Leon Mooney is the Owner/Director of Christchurch coworking spaces Saltworks and Millworks.
I don’t really know what it means to ‘go back to working the way we used to’ before the pandemic because I don’t think I ever really worked that way. Before I started running coworking spaces, I worked for digital native businesses like Vodafone where I didn’t have a fixed office of my own. If you go back even further, I worked in an automotive parts department where I got so bored in the office that I eventually just started going to visit panel beaters and doing (what turned out to be much more effective) outbound sales. I embrace my work at all times of the day and I’m happy to be the driver who helps bring a diverse range of people together in both the Works spaces and in my personal life. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
That said, I have seen the coworking clientele slowly shift in the last couple of years since COVID hit New Zealand. The types of businesses we had pre-pandemic were those users who were already at the forefront of being progressive in their work needs. Maybe they were independent contractors who wanted the community of a collaborative space, or early-stage startups who needed a flexible location with fewer overheads to give them some additional runway. That demographic felt big and fulfilling – of course, everything feels like 100% of itself when it’s happening – but it’s definitely taken on a different cadence since COVID hit.
The pandemic accelerated a lot of larger and more established companies’ thoughts on disbursed working; it forced their hands to enable their teams to work remotely. And, by definition, if they can work remotely, they can work here. We’ve since welcomed in new residents like Toitū Envirocare who already have a large workforce out in Lincoln, and who wanted to expand into a central location in the Christchurch CBD which met all of their requirements on wellness, sustainability and safety. Works can provide that.
We’ve also seen ways to promote new regional employment opportunities, like with one of our residents who used to be the single Christchurch-based employee of a NZ-wide and international company. He has shown his employers that Christchurch is a great place to do business, and we’ve been able to support him with the logistics and operations of running an office space, aspects of team management that he doesn’t have the time or the inclination to take on himself. He has now taken on a Works-based team of nearly 20. That’s a great Canterbury growth story.
When COVID first hit, I was pretty bullish about the world not ending and Christchurch business surviving because, really, what other option is there. So that’s why I went hard out in that first lockdown, took over ownership of Saltworks and pressed ahead with the establishment of our second location at Millworks. I learned a lot about resilience and how, in times of uncertainty, you can be bold and make some gains. You might look around here today with a full house and wonder how it could ever be any other way, but there were days when there were just one or two of us here and we had to learn very quickly to adapt on the fly.
We got really good at drafting, collaborating and deciding on new policy, fast. There’d be a government announcement at midday and, at 5 past 12, I’d already have residents phoning with a thousand questions about what this meant for them. We knew we needed to create systems for quick decision-making, so we ended up leaning on a few pillars – really solid people in the Works community – who we could call in the evenings or on the weekends to talk through whatever approach we had for what to do next. Throughout the worst of the COVID uncertainty, we consistently got the same feedback: our residents really valued the way we were handling the pandemic and taking all the thinking and the worry out of this part of it for them. That’s really aligned with the whole Works business model. Sure, we’ll make your printing painless, but we’ll also have all those hard conversations with government agencies about things like spatial requirements and vaccine passes and mask mandates. Additionally, we were able to lean on the available Government support and leverage that to provide some rent breaks to those who really needed them during the first lockdown.
The result has been an even stronger Works community, and the really fulfilling addition of our newer Millworks residents. I think it only keeps growing and getting busier for us from here, as we transition out of what used to be an education phase about what coworking is, into an era of coworking just being one of several available ‘normals’. From an economic perspective, we’ll also see a lot of companies with leases coming up for renewal in the year or two, and I expect we’ll see more and more of those companies wanting to test the waters with a different kind of working environment. Particularly those who are large enough to have a wellness programme, that’s something they could outsource to us along with the overheads of roles like office and contract managers. We can also offer a really good temporary landing pad for businesses with growth in mind; a layover while they grow into that next phase. I realise that it’s a terrible business model to support them in arriving, growing and then ultimately leaving us but, honestly, that’s what gets me out of bed: creating new opportunities in Canterbury.
People have been really brave about coming back into the world. As a business, of course we really needed them to, but I also think we’ve done a good job of welcoming them back into a space that’s conservative enough about preserving their health and safety, while still open enough to allow them to be a human among other humans. I’m proud of how we hit that balance, but also of how everyone here has really embraced coming back into a changed environment.