As COVID-19 reshapes the very definition of an office, there’s been a surge in demand for short-term, flexible lease options for businesses, according to marketplace startup Spacenow.
Founded in 2016, Spacenow allows users to rent out their office meeting rooms, event spaces and even ghost kitchens, through flexible, short-term arrangements.
It started out offering Airbnb-style rentals for traditional office-style spaces, allowing businesses to monetise spare desks and empty conference rooms, co-founder and chief Daniel Gunning tells SmartCompany.
As the business grew, it started working with co-working spaces and larger spaces for whole teams to enjoy offsite training, for example.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Australia, things got “a bit patchy” for Spacenow, Gunning admits.
“It’s changed a lot.”
Since March, the startup has seen a 290% increase in new customers joining the platform, and a 550% increase in enquiries from businesses, including everything from huge corporations to small businesses, startups and sole traders.
Enquiries may have picked up, but these are all small transactions, he says. For obvious reasons, no one is organising all-hands events or large group meetings, he says.
“We haven’t seen as many of the bigger transactions that we were doing before.”
While business pretty much came to a standstill early on in the crisis, as businesses are tentatively moving back into the office, he’s seeing more businesses pivoting away from set commercial lease agreements, and looking for more flexibility.
“In some of our categories the numbers are really high, and in other categories, we’re very low,” Gunning says.
During the pandemic, the startup has expanded to offer short-term rental of ghost kitchens, as restaurants have closed and demand for takeaway food has ramped up.
More recently, it’s paired with hotels, which can offer up vacant hotel rooms as isolated office spaces, giving them an office away from home, but away from anyone else too. Already, the startup has signed up 100 hotels to the scheme.
“People can use the facilities, they can use the gyms,” Gunning says.
“It’s almost like a stay-cay … but a working getaway.”
And finally, Spacenow has forged a partnership with professional cleaning marketplace Whizz, to offer a decontamination service.
“We always wanted to think about what people need when they’re going to share space,” Gunning says.
“We always thought cleaning would be something they would want,” he adds.
Of course, the pandemic brought hygiene front and centre to clients’ demands.
“We had thought about it, but definitely the pandemic brought it on, and it made a lot more sense to actually develop that.”
Flexibility is key
Ultimately, Gunning says the pandemic has shifted mindsets around workplaces. Managers have seen some of the benefits of allowing people to work from home, and offering them that empowerment.
But, he also predicts that, once it feels safe to do so, people may well want to return to the office, even if only for a couple of days a week.
“They will crave that interaction,” he says.
“But I think the efficiency of utilisation has become more front-and-centre for office space,” he explains.
“I think it’s going to become more of an interactive place … where you come to get together for team building, or you might be using it as a place to have some face-to-face.”
That means the footprint businesses need is likely to reduce.
“I do feel in time people will want to go back to some sort of way things were previously, but it’s going to take a lot of time.”
“From here on, companies will have to continue to give workers that choice of whether they want to come in or whether they don’t.”
There are benefits to being in the office that can’t be replicated at home. For example, a junior employee overhearing how someone more senior reacts to a tricky phone call, or a new hire integrating with their team through coffee machine chats and impromptu lunches out.
“Those things will be lost, and people will need that,” he says.
“You can’t get that over a Zoom meeting.”
There’s always going to be a need for office space, Gunning says. But it might look a bit different post-pandemic.
“Most people are wanting to take shorter lease terms and a flexible arrangement,” he explains.
There’s a demand for “that agility and ability to react or move with market changes — whether up or down,” he adds.
Whether they’re going to bounce back and scale fast within a few months, or whether it will be a while before they can make a significant financial commitment to anything, “flexibility is going to be key”, he says.