Co-working spaces in Singapore have evolved over the years, with a new wave of shared offices going posh or targeting niche groups. Channel NewsAsia speaks to five industry players to find out how they are coping with the segment's rapid growth.
SINGAPORE: With its lavish interior designs and custom-made furnishings - including Italian hand-dyed rugs and handmade lamps sourced from New Zealand - The Great Room could be mistaken for the lobby of a brand new boutique hotel, instead of a co-working space.
And that is what the founders set out to achieve.
“This luxurious design concept came from observing how people like to meet in hotel lobbies. There’s a certain energy about hotel lobbies, almost like a sense of something purposeful or exciting is going to happen, and we want to replicate that,” chief executive officer Jaelle Ang, an ex-hotelier with training as an architect and artist, told Channel NewsAsia.
Officially launched two months ago, the 15,000-square-foot space, which overhauls the typical industrial chic image associated with most co-working spaces, is perhaps a reflection of how shared offices in Singapore have evolved since the sector’s first entrant Hackerspace.SG nearly seven years ago.
Then, the concept of having multiple companies or individuals sharing the same working environment was innovative and untested, but there are about 30 co-working spaces around the city-state now, with nearly one-fifth located in the Central Business District (CBD), according to figures released by property services and investment group JLL in July.
Experts say a host of supportive factors have facilitated the mushrooming of such facilities, including a thriving start-up scene in Singapore, as well as willingness from developers and landlords to partner co-working operators amid a softening commercial property market.
NEW ENTRANTS GOING NICHE
At The Great Room, which takes up the entire 10th level at One George Street, members can pick and choose their workspace from a variety of options including hot desks and private offices.
But eye-catching hardware isn't the only factor that founders of The Great Room are banking on.
“Design can always be copied so we cannot rely on that. Our intent is to be a hospitality-inspired workspace,” said chief financial officer Yian Huang, adding that the team organises frequent business and social events such as its “Lunch & Learn” sessions which dish out advice on help available from government agencies, and curates its members to ensure a well-fitted community.
Hotdesking workspaces at The Great Room's Conservatory. (Photo: Tang See Kit)
Three-week-old Collision 8 is the other new kid on the block, which boasts of having top-of-the-line workspaces alongside paranomic views of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. On top of that, the 8,600-square-feet space, housed within High Street Centre, also runs on a “private member” concept.
“We have a set of questions to assess members based on their desire to innovate and collaborate,” said co-founder Michelle Yong, who is also the fourth-generation leader of homegrown construction firm Woh Hup. “We want to see if our members have the mindset of wanting to do something different, and preferably in collaboration with others.”
Inspired largely by her own partnership with co-founder Mr John Tan who is a serial entrepreneur and partner at two micro venture capital funds, Ms Yong wants to replicate an environment where “like-minded people” from varying backgrounds can come together.
“I started looking at this segment because the residential market has been pretty subdued and I was in search of new growth opportunities. I thought about targeting the healthcare professionals, given how crowded the co-working space is, but John suggested bringing together his investor community and my traditional corporate connections,” Ms Yong said. “So we believe in being an expert in one area while trying to find experts in other areas to piece together the best value chain.”
(Top) Members of Collision 8 seen hanging out at the bar. (Below) Dedicated workspaces overlooking Boat Quay. (Photos: Tang See Kit)
Meanwhile, Trehaus, which opened in February, is Singapore’s first shared office with child-minding facilities. The concept of the space, which houses workspaces such as hotdesks, dedicated desks, private offices and meeting rooms, as well as a children’s play area manned by trained facilitators, stemmed from co-founder Rachel Teo’s own frustrations from juggling the responsibilities of a working mother.
Thus far, the space has resonated well with parents, which account for 70 per cent of Trehaus’ members. During Channel NewsAsia’s last visit, the co-working area within the 3,800-square-feet space was more than half-filled while two childminders tended to three children at the play area.
“Certainly, we are not hipsters and neither do we have the cool vibes of Block 71 (the start-up space at Ayer Rajah Crescent), so we can't and aren't appealing to people looking for that. Our target group remains parents," Ms Teo said. "We are also smaller but compared to other bigger spaces, we have a warm, homely feeling of a ‘modern village'."
Industry experts say this growing trend of co-working spaces being centered on exclusivity and catering to niche groups comes on the back of an uptick in competition.
“These new operators can be considered as ‘start-ups’ themselves and unlike global co-working and serviced office brands such as WeWork and JustOffice, these new co-working spaces would have to carve out a niche and differentiate themselves in order to capture a certain market share from the major players,” said Cushman & Wakefield's research director Christine Li.
Nonetheless, there are other players who believe in diversity. JustGroup’s founder and chief executive Kong Wan Sing, which owns two sprawling co-working spaces along Robinson Road and Raffles Quay, believes that meaningful collaboration hinges on numbers.
“I feel that collaboration will only be achieved when you have a big pool of members,” said Mr Kong, who added that members at JustCo hail from a wide range of industries such as public relations, fashion and hospitality. Apart from start-ups, bigger corporates including teams from Japanese messaging app LINE and American file-sharing site Dropbox also work out of JustCo’s shared offices.
“In fact, we are planning to become even bigger next year, with two new spaces spanning 100,000 square feet ready over the next six months,” added Mr Kong.
JustCo's co-working space along Robinson Road spans across 35,000 square feet and occupies five levels. (Photos: Tang See Kit)
READY FOR FURTHER EXPANSION
And that optimism and willingness for further expansion, be it locally or overseas, is a common tune echoed by co-working space operators that Channel NewsAsia spoke to.
One reason is the lingering glut of office space in the CBD area, which has given co-working spaces more options to choose from and better negotiating power for leases with landlords, players said.
For Collision 8 which has plans for a café and additional space in the works, the co-working space still "has a long way to go before being saturated" despite rapid growth over the past years, Ms Yong said.
Ms Grace Sai, who spearheaded one of the city-state’s pioneer co-working spaces The Hub Singapore, agreed, noting that “cannibalisation within the industry” has not occurred just yet.
“It’s still early days to say (saturation). I think we will continue to take customers away from traditional office space, rather than from each other, so the cannibalisation within the industry isn’t happening yet,” said Ms Sai, who opened her second co-working facility at Cuppage Terrace earlier this month.
However, that is not to say that players, particularly the newer and smaller ones, will continue to enjoy an easy journey. “New entrants will either have to be more cost-competitive or more relevant to the target market they want to serve. Smaller players also will find it challenging because they may not enjoy the economies of scale in the market so there are a couple of us who are predicting a consolidation in the industry within the 18 to 24 months.”
Similarly for softening rents which have played well to the cards of co-working spaces, the gradual absorption of office supply may see rents recovering in the longer run, Cushman & Wakefield's Ms Li said.
Occupying a row of 10 heritage shophouses, The Hub Singapore's second facility at Cuppage Terrace aims to provide more professional facilities for later-stage start-ups. (Photo: Tang See Kit)
As such, some players like The Hub Singapore are rolling out future plans to offer more than just physical space.
“We have just closed our own venture fund to invest in great ideas and entrepreneurs out of our community. We have also signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with 10 of the venture funds in the region like Golden Gate Ventures, so that they can have access to the deal flow from our community,” Ms Sai said.
As the segment continues to evolve, industry watchers say users of co-working spaces will be on the winning end as they benefit from the wider range of concepts and product offerings over time, said industry watchers.
For Ms Bibiana Neo who is working out of Trehaus at the moment, the family-friendly co-working space is a dream come true. “I wasn’t able to get any infant care or childcare services previously as the ones that I was looking for were all fully taken. If this didn’t come along, I would probably have to travel to an infant care that’s a distance away,” said Ms Neo, who is a business solutions account executive at local firm Xintesys.
“Now, as and when I finish work, I can walk over to the Atelier to feed (my daughter) or spend time with her. I think I’m really blessed that my employers allowed me to work out of the office.”
Members of Trehaus have the option of dropping their kids off at the Atelier, which offers child-minding services, as well as various lessons and programmes. (Photo: Trehaus)
Businesses also have the option to pick and choose co-working spaces according to their needs.
For travel and social networking app Roammate, the availability of mentors under The Hub Singapore’s “coaching and mentoring” program was a key attraction.
“When we moved over to Singapore, we left behind all our networking connections so we opted for one of the memberships that gave us access to very frequent and accessible time with mentors across a lot of different types of industries, and it has proven to be a good place for us to start and build up our community again,” co-founder Hannah Ryan told Channel NewsAsia.
And it’s not just tech-related start-ups that have tapped into the benefits of co-working spaces. Public relations firm The Umami Collective, for instance, chose to work out of JustCo so as to have a business community at its door step.
Co-founder Suzy Goulding said: "When you are a small business, it’s good to have other entrepreneurial businesses around you to share ideas and collaborate on projects, and there’s always so many things to learn from so it’s always good to have a business community at your doorstep."
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