Covid accelerated the future of work exponentially, and coworking spaces have been given a new lease on life with more and more people preferring to work closer to home. Two great examples of spaces that are nurturing local businesses in coworking communities are; Barking Enterprise Centre (BEC) and Three Sixty Workrooms located in the Barking and Dagenham area.
We caught up with the founder of these spaces, Karen Whylie-West, to discuss the growth and development of these local coworking communities and how they have had to adapt their approach to meet the current needs of the workforce today. Karen has been front and centre working with businesses for many years, and as the future of work has changed the way we engage with our clients, colleagues and environments, her experience in the sector gave her a good foundation to manage the swift shifts in workspaces during and post the pandemic.
Karen and Barking Enterprise Centre
In April 2015, Karen took over management of what was an already existing business centre that was, at the time, funded by council. It was not long before her journey with the BEC began when Karen realised that the organisation was not financially viable whilst relying on council funding and grants. Luckily working with a forward thinking council and support from the wider community the decision was made to develop a more independent brand and the community interest company was born. This quickly proved to start holding up financially, without subsidy and saving the council a substantial amount of funds.
She says, “The importance of this model was good for the community. Sustainability is reliant on organisations being self-sufficient.” Now seven years later, Karen says that the BEC has retained 25% of the original businesses that first utilised the space and she explains that many businesses have grown significantly from hot desks to renting bigger spaces. Whilst some have needed more space, others have needed less and members have shifted their usage to what works best for them at the time.
The success of the BEC is that it is built on a solid community and is based around what is most important to the locals. Karen says, “Access is open to all, and we offer a fair and transparent service with fixed costs.” All of these reasons have contributed to the growth of businesses and the space over the years. It’s also not a one size fits all community, and its members are a diverse collective of coworkers, including many migrant entrepreneurs who sometimes need a different type of support to grow.
“We’ve had to constantly adapt and change to what our co-workers need. Being flexible and adaptable has been key for this workspace market,” she says.
The need to work alongside people is critical to Karen and the team at the BEC. Whether it be adapting hours of business to keep it more affordable for users, they always communicate the business case to the community if it makes sense, especially in terms of reducing costs to keep the rates affordable for members.
A shift in working hours
Since the pandemic Karen has noticed that there’s been a shift in working hours at her spaces. She tells us that, “More people have changed their approach from formal childcare arrangements and so where spaces used to be full in the mornings, we are seeing that our spaces are picking up a bit later, after the school run. “Before, people would be queuing at the door early in the morning, but things are different for the workforce now. It is therefore critical to be able to adapt.”
Despite COVID and the cost of living crisis, the BEC has not increased its rates for the community since 2018, and this is largely due to the careful management of costs, coupled with strong communication with the community members. During COVID, Karen says, “We also offered rent free periods of nearly seven months to aid businesses during that tough time. This approach to supporting our members has contributed to an enormous sense of brand loyalty. We want our community to feel considered and heard.”
We are a community and that grows together
Karen operates with the mindset that community members should feel comfortable to approach the teams and talk about their needs. This enables them to respond to and navigate different ways of doing things that better serve the needs of businesses in the community.
Karen also shares about her latest space Three Sixty Workrooms that was created as a collaborative environment and is emerging and evolving to meet the needs of the community as the membership grows. “I started this space planning to have one business manage it but the vision and purpose has since evolved and now we’re joining forces with another business from the council, so there may be a few businesses working alongside one another – again it’s about shifting as the space emerges and evolves.”
You no longer have to go to Central London
Now that Covid restrictions are gone, Karen notes that many big coworking spaces in Central London are much emptier than they once were. “Big companies that are battling to get their workforce back into buildings are tapping into local rural community coworking spaces and considering taking a few desks for their workforce to offer them a conducive space to work closer to their homes.
Another challenge with the commute into the city is that strikes and the cost of living crisis have left many feeling frustrated with disruption, high travel costs and a lot of time spent in trains. This has led to many companies realising that it is indeed easier to keep people working closer to home with the benefit of saving their employees on travel expenses and time.
Coworking spaces offer a more authentic environment
The world of coworking is more authentic, with different people with unique styles and comfort zones. “When people join a coworking space, they feel like they can fit in and don’t feel the need to dress up or suit up every day,” says Karen. Now more CEOs are wearing jeans when they work and perceptions are changing around the new norm.” This has a positive impact on the welcoming element of joining a community in your area.
“Work is about work and growing your business has less to do with wearing suits and blazers,” says Karen who believes that supporting businesses over fitting a mould or image is what makes the BEC and Three Sixty Workrooms the open and approachable communities that they are. The look and feel of authentic individuals aligns with the principles of openness and diversity in her spaces.
The ideal picture for community involvement
Karen anticipates that times will still get a lot more challenging for businesses with the cost of living rising and an uncertain economic landscape. She believes communities need to focus their attention on encouraging innovation and creativity within their home towns, and that it is critical to keep personal connections strong with their communities. She says, “Communities will need to work together to keep costs as low as possible and diversify new income streams.”
Karen also explains that there’s going to be a big change in embracing digital technology to help businesses, but that this can require investment from businesses. She tells us that “As coworking operators, it will be key to support businesses to be more sustainable environmentally. People want to know where things come from and the ethics behind it.” Finally, she says that people want more of a relationship with business owners.
Passionate about Barking and Dagenham
The BEC and Three Sixty Workrooms are playing a big role in helping support local entrepreneurs and businesses develop their brand story and embrace business growth within the Barking and Dagenham communities. Karen believes people shouldn’t be looking to ‘get out’ of the area but should rather be encouraged by the opportunities and growth for the betterment of local business and the community at large.
“You can stay local, give more to your local community and save money on travel and lessen your carbon footprint on the environment. Local community spaces enable members to zoom into town at a moment’s notice and be back home in no time at all.”
Karen is excited by the big changes and new investment coming into the area with brand new film studios, markets and the new covent garden moving in. “There’s a lot of investment and development and it’s a good place to do business but we need to be patient and understand that nothing worthwhile happens overnight.”
Coworking operators must be in it for the long haul
“Building a successful and lucrative coworking space is not a short term goal,” says Karen. She explains that operatore need to be in it for the long haul to see the results they want. Furthermore Karen explains that if you’re only in it for the money, your community members will feel it and so you need to enter this sector for the right reasons, and primarily be in it for the sense of community.
“People expect more from coworking spaces following the pandemic, they want more than a fancy coffee machine and a nice couch. People want a clean, secure and inviting space that cares about the growth of its members”.