Aotearoa Coworking on the Global Stage

In April of 2023, I invested in a short-notice trip to the Global Coworking Unconference Community (GCUC) Conference in Chicago.  I’ve been involved with their online community and have always been impressed with how GCUC’s Executive Producer, Liz Elam, and Director of Operations, Stormy McBride, curate that virtual space.  After an eye-opening, whirlwind week in the US, I’ve returned home to Aotearoa with some reflections.  

Inspired by my experience at last year’s Future of Office Space Summit in Sydney, I have come to understand the value of spending time in rooms with other flex-space operators.  We’re all so immersed in a coworking environment where we get great feedback from our residents, but there’s another layer of knowledge that comes from being amongst peers and learning from them almost by osmosis.  I saw the tangible value of investing in a journey to GCUC’s latest ‘un-conference’ in order to better explore the ways that Works’ work is relevant and how it compares on the global stage.  

While I am perhaps not a natural long-distance or short-notice traveller, I was lucky to have the flexibility of going solo with a supportive wife and team back home in Ōtautahi, so I pushed myself to make the leap. Over about 3 weeks, I planned a trip that saw me travel from home via Auckland & LA (whose airport is every bit as nasty & harrowing as you may have heard) and arrive in Chicago at 1am before clocking in for the first conference event that morning at 8.

The first day was skillfully delivered in two streams, one for more experienced operators and another for those who are still emerging.  I attended and found great value in both streams through events that featured major industry players who I have long respected from afar.  Giovani Palavicini and Jamie Russo from the Everything Coworking podcast were a highlight; I have gotten a lot of knowledge and benefit from listening to them over the years and was excited about the opportunity to connect with them in person.

Gio identified 6 pillars of successful coworking as: digital marketing, space planning and design, furniture solutions, technology providers, food and beverage, and member engagement.  While I largely agree with that list, one of my biggest takeaways from the event was how differently those elements are prioritised here in New Zealand compared to the US.

So many of the operators I spoke to there are still rooted firmly in a Commercial Real Estate (CRE) mindset.  When I talked to them about Works’ spaces, the questions that inevitably followed were:

  • What is your square footage and how is it configured? 
  • How much private space versus public space do you offer?
    (Many were shocked to learn that we’re something like 15% private versus 85% open-plan, when their spaces are typically the opposite.)
  • How many people do you have per square metre in your office spaces?
  • How long are your tenant contracts?
    (Again, many were shocked to learn that we offer contracts as short as monthly but still have an average resident retention of 3 years.)

I realised exactly how advanced Australasia is with regard to putting our people first.  Coworking here is about hospitality, not real estate.  Works’ high-touch hospitality focus was unfamiliar for many of the international operators I spoke to whose idea of service might be limited to receptionists who take phone calls or transcribe notes.  By contrast, our approach is to enable people to find value from each other, so we’ve designed spaces which are conducive to that.  

I also lapped up the opportunity to physically experience other spaces and absorb all the little touches.  Whether that was the rubbish trolleys in the Air New Zealand lounge that match those used on their aircraft – a nice touch, I thought – or the detailed design elements of coworking spaces all over Chicago, I sat everywhere and touched everything and kicked all the tyres.  I wanted to absorb the design language of other spaces so I could bring ideas back and implement them here.

Overall, the trip was an immersion exercise with a strategic focus; it led me to a few thoughts on the future of Works.  The most important of these is that belonging beats networking.  I saw this clearly preached and represented by spaces like The Coven, a women-led & founded space which works hard to cater to a wider range of resident needs.  They have purposefully curated areas based on the feedback of their members, like a wellness room.  And, yes, they do have male residents whose feedback is generally that they’ve never felt so cared for at an office (and that the space smells great).  That idea of a wellness room – whether for breastfeeding or prayer or meditation – is something I’ll definitely implement in my next space.

Leon Mooney & Alex West Steinman
(Co-Founder + Partner, The Coven)

I also understand that belonging is fostered by a shared sense of purpose.  To further that, I’m excited to announce that Works has joined forces with the charity giving platform One Percent Collective.  This new partnership will see our residents voting on where they’d like to see charitable funds donated each month and we are also exploring a more permanent arrangement with them – watch this space!  We’re also doubling-down on our efforts towards being a carbon-neutral (or, eventually, carbon-positive) space. This is a road that we’re already on with our resident, Toitū Envirocare.

On the social side of the business, we’re in the process of lining up a Works working holiday where residents can book into a curated trip for both work and play this winter.  

One of the best takeaways I got was that you don’t have to be for everyone, but you do have to be for someone.  Find your people and champion them.  That’s a value I strongly agree with, and somewhere I’ll be focusing even more energy in the future.

Ultimately, I realised how lucky I am, as the owner, to have the flexibility to deliver coworking the way I want to, and I was heartened to learn that our approach is resonating through stats that are on par or besting some of the most established in the global industry.  After GCUC, I feel really comfortable with the direction that we’re going as a community and how we deliver what we do.  And I’m excited to do it all again at their Sydney event in August.  I can’t wait to see how many of the conference-night-party promises from Chicago materialise in Sydney, and I look forward to welcoming those who do make the journey and showing them how we do things here in Australasia.  

But as for the 30-hour return layover in Vegas, my lips are sealed…