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The fundamental skill of a good coworking space manager is community building. That is something big organizations will look for as they attempt to adopt the methods of coworking inside traditional workplaces. Coworking spaces have an opportunity to become expert community managers, and to apply their knowledge across a wide range of locations, not just their own. Deskmag recently visited the Worktech conference in Holland and found many companies eager to learn from coworking, but no idea how to do it.
By Joel Dullroy - Wednesday, 07 December 2011

The potential role for coworking space operators as community managers is the result of major converging trends: traditional offices are sitting empty, and companies are looking for new workplace concepts. Deskmag was one of the presenters at Worktech Utrecht 11 conference in the Netherlands, 'a forum for all those involved in the future of work and the workplace as well as real estate, technology and innovation'. Here are some insights from the event:

Empty office towers everywhere

“We are heading for a perfect storm,” Gerry Taylor told a crowd of serious-faced real estate experts at the conference Taylor, a lively and foul-mouthed Scottish creative director, was briefing the conference about his predictions of a major cultural clash inside workplaces as the Baby Boomers meet the incoming generation of “Millennials”.

But he was equally dark about the looming problems of the commercial office market. “I walk around cities today, and look up at all those huge empty office towers, and think – ‘oh, shit’.” Taylor said.

The reason for his concern is the rate at which companies are cutting back on their use of offices. Participants of the conference heard that in the Netherlands, the office vacancy rate is as high as 10 to 15%. Some 8 million square meters of office stock currently sits empty – and that’s just in one small country. Across all of Europe, the skyscraper lights are being turned off.

The companies that are vacating these offices are major corporations looking to cut back on the unproductive use of their facilities. The Worktech conference heard from Philips, a major Dutch electronics company, which has recently implemented the “active workplace” methodology to reduce workspace wastage. This system of workplace management rejects the idea of the fixed desk in favour of flexible workstations.

Many companies are undertaking similar projects to do away with unproductive real estate space, yet they face a second dilemma – they are often locked into leases that will take years to expire. What to do with all that empty office space?

Not only that, but what to do with workforce that doesn’t even want to go to a traditional office in the first place? That was Taylor’s point. He believes Millennials will reject the idea of working in an office. They prefer to do their laptop-based online work in locations that suit them – at home, in a café, or a coworking space. Empty offices, shrinking companies, reluctant Millennials.

Community managers: a role for coworking spaces operators

A few blocks away from the conference venue, in a narrow modern building in the middle of Utrecht’s beautiful old town, works Felix Lepoutre. He’s the community manager of Igluu, a medium-sized coworking space, of about 30 workstations, that is part of a small chain across the Netherlands.

His job title is an interesting study in the development of new professions. The role of the community manager is becoming common in many companies’ social media departments. In the context of social media, their job is to stimulate the online conversation about their company across social networks. Felix’s job is similar, though it focuses on real-world interaction. He’s looking for ways to apply the successes of coworking to the problems in the corporate office world.

“Large businesses in Holland are changing their organizational structures. They are becoming flatter,” Lepoutre said. “It’s called ‘the new way of working’. Everyone is redesigning their offices.”

Yet as companies look for new uses for old empty offices, they will find themselves lacking the skills needed to bring their vacant locations back to life.

“Companies could open up their unused space to outside workers. But they may not want to facilitate this. We (coworking space operators) could offer ourselves as community managers in those types of spaces. Then, the original coworking space would be a showroom for opening a dialog with customers.”

Coworking spaces are already well-equipped to deliver such expertise. After all, as the 2nd Global Coworking Survey has shown, 53% of all coworking spaces have a dedicated community manager.

More than desks: building communities

Deskmag also presented data of this survey at the conference. We talked about the phenomenal growth of the coworking movement, and explained its core elements: a different aesthetic, a focus on interactivity and openness, and the development of communities.

Many of the corporate facility managers were eager to ask questions about how they could implement the concept of coworking inside their traditional offices. Was it possible, they asked, to transform a company headquarters into some kind of coworking space?

Our answer: it’s not enough to simply redesign old office space, knock down walls and change the seating arrangements. Creating a community is a full-time job – one that coworking spaces do well. If companies turned to their local coworking spaces to learn about community management, only then might they be able to rejuvenate their tired old offices.

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