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The Future of Work: Report on Changing Office Spaces Signals Shifts in the U.S. Economy

An exhaustive analysis of flexible workspaces and coworking underlines big shifts in how we work today

Coworking and flexible workspaces are more than just the latest trend, or a new driver of the office space market. According to an exhaustive report released this week by The Instant Group, the strong growth in this sector, increasing nationally at a rate of 10 percent last year to encompass nearly 4,000 locations across the United States, reflects larger shifts in how we work. With more then 40 percent of the American workforce employed on a contingency basis, according to the report, and an increasing number of larger corporations, such as Verizon and Microsoft, buying into the concept of community- and collaboration-oriented workspaces, expect the market for these spaces to continue to expand rapidly.

Not surprisingly, the flexible office and coworking market still clusters around a handful of big metropolitan areas, with half the market in just 50 cities, mostly driven by the growth of TAMI (technology, advertising, media, and information technology) firms. Both San Francisco, which saw a 11.5% increase in desk space last year, and Washington, D.C., which saw a 17.2% jump, are prime examples.

What may be surprising is just how much of the growth in this industry comes from corporate clients, as opposed to the freelances, tech entrepreneurs, and small businesses often portrayed as the natural occupiers for these environments. Instant's report notes that 79% of the companies making deals for spaces of 40 desks or more have been large corporations, and the number of deals of this size have tripled over the last two years, driven by demand from the corporate sector. WeWork, for instance, is hugely popular with Microsoft, according to the report.

This increased demand has been a boon to landlords, who have now been given a new means to market, rent, and profit off their investments. New York City provides a great case study. Pent-up post-recession demand had led to a boom in office space construction—26 million square feet of new space is scheduled for completion—and with older stock unsuitable for the needs of modern tenants, many are turning to flexible or coworking-type layouts, featuring higher density, open spaces with collaborative break-out areas.

Models differ considerably within the industry, with big players, defined as companies with more than 50 locations such as Regus and WeWork, making up on 30% of a fragmented market. The majority of new spaces have been opened by small businesses or landlords looking to activate dormant office space, creating a competitive market with extensive consumer choice.

"The coworking model is highly nuanced and differs considerably across the US," said Michelle Bodick, Managing Director of Instant US. "The focus of the facilities we surveyed varies enormously; some are aimed at building local communities of artisans or minorities together [those aimed at particular trades or demographics], but also drop-in membership provision for people who want somewhere to work for an hour."

While WeWork continues to grab the headlines, it’s relatively small (66 locations, 2 million square foot of office space), compared to established owner Regus, which operates 3,000 centers globally in 900 cities and is pivoting towards providing more and more flexible space. The company opened its 1,000th U.S. location last year, has begun to install community managers in its office centers, and recently acquired Spaces, a Dutch coworking company, with plans to establish the brand in the United States (it’s already opened a handful of locations in California).

As Regus’s growth suggests, the U.S. is certainly not alone in embracing a new type of workspace. The global market for flexible workspace now totals $21 billion, due to a compound growth rate of 21% over the past five years.

Looking ahead, Instant forecasts increased U.S. growth in this agile sector, especially in secondary markets that are both near a primary city, such as Delray Beach or Encino, and have an industrial or manufacturing history (which means plenty of large factories and industrials spaces ripe for conversion). More corporate clients are turning to this kind of space for innovation labs and in-house incubators, and the desire for a different experience with more networking opportunities means more demand for operators large and small. Looks like the old-fashioned dream of a corner office may need to be reconsidered.

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