Not everyone can look at a building and see a world of possibilities inside its four walls. But 35 years ago, that’s just what former school teacher Jenny Folley did — and her idea sparked a lucrative change in career that is still thriving today.
Folley’s vision of converting buildings into a series of shared office spaces began with her first venture in the coastal Melbourne suburb of Brighton.
After some success, she realised that the “money was in the city,” and expanded the ‘serviced office accommodation’ concept across the country.
Folley sold the business, Corporate Executive Offices, to Regus in 2014 — and the following year founded the family-run @WORKSPACES, which offers serviced and virtual offices, as well as co-working memberships.
She initially focused on central locations across Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, as well as in Manila in the Philippines. But, she says, there has been a shift back to suburban locations amid COVID-19, as workers are less willing to commute, and are enjoying shopping and working locally.
While their Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane CBD offices “took a massive whack” at the start of the pandemic — with clients seeking rent relief and referrals — Folley says @WORKSPACES newest suburban sites, in Toorak and Brighton, have seen inquiries soar by 30%-40%.
Since opening in March this year, the Brighton site, which includes 12 offices and a large urban area, is fully occupied.
“This building, which is where I started in Brighton in 1985, came up [for sale], and I thought, let’s give it a go. I honestly don’t know what made me do it, maybe sentimentality, but I had a longing to go back,” Folley tells SmartCompany.
“I didn’t think it would perform as strongly as the CBD buildings but, lo and behold, it’s been incredibly popular.”
She says a similar story unfolded in the TOK Corporate Centre in Toorak.
“I opened [the Toorak building] in 1997, [under my previous business] and the same opportunity came up again,” she says.
“I wasn’t looking to do this in the suburbs, as I thought the city was the better location, but it’s really worked out.
“If I knew then what was going to happen, I’d have made them three times their size.”
Less hustle and bustle
With more than 1000 clients — and prices ranging from $50 a month for virtual mail to $3,250 per week for a serviced office in Melbourne’s CBD – Folley says they placed a greater emphasis on private spaces, which targeted the corporate market.
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She adds that they were lucky they focused on that market, rather than just co-working areas, as they might have been sitting empty as a result of the pandemic.
“People are still fearful of taking public transport into the city, and being too close to each other,” she says.
“Everyone in our private offices are making sure that they are large enough to accommodate them [while still maintaining social distancing].”
Folley say they will continue to retain a city presence, as it remains valuable for clients as a meeting spot and a prime location in a commercial hub.
But, she says it will be a while before people miss going into the city for every day.
“I recently met a group of lawyers in our Brighton offices [who were] wondering why they have an office in the city. So much is done via Zoom and other technologies [and they love] not having to travel as much. It’s given them more time to get … work done,” she says.
“People are also enjoying working closer to home, which is something they never imagined they’d be able to do. As a result, I think [a lot of our clients] will be hard-pressed to return to town.
“We are still focused on the city [but we’re] discovering that you need to provide opportunities for people in the suburbs [too].”
“People want a private office away from the distractions”
According to Folley, @WORKSPACES will seek sites in different areas, including regional Queensland, in the future, with clients attracted to suburban amenities including proximity to local schools, more parking options and easier access to the office.
She adds that these suburban hubs will help to see local shops boom.
“I think we are going to see local shops become more prominent in our lives than ever,” she says.
“I’m sorry that we only have two suburban sites – I wish we had more.”
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