The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the whole notion of shared work spaces into question, as many Aussie small businesses have moved to remote working, or are indeed struggling for survival.
But the founders of co-working business Workit Spaces have doubled down and invested in their offering, ploughing ahead with growth plans and digitisation. And now the initial shock of the pandemic has passed, it seems to be working.
Founded in 2018 by Talea Bader and Emily Townsend, Workit Spaces offers shared office space, individual desks, storage spaces and showrooms from its hub in Alexandria in Sydney, as well as ‘virtual’ office spaces that allow businesses to register an address.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, like many small businesses, Workit felt an initial shock.
As tenants moved to working from home, some lost 100% of their revenues almost overnight, Bader tells SmartCompany, meaning they couldn’t meet their rent obligations anymore.
“That was a bit of a tough situation for us as a service provider, and for our clients,” Bader says,
“We are all small businesses. We didn’t know where it was going to go and what was going to happen, or what the extent of COVID-19 was going to be.”
However, the founder says Workit has various hubs within its offering, tailored to a diverse client base, and they were affected in different ways.
For example, the e-commerce hub has remained resilient as the pandemic drives a boost in online shopping.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty, Bader and Townsend doubled down on the business. Even during the “toughest months” of April and May, the founders were investing heavily in digitising some of their services, updating their website, advertising and boosting SEO.
“We actually hired more digital staff during COVID-19,” Bader explains.
The team has also produced and released its COVID Reality online video series, which followed some of the tenants as they negotiated the crisis.
A calculated risk
The plan was to increase exposure and boost awareness of the Workit brand, and it’s paying off.
During the second half of May, Workit received more than ten times the number of enquiries as it had in the first half.
“We chose not to go into hibernation and to invest in digitising our business, and try to pivot our business into areas that we believe are the future … we are seeing results at the moment,” says Bader.
The founders have also doubled down on their e-commerce offering. They’re in the process of building a software solution and fourth-party logistics solution, allowing the business to cater to fast-growing e-commerce businesses.
“The fact that we are in e-commerce, that’s helped us a lot and kept us motivated, because we can see that this is the future,” Bader explains, adding that the business plans to expand into Brisbane and Melbourne soon.
It’s a story in stark contrast to what’s happening in other co-working businesses. Back in March, SmartCompany spoke to Jodie Imam, co-founder of Melbourne workspace Depo8, who said COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin for the venture.
And just last week, Fishburners announced it is closing its Brisbane space, focusing instead on a digital community offering.
Investing cold, hard cash into any business when the economy seems to be slowing may seem like a dangerous move. But, as far as Bader is concerned, there was no other choice.
“For us, there’s only one way forward, and that’s growing our business,” he says.
Many of the plans were in the pipeline for later on in the year anyway, he explains. They just brought them forward.
“It was a bit scary,” Bader admits
“We didn’t know whether it was going to work or not. But, for us, there was no other option,” he adds.
Putting the business into hibernation would have been more dangerous, he suggests.
“It’s a calculated risk.”
A different kind of co-working
Even as COVID-19 drives a remote work revolution and quashes demand for social interaction, Bader doesn’t believe the co-working model is going anywhere.
“Working from home 100% of the time is not going to be sustainable for many companies,” he suggests.
This is particularly true for businesses, and startups specifically, that have a strong focus on company culture, he suggests. When you’re onboarding a new employee, it’s not easy to instill a sense of goals, mission and values from a distance.
“There’s certainly a future for commercial real estate generally, and specifically serviced offices and co-working hubs,” Bader says.
But these spaces may look a little different. While some corporate employees might still crave a high-rise with a harbour view, many are looking for a more campus-style environment, with large common areas and outdoor spaces.
The business owners Bader is showing around don’t want their people to be crammed into a lift, or bumping into others in the corridors, he explains.
“This is what we have currently in Alexandria, and we see ourselves as doubling down on that going forward in the future,” he says.
“There will still be people who want to work from a fancy CBD location with water views. That won’t disappear.
“But the majority of the demand will come to smaller spaces with larger offices and more spacious offices.”