That time we dug into the past, present & future of workspace tech.

Some key takeaways from the tech panel at the Global Workspace Association's Flex Forward Conference.

Last Thursday (Sept. 22, 2022) I was invited to lead the tech panel featuring 4 other product leaders from across the workspace tech stack, at the Global Workspace Association‘s 2022 FlexForward conference. 

Together we dug into the past, present and future of workspace technology.

I do not believe the conference organizers will release a video/audio recording of the panel, so in this post, I’d like to summarize just a few of the notable takeaways from the panel. 

And yes… it’s def a longer read than I thought it’d be, but that’s what you get when you put passionate tech leaders together and in front of 200ish industry leaders.

Update: Looking for an actual short & sweet version? Over on the Syncaroo blog, we summarized the panel into 14 key takeaways, a bunch of short quotes and some photos.

3 quick Qs to get a feel for the audience.

Before I introduced my fellow panelists, I asked the 200ish industry leaders in the audience 3 quick questions.

Firstly, I asked, by raising of hands, how many attendees were directly responsible for picking the technology for their flex space businesses.

🙋‍♀️
About 20-30 hands were raised. 

I then asked how many attendees had no say but had to use the chosen tech each and every day.

🙋‍♀️🙋‍♂️
A larger portion of hands went up, as the others went down.

I then asked how many of the audience were 140% happy with every single piece of technology they had to work with.

🙅‍♀️
Not. A. Single. Hand. Went. Up.
You could feel the smiles and nervous laughter spread across the room.

The Panelists

Collectively we made up almost 40 years of property technology (or protech) experience from across 4 continents.

I believe I was invited to lead this panel for two reasons. Firstly, my position as co-founder at Syncaroo (where we help flex spaces connect critical systems to turn their data into continuous competitive and operational advantages). And secondly, my This Week In Coworking newsletter dives into the news and trends affecting the coworking industry and the tech that powers it.

I was joined by:

Sofia Stolberg started her career in management consulting, before launching the first coworking space in Puerto Rico in 2013. To solve challenges they faced in scaling up a new and highly profitable line of business for their space – virtual offices and mail services – they co-founded PilotoMail which launched just last year.

In 2014, Brian Sutherland shifted from running eCommerce businesses to joining now 40-year-old Yardi, where he now oversees the commercial real estate group.

After leaving one of the most successful startups in Europe in 2015, Miro Miroslav, a software engineer at heart cofounded officernd to solve the inefficiencies they saw with workspace operations.

Ginger Dhaliwal co-founded Upflex in 2017, after 15 years in the innovation and tech space across different industries from healthcare, to fashion to IoT.

The Past

Thinking back to the first tech-related session I hosted at a coworking conference back in 2017, one attendee’s remark stuck with me.

They said, and I quote, that “coworking software doesn’t suck anymore“.

A lot has changed, and dare I say improved, in the half a decade since.

The panelists were asked to share (in under 5 words, if possible) the biggest changes they’ve seen since 2017 in workspace technology.

Miro mentioned that workspace software is “ready to go prime time” and is able to support some of the largest coworking brands across the industry, after remarking that one thing did not change: we as an industry survived. 

Sofia summed up her take on the change by stating simply that “we finally have more integrations“. 

Ginger elaborated noting that it’s more understood that to build a sustainable business you do “need to partner and integrate“. 

Brian‘s 5 words of what has changed within workspace tech were ‘compliance, appification, covid, cloud, and convergence‘. 

He elaborated to dig into GDPR, increased popularity of workspace applications, how the pandemic impacted tech adoption, the accessibility of operations within a cloud, and the convergence of solutions that can be used together.

The Present

I then brought attention to the present day and that we’re in the middle of a seismic shift in how spaces pick, set up, and manage the tech that runs their spaces.

This shift was highlighted across 3 emerging trends.

Firstly a widening divide between those who want a modular stack from multiple vendors and those who want monolithic setups with one main provider.

Secondly, within the flurry of innovation from platforms that are helping flex spaces take advantage of new opportunities and business models.

And thirdly, how operators and platforms understand that when leveraged correctly data is becoming a superpower.

Miro was asked, as officernd sits firmly in the modular stack camp, what challenges he saw for operators adopting a highly modular ops stack. 

He started off by reminding folks that there are a million benefits of using a modular stack over a monolithic one. But he noted that there were certainly some challenges. One issue is with integrations, both in the difficulty of setting up integrations easily and with the reconciliation of data between systems. Another is data insights, in that even when systems are well integrated, separate BI tools or hired data analysts would be needed to bring together the data in a way that it can be used by businesses.

Brian then dug into some of the challenges with adopting a stack from (mostly) just one supplier in today’s market. 

He started out by reminding the audience that roughly 50% of real estate is run on the Yardi platform, across commercial, multi-tenant, and a growing presence in coworking as well. Having said that, he would think it’d be foolish to assume that any operator would go full-stack with just Yardi, so integrations are made where needed and they understand that their needs to be choices. In terms of challenges with full-stack solutions, is about phasing, ie whether a space would start incrementally or have to work around existing systems already in place.

As Sofia launched PilotoMail to fix inefficiencies around handling and managing mail operations at her own space, I asked about what other challengers or inefficiencies she believed software could turn into opportunities for flex spaces.

She dug into how when they realized early on that virtual mail was the most profitable product in coworking, to scale they needed software that automates things. For them, it started with automating compliance, and then automating mail operations, and today 40% of their revenue stack at their coworking spaces comes from virtual offices. This makes them very resilient as a business, through both the pandemic and the recent category 1 hurricane that ripped through Puerto Rico. 

As for other opportunities regarding tech, attention was turned back to the hurricane and how as an operator she needed to know if the spaces were up if the backup generators kicked in, were all the systems running, and was the internet and backup internet live – all without having to physically be there. This presents a huge opportunity to better integrate more hardware and software. Some work has been done here, but it’s very much still scratching the surface. 

"There is so much more we can do to have highly automated and operational efficient coworking spaces."

Ginger shared what she felt operators should keep in mind when assessing or implementing technology, especially around activating new revenue opportunities given that Upflex builds whitelabel tech solutions for commercial real estate companies like Newmark, Cushman & Wakefield, and Colliers to provide flex and hybrid solutions to their corporate clients so that their employees can access space on-demand, hub-and-spoke, or more long-term.

A challenge they face is in dealing with staggering client requirements through their partners. A requirement for tens of thousands of employees across multiple locations who ask “how do I service my employees in all of these different markets?”. 

To process this request, their team has to analyze the network and find options that would work best in each territory.  They then have to send these requests to all these different operators (and it could be in the thousands). And all of this is managed manually today. 

This is partly because most of the data that companies like Upflex need in order to drive those sales to operators is closed. And so by the time operators get back to the client it’s been over 36 hours.

"One of the things that I'm really hopeful for is the ability to unlock this inventory information, make it available so we can drive demand to our co-working partners so that we can help, you know, build a sustainable business for you."

We then dug into an open discussion around data. I posed that if workspace software was the competitive advantage of the last decade, then data will be the superpower unlocked in the next decade.

Ginger started the discussion by highlighting that as data becomes more structured, and shared between systems, then efficiencies can be delivered where human capital isn’t necessary. Like replying to emails about inquiries. Another great use of data is helping employers, and your team, understand how employees are using your workspaces and what opportunities exist to improve the experience and processes.

Brian zoomed out a bit, looking at data from both macro and micro levels. 

On the macro side, he mentioned that the coworking market is in such a good spot right now, with regards to how knowledge workers are changing and picking where they work and live, as well as corporations looking for different solutions as their long-term leases expire. 

Using data at this macro level, he shared that from the commercial side they know that the average lease expirations in New York City are 72 months, as compared to Chicago where it may be 42 months. What this means for coworking operators is that there are more opportunities to land larger clients or employee groups as these leases expire.

On a micro level, with regards to transaction-level data, having tech like access control, wifi usage tracking, and heat mapping solutions can help operators understand how their space is being utilized and where there are opportunities for additional revenue streams or cost reductions.  

"So by bringing all these systems together you can get that granularity (of data) to make informed business decisions"

Miro shared that he’s most excited about a piece of data that’s actually still missing in the industry: a classification of spaces & categorization. Without this, he mentions, we’re prevented from doing some really interesting data insights and true benchmarking. He hopes that the industry can come together and build this standardization. 

The kind of classification mentioned would not only be around product units, but also something similar to how hotels have five stars or four.

Another interesting form of congregated and combined data for organizations could be the utilization data from both hubs and spokes (ie headquarters/owned spaces and third spaces) to make informed decisions faster.

Sofia took the topic even further, reminding us that at its core data is supposed to inform our decision-making. It should be used to help operators grow, and make better and more informed decisions. 

"In many ways, I think we are not there yet as an industry. Why? Because we have a lot of data that is not coming together. So what I said earlier on about integrations being a thing, now that's amazing, right?

Because in an ideal world, we all have dashboard. Where all of our data is coming together from different sources, from our different tech stacks, and we are actually able to use that data in a holistic way, capture it in such a way that we are able to make those informed decisions.

But that's just the very surface of the use and the power of data."

When it comes to data becoming a superpower, what Sofia would like to see is data shifting from being leveraged reactively (ie looking at past events/info) to proactively (ie using AI to help predict members’ behavior).

The Future

Looking forward, we discussed what the optimal tech stack could look like for flex spaces of the future. 

Ginger touched back on what Sofia mentioned around data and hinted at a future of more personalization. 

Today you can find recommendations on Netflix, or order a car from your phone. These companies spend a lot of time optimizing solutions to your need. Bringing this to workspaces, a lot of companies are spending a lot of time and energy making accessing the workspace a personalized experience.

"You know, take tech, do all of those things, make it personalized, make it frictionless, but then use your energy and your resources to do what's meaningful for people, connection, community, and create those inspiring spaces that you do today.

Focus on that. And I think if you can create the right tech stack that can do all of the yellow stuff, then you're in a winning game."

Brian also agreed that a fully-automated and connected experience, from a tech perspective, is what everyone’s aiming form. From self-serve kiosks, to provisioning space, access and wifi connectivity.

Miro went another direction, saying that he imagines workspace and flex space technology of the future to be simpler. Since 2017, it’s almost been a race to add features and bells and whistles as the market for technology got more competitive. 

"I think it's time for us to actually cut, and simplify, because technology, in order to be best utilized, needs to be really, really simple and straightforward. and right now, I should be fully honest, it is not."

Sofia turned her attention to community managers, who are often seen as an “omni present jack of all trades” figure that has to seamlessly manage ops and property stuff, whilst giving tours and making sales, and handling mail. Basically having to do everything.

She then made an impassioned note that resonated across the panel and the attendees. 

"So what does the future look like? How about we start by focusing on our user, right? How about we start integrating tech in such a way, automating everything that can be automated for that community manager? Removing that friction? Adding hardware and AI so that they know how to better serve their member?

And so that, as Ginger said, really focus on those things that matter most because tech can do all of that for us.

Tech can automate, tech can remove friction. Tech can make everything a whole lot more efficient than it is today. Unfortunately, we don't have that seamlessness that we've all been talking about, that integration, that beautiful experience with tech that can remove all of that friction for our community managers and that can actually work for them, right?

So as Miro said, as well, simplicity is about integrating. It is about making sure that everything is as operationally efficient as possible and giving our community managers the gift of time back.

Not expecting them to be able to do everything perfectly, because guess what? They can't and we know it.

Right? So how about we go back to our roots? How about we use tech to make sure that our community managers are actually doing community building? Simple. "

We then looked deeper at how great tech is almost invisible, and Ginger reminded operators that they should be proactive in collecting and owning their own data.

The panel then dug into how a lot of property technology is built around automating or digitizing pretty terrible user experiences, and not about reimagining the process or experience and building towards that.

On the side-topic of "Frenemies" in proptech.

Mark Gilbreath from LiquidSpace did a great job moderating the day, getting the attendees through a full agenda of panels, keynotes and activities.

In introducing our panel, he mentioned we were all great examples of servant leaders, who are driven to build technology that makes people in our industry happier. However, he did mention that we were all frenemies who often compete with, and challenge, each other on any given day to make our products and solutions better.

Near the end of our panel (with about 1m59s remaining), Sofia addressed her unhappiness with the term “frenemies” and how we’re actually a lot more cooperative than folks think.

"I believe that we have a responsibility as tech leaders in this industry and in this sector to work together. To be allies, not frenemies, right? To make sure that we are integrated!

You know, we're integrated with officernd. We are working now with Hector and Syncaroo to provide more integrations on our platform.

And the power of the future tech stacks that we're going to have in our industry, is going to come from us working together, and providing and delivering that tech to you.

So I think there's enormous opportunity there.

I've always been about collaboration. I know that our industry, one of, you know, the most important aspects of our industry is this. Co-working right. Coming together.

And I'm very much looking forward to the next frontier where all of us tech leaders are working together to improve the lives of community managers."

A post-panel call-to-action

Following Sofia’s great point, I invited the audience, and now you dear operator who’s reading this summary to call us (the tech platforms) out if you don’t see enough collaboration, integrations or data synchronicity.

We’re all in this to improve your work lives, workflows, and the ways in which you can serve your communities.

Share this post with your colleagues.

Hey, I'm Hector 👋

I lead strategic initiatives for people, brands, and projects at the intersection of tech & work

I’m part web dev, part guerrilla marketer, and all geek.

I love working on interesting ways to build campaigns, implement tech, elevate voices, and drive revenues for market-defining personalities, brands, and platforms.

In 1999, I hit upload on my first “website”, and 12-year-old me was immediately hooked on the ways the internet would become a force multiplier for people, brands, and ideas.

Since then I’ve worked on over 850 strategic initiatives across media, advertising, non-profits, proptech, e-commerce, marketplaces, productized services, and more.

I’m currently a co-founder of Syncaroo.com and curate the This Week In Coworking newsletter.

Previously I founded included.co and led the growth of the global perks network to 700+ communities, supporting over 133,000 members and businesses.

In my blog and on stage I share thoughts, observations, and undercurrent trends at the intersection of workspaces and technology.

Would you like my blog updates via email?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.