The flexible workspace market is on a roll. Once the choice of freelancers, start-ups, digital pioneers and SMEs it’s now becoming popular with larger, corporate businesses who are seeing the benefits of flexible leases, shared spaces and the spirit of innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship brings. But with so many different providers to choose from, including niche offerings for specific types of business, traditional players now offering flexible space and of course the steamroller that is WeWork, each brand needs to stand out in the market. So we’ve been talking to Tim Winterflood, Head of Portfolio Management and Rachel Walsh, Product Manager, to find out how The Office Group are using digital technology to enhance the services they offer.
Tim Winterflood sees the digital experience as crucial: “Technology, as far as customer experience is concerned, is right at the forefront of how we can differentiate ourselves…it's really important for us.” Of course with digital technology still developing and flexible workspaces only gaining ground relatively recently, in many ways it’s early days. Rachel Walsh comments “When we started at The Office Group a couple of years ago, we didn't have a very up-to-speed digital programme. We didn't have a lot of very 'high-tech' tech in place and so what we've been doing is ensuring that we can make the customer journey a lot easier going forward. We want to improve that through implementing improved internal technologies.”
She continues: “My day-to-day job is mostly ensuring that we have a roadmap for the future for our technology, working with my team to ensure we have strategy in place for it. And making sure we have user stories in place that we can develop properly and then working in sprints to ensure that we get those technologies out to the business.”
Above all else, digital technology can create a better customer experience, empowering companies to become more efficient, and empowering individuals by giving them control over their environment.
Rachel suggests that it’s the transparency offered by flexible workspaces and digital technology that businesses really value: “They want to be able to see what they're getting every day. They want to log into their accounts and understand how much they're paying that month. And to be able to make all the decisions themselves. Effectively all we're trying to do is take friction out of any point in the business…digital can help us do that. So, the programmes of change that we're going through at the moment in order to make our digital better will allow hundreds and hundreds of companies to grow in a much more frictionless environment. And that can only be a good thing.”
In terms of all the individuals using the workspace, Tim says that for The Office Group “where we want to get to is a much more seamless interaction between our customers and service providers, so that if they need something to be fixed or they want to tweak the temperature in a particular room they can do that seamlessly through technology.”
A lot of this of course is down to smart use of data. “The data side of technology is very important for our side of the business, understanding the different things going on within our building at different times so we can make better decisions. Like knowing when a particular asset might be not working before a customer finds out about it, so we can be much more proactive. Having the right sensors and information – the trick is to be able to start seamlessly maintaining and managing a building before the customer knows it might be an issue. So that is definitely a big, big part of it for us as well.”
Co-working spaces are the natural environment for start-ups who thrive on collaboration. Rachel explains how technology can encourage this: “We're building a community by having the right digital technology in place which allows people to network in a much more effective manner, so they can talk to other people in the buildings [and] people who are also starting up small companies. That can help them grow, learn or just network and engage with those companies and share the work that they're doing.”
But it’s not just those who spend 5 days a week in the office who can benefit from digital technology offered by their workspace. A robust set-up means that those who want or need to work remotely can do so, which could make the difference between a highly skilled candidate accepting or rejecting a job. Rachel says: “Digital allows you to be way more flexible, you can remote work and you ensure that people don't need to be in meetings anymore. We offer people things like 'Zoom Rooms' where you have the technology to dial in from anywhere. More and more that's becoming prevalent and people are using those technologies, so they can work wherever makes them feel happiest or where it makes sense for them.”
Digital technology can also have implications in other areas productivity and general health that many people may not be aware of.
Tim comments: “It’s a massive thing in respect to technology…looking at how healthy the air in the building is and being a bit more transparent, so people start saying 'actually I'm more productive in this environment because CO2 levels are much lower’. And being able to measure and understand that, which potentially opens up a Pandora's box. We’re doing a lot of research around that and it’s something that I find particularly interesting. Ultimately we’re here to be productive and if we can create an environment that allows people to maximise their potential it changes the game and allows us to do something that our competitors aren't quite doing yet.”
So what are the challenges for implementing cutting-edge digital technology?
Flexible workspace companies often have both rented property and fully-owned buildings in their portfolio, so taking charge of the customer experience and implementing new technology is easier to implement in some spaces than others.
Tim says: “About a third our buildings are what we call landlord-managed where another company owns the building and we're just one of a number of different tenants in the building.”
“Where we have a long lease, with full control over the building, we can control the whole experience. However, in terms of technology there are more challenges; if we want to make big operations or install different physical aspects of technology, the landlord has to be involved…Where we own whole buildings, obviously in that instance it's much easier for us to experiment with technology, to change things, to move things around because we don't have multiple stakeholders that we need to be conscious of.”
As ever, the speed and scale of transformation also boils down to cost. Tim continues “There's a lot of great technology out there that we would love to be utilising right now, but a lot of it does still have some kind of physical barriers. You'd need a lot of sensors, a lot of data points that cost a lot of money to put into place, so the cost of infrastructure is a big part of it. There’s also a little bit of trepidation as to, if we invest all this in this one particular piece of technology, is it still going to be the right kind of technology in two or three years’ time. So I guess that’s linked to cost but wanting to make sure that we put our eggs in the right basket so to speak. That’s one of the main challenges for us at the moment.”
He goes on to say “For us the challenge is there's so many kind of different products and offerings out there it's knowing kind of where to commit and knowing how to make sure that we can be as flexible as possible with the demands of the market without getting stuck in legacy infrastructure or technology that may not help us to continue to be the best in the industry.” Clearly the need for not just a solution but the right solution is paramount and before making large-scale investments, workspace companies need to thoroughly research and test ideas out on customers, to ensure a new feature is genuinely useful and makes a difference to their working lives, rather than just being a gimmick or a distraction.
Of course, digital can’t make up for deficiencies in other aspects of the service offering but what it can do is augment and enhance the physical spaces offered as well as empowering customers to control their environment. Tim confirms: “You have to have a good product. Without that digital will get you nowhere, but digital can be the tool that really helps make that experience seamless and really helps us to make this an experience that is unique and different from everybody else's.”
Technology, Tim finishes by saying, ‘is driving just about everything that we do. Change is only going to increase and I think that the themes of technology and sustainability and providing a good customer experience are going to continue to drive that further and further.” It sounds like for flexible workspaces, the most exciting digital developments are still ahead of us.