Common grounds: the year in co-working spaces

As businesses become more location-agnostic, the wave of property owners and developers launching flexible workspaces is growing

Sand in your toes, a light sea breeze … It wasn’t too long ago that the cliché of a coworking space in Asia centred on dreadlocked digital nomads island-hopping through a professional gap year.

And while small business owner-operators can still plug in from a beach shack in Canggu to confer with their factory in Guangdong whilst managing sales in Atlanta, research by Colliers reveals the share of freelancers and independent workers using flexible workspaces dropped by 15 percent over the three years ending in 2017.

It’s not that fewer are living the laptop life; no, the flexible workspace market has exploded in Asia-Pacific over the past five years thanks to the enthusiasm of far bigger players on both the supply and demand sides.

Big international operators are moving aggressively into the region, including WeWork, which opened its 200th location globally in Singapore in 2017 and is sending its coworking tentacles across Southeast Asia.

Major property owners are getting into the act, partnering with flex-space companies and launching their own brands. Governments, noting the benefits of entrepreneurs to their economies, are adding their backing. And multinationals, employing what is referred to as a hub-and-spoke or core/flex approach, now consider flexible spaces an integral piece of their permanent operations, either locating entirely in such real estate or shipping younger, more mobile departments to such “off-sites”.

Taken together, it’s little surprise that JLL Research found flexible space stock across Asia-Pacific charting a compound annual growth rate from 2014 to 2017 of 35.7 percent (compared with 25.7 percent in the United States and 21.6 percent in Europe), and the total stock managed by major operators growing by 150 percent.


Thailand alone has seen coworking spaces grow from four in 2012 to 132 in 2017—a figure expected to increase by 25 percent in 2018, according to Phattarachai Taweewong, senior manager at Colliers. By 2030, JLL predicts flexible space to comprise 30 percent of corporate commercial property portfolios across Asia-Pacific.

Everyone is familiar with the dotcom-boom-era ping pong tables, in-house baristas, and—for the luckiest ducks—free beer. Such mancave perks haven’t gone the way of AOL IMs in this generation, but they’ve been joined by a sophisticated suite of options appealing to a more diverse, and increasingly corporate, clientele. More than letting networking happen organically, flexible work firms are purposefully creating programming and designing interiors to facilitate interaction.

Hubba, Thailand’s homegrown first coworking space, has four distinct outlets in Bangkok each catering to different fields, from tech start-ups to artisans and craftsmen. Hubba offers a spectrum of useful seminars (Powerpoint pointers, customer-journey mapping), as well as personalized assistance with management, staffing, and even design.

Spaces, another popular player in Bangkok, prides itself on style and flexibility, letting clients reserve anything from a locker to an enclosed area for a team. Their Chamchuri Square location won Best Co Working Space Development at the Property Guru Thailand Property Awards 2018—just a little piece of the global coworking operator founded in Amsterdam in October 2008. “And then Lehman Brothers collapsed,” the founders write on their website. “We thought this would be the end of it for us. But actually, we fit right in that spirit of age. Because of the crisis, everybody was re-thinking work.”

Artist’s impression of Spaces Chamchuri Square, winner of Best Co Working Space Development at the 13th PropertyGuru Thailand Property Awards

The Executive Centre (TEC), a pioneering Hong Kong-based flexible space provider founded in 1994 by Paul Salnikow, who had been seeking short-term office space for a Japanese firm expanding to London, credits the GFC as a gamechanger. “Prior to the financial crisis, TEC interacted with multinationals only when they were opening an office in far-flung locations,” says Pebble Lee, global public relations manager. Today, in Hong Kong alone, 67 percent of their clients are multinationals, including Apple, Morgan Stanley, Facebook and Twitter.

TEC now has 20,000 members in Grade A offices in CBDs across 30 markets, having added 23 locations in 2017, and is expecting 30 percent annual growth from 2018. Beyond such prestige fittings as height-adjustable standing desks by 9AM, Herman Miller chairs, and Timothy Oulton furnishing, TEC is about all about innovation, their Hong Kong headquarters a “test kitchen—a place to trial new design concepts, products, and technologies,” Lee says.

However, potential barriers belie the stunning growth of coworking spaces in the region. “Corporate culture in Asia tends to be more hierarchical, and not always in sync with the casual, flexible atmosphere,” says JLL research. “According to one industry observer, ‘In many markets across Asia Pacific, space is a reflection of status.’ Large organizations place high value on retaining brand identity and culture. Such concerns, along with the need to protect trade secrets and secure IT infrastructure, must be addressed.”

It’s why the most sophisticated players act not only as builders, gatekeepers, event-planners and consultants, but also full-time IT departments, and in the case of WeWork, corporate fit-out contractors and developer partners.

The common areas at a WeWork co-working space in Sanlitun, Beijing

And those developers are coming in hot. A handful of large landlords control the supply (in Singapore’s CBD, the 15 largest landlords control 75 percent of Grade A office buildings; in Hong Kong East, three landlords run 80 percent of office buildings), entering the flex-space market themselves. Swire in Hong Kong—which has created its own brand, Blueprint, and inked deals with WeWork and The Great Room—and Ascendas in Singapore, says JLL, have realized they “can add value to their buildings and maintain or even extend their relationships with tenants by offering a diverse portfolio of core and flex space.”

Even hotels have followed suit, looking at their business centers as community lounges, particularly in cities not recognized as regional commercial capitals. In Yangon, Shangri-La Group has opened a branch of FlySpaces. The new Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, has a gorgeous new space called Co-nnect, with pods, private offices, meeting rooms with smart boards for both hotel guests and residents of the capital looking for a prestigious address to conduct business.

While it’s easy to be cynical about the corporatisation of what was once considered a hippy-dippy industry, you might say global expansion has brought the coworking market full-circle. In a recent survey by TEC, members say they value their community as defined by connecting, networking, and collaboration. The firm will soon roll out a client portal, MyTEC, enabling members worldwide to connect directly, give advice, help grow their businesses, and maybe start new ones.

The way they might have found common ground while chilling in hammocks in a wired-up beach shack. It may not be sand-between-the-toes, but it is pie-in-the-sky community-minded. And isn’t that the whole point?

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 151 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine