In the ongoing co-working battle for supremacy, Workspace has amassed 3.7m square feet of office space in London across 68 sites. From locations ranging from Wood Green in the north to Wimbledon in the south, its offering brings together businesses as big as Mozilla Firefox and freelancers looking for a desk.
Wanting to truly immerse ourselves in co-working environments, Real Business spent the day at Metal Box Factory, a Workspace site located in Southwark. It’s home to around 120 businesses across five floors – all around a central atrium made possible by the building’s origins as a site for tin box production.
Welcoming us to the site, James Friedenthal, head of corporate development at Workspace, said a decision was made 15 years ago to focus on the office market. Divesting of property interests in Birmingham and the Home Counties, Workspace focused on the capital and acquired a property portfolio which included the Metal Box Factory site.
“We did a development in Clerkenwell, an old school depository, which we suspended a canopy in over two wings. It provided a blueprint for what we do today, focusing on fast-growing creative business which are from a range of sectors – but share a commonality fo being digitally dependent,” he explained.
The main way Workspace differentiates itself from competitors, such as global giant WeWork, is that it owns all the properties in its portfolio. This, Friedenthal added, gives tenants the opportunity to personalise their space to fit unique requirements.
Moonpig, the personalised greetings cards and gifts company bought by PhotoBox for £120m in 2011, moved into Metal Box Factory around eight years ago with 20-30 staff. Now it takes up two floors and punched a hole between them so it could introduce a private staircase between.
Workspace, Friedenthal added, is also careful to not overly brand its buildings, preferring to let its occupants provide the identity and environment.
During the course of our day at Metal Box Factory, we met three different businesses which call it home in an effort to uncover why SMEs chose not just this particular location but co-working environments in general.
Helene Hall, chief commercial officer at Melt Content, got her first experience of co-working spaces when she joined the business two years ago. Moving a few times since first setting up in Metal Box Factory, Hall feels the set up provides Melt Content with the flexibility it needs to grow sustainably.
“We recently went through the exercise of comparing it with getting our own office. Looking at a local office space, there was no price benefit there,” she added.
Melt Content deals with a number of freelancers it’s content marketing efforts, meaning the traditional tenancy to have your own offices space does not apply to the company.
“You need to have the right structure to make sure you support and aid the process of flexible working,” Hall believes. “As long as work is done to a high standard, it’s very clear when someone is working at home or not. We carefully pick people in the recruitment process, having the right person in the right role is crucial.”
With co-working spaces becoming an increasingly popular destination for businesses to grow from within, Real Business begins its journey of the options out there by visiting Interchange in North London.
For Joe Weir, founder of three year-old business That Thing, the six-month lease break clause offered by Workspace is “very reassuring” for he and his partners. “We didn’t have a big five-year strategy at the start. When we bring clients in we weren’t bringing them into a swish studio, but the Metal Box Factory has started to be worn as a badge of honour,” he added.
The proximity to other businesses has also helped That Thing win work that it otherwise wouldn’t have. “Within a month of moving in we bumped into a studio we knew from our previous lives. They were at capacity but had been approached by a big client with work they couldn’t take on,” he remembered. “We took that on and it all came about by being close to them.”
Despite being based at Metal Box Factory since inception, during which time they have moved from a “shoebox room” through three other units in the building, Weir does believe there will come a day when, pricing wise, it will make sense for the business to get its own place.
“It won’t be an easy or quick decision as the model is very competitive, making it very simple to stay where we are. But we will get to a point where we need to project our brand out there – there is something about your own premises that allows you to do that.”
Pricing it up
Workspace has a number of offerings to suit different types of budgets and business requirements. At the Metal Box Factory, studios varying in size from small to large are available from £1,580 per month up to £13,640, and meeting rooms can be hired from £45 per hour.
At The Pill Box, in Bethnal Green, studio rentals are available from £970 per month, and in Wood Green’s Chocolate Factory, spaces are available from £630 per month. Studios range from £460 up to £7,040 per month at its Barley Mow Centre, one of its spaces in Chiswick.
Through Club Workspace, businesses can purchase daily and monthly passes for what Workspace call’s “London’s largest network of co-working spaces”. A desk can be rented for a day for £40, and a number of monthly packages are available from £150-£350.
For Friedenthal, one of Metal Box Factory’s biggest draws, and evidence of value of money, comes through its WiredScore Platinum certification. Handed out to commercial buildings which demonstrate the fastest and most reliable internet connections, it ensures the “fabric and infrastructure is as resilient as possible”.
The churn rate for Workspace is around the 20-25 per cent mark, including businesses that move out, into other Workspace properties or within the same building. “Fundamentally, churn used to be viewed as a negative thing, whereas now there is a change in the way property investment portfolios are managed. It de-risks form one large bluechip company which isn’t moving quickly and can easily be disrupted,” Friedenthal said.
As the newest entrant to the Workspace ecosystem Real Business met during our stay, Future Kings manage operations between bases in London and Bristol. Founders Ben Mott and Andy Snuggs felt a co-working set up gave them the flexibility in those unpredictable first few years.
“If we were to go out to market to look for somewhere to move to we’d be bombarded by agents,” they said. The duo wanted to move into a co-working space while at their previous agency, but that decision was out of their control. They were after a vibe and atmosphere that felt “cool” and went to see five or six different venues.
With Metal Box Factory situated in an area also home to lots of other complimentary businesses, Future Kings found its home (for now). “We went to see WeWork, but they have got a bit too big for your boots – you really know you’re in a WeWork space there,” they added. “They behave like landlords, saying ‘you can’t touch that’ and ‘you can’t wait that’. At Metal Box Factory you get the feeling it is your hours as well as theirs.”
The ability for business owners to put their stamp on a space was a repeat them during our day at Metal Box Factory. Despite wanting the flexibility and affordably offered by co-working environments, making it feel as close to their own office seems important.
Despite London running out of original sites dripping with provenance, like Metal Box Factory, Workspace seems set on opening new sites in areas it believes are underserving growth-stage creative companies. With advocates like Citymapper and Moonpig, the portfolio could be home to many more exciting SMEs in years to come.
In the last few years, we’ve seen co-working spaces grow from strength to strength. In London alone, there is estimated to be over 1,000 co-working spaces and the capital was recently cited as the leading global market in this sector.