by Cat Johnson
In 2003, The Office Group reimagined what shared workspace could be like in London. Recognising that serviced offices were overpriced and under delivering, founders Olly Olsen and Charlie Green set out to provide a high-quality workspace experience.
Now The Office Group has over 15,000 members working in 33 buildings. I spoke with Olly about how the market has changed since those early days, giving members a sense of ownership of their workspace, the upcoming GCUC UK conference, and the future of coworking in London and beyond. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Cat Johnson: When you started The Office Group back in 2003, what was the workspace landscape in London like?
Olly Olsen: Flexible workspace was in its infancy. The options here were either a conventional lease, a sublet, a friend’s space, or what is the old school serviced office product. There was certainly no one giving members or their clients ownership or a sense of their own brand identity. It was very expensive, you were ripped off on phone calls and internet and it was never, ever perceived as a long-term option. It was a short-term, expensive product. No one was proud to be working in a serviced office or executive suite, or coworking space at that time. That’s why we started The Office Group.
GCUC UK producer Justin Harley talks about how he’s really impressed that the vision you had all those years ago is still at the forefront of your brand. What was, and is your vision for The Office Group?
In the first seven years we bought our buildings and owned the freeholds, so we had a lower cost of occupation. We were able to pass on those savings to our members so they had a viable, flexible product. It wasn’t overpriced so people didn’t feel when they were signing up, that they were already planning to leave and go to somewhere cheaper. People used to say they wanted to go to their own office. We thought, why can’t this be your own office?
Because of the economies of scale, and the buying power in the sharing economy, everyone paid less for their phones, they paid less for their internet, and they paid a sensible price for their workspace. We took a landlord’s approach to our members and worked to keep them here for years, not for months.
The first building we had was tiny, with only 69 people in it. We gave a disproportionate amount of space to communal areas, such as the lounge area. We had one phone booth, but it was more than anyone else had at that time. We made sure that we had more meeting rooms and large communal spaces that were all free to use. Why should you have to pay just to sit down and have a meeting?
We wanted to give a greater sense of ownership and not have to charge everyone for all these additional extras which people used to get very upset with. With this approach, people feel like it’s their own true office.
The other thing we had was signage in reception for our members, we always gave their brands pride of place in the buildings so they felt like that was their home.
When we opened new buildings we ensured that we didn’t have a cookie-cutter, boilerplate approach to design. You can never do that because every building is different and every area of London attracts a different audience — a different type of client. You have to adapt to that audience, honouring the architecture of the building and the area of London it sits within.
We ended up creating a number of design-led, boutique, flexible workspaces where the members felt like they had ownership. It was as flexible as anyone else, it was arguably more cost-effective and financially viable than anyone else, and they had a great relationship with the landlord. Members came, they came from our competitors, and they stayed.
We’ve kept the same model and the same approach and ethos all the way through to new buildings we’re looking at today. I’m currently at my desk with the floorplans. I’m sitting here with a pencil designing what it should be.
When you look at coworking in the UK, what are you most exciting about?
It’s time has come. Flexible workspace is now the norm and the majority of businesses globally will assume that they should review their office needs. When doing so, they’re looking not only at leases, but also at licenses within the coworking sector.
We have a lot of people to thank, but it’s an assortment of everyone in the sector, globally, who has done very well and has really innovated the product. Because of that, all eyes are on the sector. Everyone’s helped with the advertising and promotion of the sector and I think we’re all going to be benefiting from it. The demand is there, and the demand has increased. I’m excited to see that demand grow and I’m intrigued to see how far it will grow.
That’s one of the topics to be discussed at GCUC UK: How long will the demand last and what happens when it stops growing?
The demand will always be there. People need to eat, need to sleep, need places to live and need places to work. We’re humans and it’s a very natural thing for us to want to be together, making connections. That will not change, so bottom line is I don’t think demand is going to reduce, but I do think the consumer’s behaviour is going to change, and the product they’re wanting and looking for will absolutely change.
We’re in this business to grow. If you aren’t providing the right product and attracting the right audience, and being sympathetic with the way in which you charge, then your business won’t thrive.
There will be a number of casualties because there’s been a lot of new people coming to the sector. You’ve got to have local knowledge. I’m seeing a lot of people coming to the different areas, and a lot of people expanding throughout the world. You have to be very careful when you enter new markets. I don’t want to see casualties, but I do think there will be some. It’s a difficult industry and I don’t think everyone will survive—even if the demand increases at the same pace as the supply.
What do you think the biggest challenge facing the UK coworking industry is?
I actually see it all as natural economics and the way in which the habits change, and the evolution of the industry. There’s always been challenges, from the day we started, and there will always continue to be challenges. What those are, I don’t think anyone will really know.
Right now, a lot of people want to do this and I would be very wary of starting a business in this sector right now because it’s exceptionally competitive and you need to know what you’re doing because it’s not straightforward.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on GCUC UK, which is the debut of GCUC in Europe. What do you hope comes out of it? What would you like to see?
I want to see something new. I don’t want to see the old faces, I want to see the new faces. I don’t want to hear the same stuff we’ve heard in the last few years because it’s all repetitive. We want to know, real time, what’s happening in the industry, what our members are saying and their perception of the industry, and what new technologies are coming to play.
At GCUC UK, you and Charlie are scheduled to talk about the future of the workspace industry. Can you give me a sneak peek into what you’ll talk about?
I thought we’d give a little bit of a story about what we’ve done and where we got to, how we got to where we are, and what we’re going to do moving forward.
Our personal plan is to be super-disciplined with our approach to growth. We are looking at every market globally and considering them. Although London is our home—we know it very well and we certainly see London as a big growth area for us.
Whatever we talk about on the day, it will be real-time. We will be giving you our honest opinion of where we see our business growing. We won’t be telling anyone what to do, we won’t be giving anyone advice, we’ll just be sharing our experiences.