWork says the co-working space has been helpful in developing interactions between large corporations and small start-ups. “Community can be important and beneficial if a certain amount of intentionality is factored into curating who has access to the space. If community managers have a strong place-making vision in mind to help people from diverse backgrounds build a shared sense of the space together, then co-working spaces can be useful in shaping the cross-conversations that lead to the identification of new opportunities. Quite a few prominent businesses are locating some of their business units in co-working spaces purely for the potential of these interactions,” the member says, declining to be named.

Office of the future?

Commercial landlords are increasingly sold on the viability of these co-working spaces. CapitaLand counts co-working space operators Collective Works and WeWork as tenants in its Singapore portfolio.

“Besides reaching out to a vibrant new market, Collective Works Capital Tower will augment CapitaLand’s offerings to existing customers and corporate partners. To date, we are excited to welcome a number of high-profile members to Collective Works Capital Tower, including 500 Startups, which will undoubtedly bring new buzz to the Capital Tower community,” says Wen Khai Meng, CEO of CapitaLand Singapore in a press release. “Co-working is in line with CapitaLand’s ‘office of the future’ vision, where people work in hubs of collaboration, community and creativity. We will be watching this space keenly as it evolves.”

WeWork is planning a new facility in an upcoming CapitaLand development on the site of the former Funan DigitaLife Mall. CapitaLand says the facility will include purpose-built infrastructure and services for WeWork members. “As a start, Funan will boast a smart office with facial recognition turnstiles and optional cardless entry into the office. WeWork community members will also have full access to the suite of innovations made available at Funan, including video-based smart car parking facilities, a 24-hour drive-through click-and-collect, 100% hands-free shopping service using robotics, and app-based booking of all the facilities within the development,” says Tony Tan, CEO of CapitaLand Mall Trust Management.

Even as co-working spaces become more popular, CapitaLand is likely to continue to see tenants seeking traditional office space. Goh of CtrlShift says she is unlikely to move back into a co-working environment. “Given my work style and personality, I’m at my most efficient with an assigned desk that can become my ‘comfort zone’ and allow me to dive straight into work instead of fiddling around and getting comfortable before I can begin,” she says.

Genetet of ikeegai, however, is sticking to his current co-working environment. “I have been a happy person in a corporate environment for 25 years; I don’t regret [a] day in that environment. It’s just that we have a different mission now, and we feel that it is appropriate to work in this open, friendly environment, where you have happiness.”

This article appears in Issue 820 (Mar 5) of The Edge Singapore which is on sale this week

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