by Melissa Mesku
Anyone with an eye on the future of work knows that the demand for flexible workspace is growing worldwide. At the same time, billions of square feet of office space goes wasted. It’s no wonder that online marketplaces like PivotDesk, ShareDesk and LiquidSpace are vying to connect people with flexible workspace.
But in an industry rife with companies that are now defunct—Loosecubes and Deskwanted folded years ago—why are so many new workspace marketplaces starting up? What are they doing differently, and what role will they have in the future of work?
LiquidSpace, one of the biggest players in the workspace marketplace industry, has an elegant product to answer that. Their new iOS app, released in mid-April, lets users easily find and book workspace in just a few taps, invite guests, coordinate location and arrival info, and manage use of the space. The app provides on-demand access to 5,500 flexible workspaces by the hour, day or longer in 600 cities in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Similarly, ShareDesk is another big player that also allows users to find, book, and check in to flexible workspaces—38,000 workspaces in 70 countries are available on-demand by the hour, day, and month. ShareDesk – with its tool Optix – and LiquidSpace both include an easy way for venues to manage bookings of their space.
In a recent interview, Mark Gilbreath, LiquidSpace’s founder and CEO, told us, “The core of our business is connecting people with place, so our focus is on providing a delightful end-to-end experience whether you’re booking a meeting space for an afternoon or a team space for a month.” The level of transactional ease that the app provides is sophisticated—easy syncing of location with other participants, one-tap messaging to tell them you’re running late, and it’s context-aware enough to tell you whether the room is available if you need more time.
Gilbreath said, “We designed it to alleviate many of the cognitive burdens that go along with organizing meetings and collaborative work sessions.” That burden is eased to the point that a user could work from a space for the first time and leave without speaking to anyone—not even to ask for the wifi password (it’s in the app).
It’s a testament to the fact that flexible workspace need not be shared workspace, a point that’s somewhat antithetical to the coworking movement. Coworking spaces, which make up a quarter of the meeting spaces available through LiquidSpace, tend to feature more heavily in the offerings of other platforms.
By contrast, Share Your Office focuses heavily on coworking and space sharing. A San Francisco-based offshoot of French workspace marketplace Bureaux A Partager, Share Your Office lists every coworking space that it knows of in the U.S.—currently more than 500 spaces. The company also recently put out the results of a coworking survey they conducted.
“At the moment we have a very strong relationship with the coworking community and have personally talked in depth with each space manager,” said Connor Provines, Operational Manager of Share Your Office. “If the space is local, we go out and photograph it. We think that these kind of things are what really makes the difference and helps us stand out,” he said.
SpareChair also has strong parallels with coworking. SpareChair, founded in Brooklyn in 2014, enables people to work not just from coworking spaces but from private offices and even apartments. The platform is not for booking meetings—it’s explicitly to find a workspace where you can make connections with other workers. Each workspace is listed under a user’s name and profile—e.g., the Manhattan coworking space Cowork|rs is listed under the name “Cameron Ross,” Cowork|rs’s community manager—a feature that echoes social marketplaces like Airbnb.
“The fact that each of our members has a personal profile, and that we have two-sided reviews, means that hosts feel much more comfortable having SpareChair folks come into their space. We’re taking care to bake trust into the community,” said Sharona Coutts, SpareChair’s CEO and co-founder.
The platform lets users book space daily or hourly, but it’s not meant to be a discovery tool for just space. “We’re unique in that people booking a SpareChair session know who they’re coworking with because each member has a profile. Hosts and guests indicate what their field of work is and you can search for people you want to meet,” Coutts said.
She gave the following scenario: If you’re a designer, you could choose to cowork at design firms you like, and hang out, talk shop and perhaps scope out whether you’d like to work with them at some stage. On the other side of the coin, if you’re a development shop with unused desk space, you could use SpareChair to invite other developers to cowork with you. “It’s not simply a coworking marketplace; it’s a networking platform,” Coutts said.
The platform also seeks to serve the traditional coworking community. Coutts told us, “At our popup coworking sessions we’ve seen the development of a community of people who talk about what they’re working on and offer each other support and help.”
A recent newcomer, vāga seeks to differentiate itself in a couple ways. For one, it offers not just office space but retail and even warehouse space. vāga also targets second- and third-tier cities and rural areas.
“Despite all the other platforms out there, there’s still a gap in emerging cities,” said Kerranna Williamson, vāga’s founder. “Part of our mission is to bring flexible space to cities that have a need and aren’t already filled with coworking spaces. Entrepreneurs in emerging cities, suburbs, and rural areas have a harder time finding flexible space, and we hope to change that,” she told us.
The company got its start at Harbor Entrepreneur Center Accelerator in Charleston, S.C. where it piloted the platform. They are adding to their founding team and are soon to launch a mobile app.
A number of up and coming workspace marketplace platforms are also aiming to enable people to cowork, like Deskally, Xtradesk and Sparedesk. Many start with listings in a geographical area, like ShareOffice, which focuses on spaces in Switzerland.
Oftentimes these platforms function as a discovery tool for available office space, requiring users to send a message to each space before making a booking, like Deskcamping, Share Your Office and DesksNear.Me. This makes for some stiff competition from platforms that have robust mobile apps that allow on-demand bookings. “The real goal is how can you get workers to keep using your tool and keep them from working at coffee shops,” said Michelle Regner, CEO and co-founder of DesksNear.Me and Near Me.
In the crowded marketplace of marketplaces, what a platform offers, or how well it’s delivered, is the main way to set itself apart from the others. But what we’re really seeing is that many of these marketplaces envision a slightly different user of flexible workspace. The question, “Who uses flexible workspace and what do they want?” is one that coworking long been answering, but the answers are bigger than just coworking. At the heart of the question is what they envision the future of work to be.
Businesses rely in some way on a tech infrastructure that is now distributed and can be found anywhere there’s an internet connection. Yet the need for physical space, and even community, are the remaining unmet needs of entrepreneurs. Williamson of vāga is trying to bridge that gap by enabling entrepreneurs in smaller cities and rural areas find the space they need without having to move to a more populated area. For vāga, the future of work will be found in these smaller cities. Williamson’s hope is that vāga will help more people bring innovation home.
Community, and an easy way to find it, is what SpareChair is looking to create. SpareChair’s take on the future of work is most akin to that of coworking: people want more than just space—what they really want is to connect with others.
Regner of DesksNear.Me sees the choosing of a workspace as a considered decision with a strong human element. “Most users face the difficulty of wanting to contact different workspaces they are interested in before committing. We make it easy with our messaging capabilities that let people contact multiple spaces before committing to a location to rent,” she said. For Regner, the future of work is in helping people find just the right space, even if it requires a bit of leg work in contacting potential spaces before making a choice.
Share Your Office also opts for a strong human element, and they set themselves apart with a heavy reliance on the personal touch. “We’ve always made a big point of being incredibly personal and close to our customers. I’ve spoken to every person who signs up with us and we personally guide them through the process,” said Provines.
The ability to message spaces before visiting is a feature of many platforms like Share Your Office, Deskcamping and DesksNear.Me. The Share Your Office website states, “Checking out a space before renting is one of the most important elements in finding the perfect office. On average, it takes 15 days to find … a space to rent on Share Your Office.”
Platforms with robust applications, like LiquidSpace and ShareDesk, don’t require workers to have to wait at all — ushering in a future where people solve their needs through an app.
Kia Rahmani, CEO and founder of ShareDesk, told us, “The workplace of the future will be anytime-anywhere and will revolve around individuals instead of corporate headquarters. The conventional idea of the office space will shift to become more conducive to the mobile worker, which means more choice and flexibility for individuals. As the workforce becomes more connected than ever, companies are embracing unprecedented access to tools and technologies that make both online and in-person collaboration more seamless and productive.”
LiquidSpace’s Gilbreath sees the future of work along similar lines. For him, there is a time and place for community, and times when we just need a meeting room and a hassle-free transaction. His company is currently focusing on the latter. “Let’s say I want to reserve a project space for my marketing group for four hours at two o’clock. No one else resolves space down to that level. If you can have a great end to end transaction, then it makes flex working even more pleasant,” he said. For him, the question of who flexible workers are and what they want is straightforward: they are on-the-go, and they want easy on-demand access.
The future of flexible work remains to be seen, but workspace marketplaces are a good place to start looking.
DesksNear.Me is offering no booking fees for the next 12 months, starting in May.
Check out LiquidSpace’s new iOS app, released on April 16. Use code “GOMOBILE” for a 30% discount on any workspace booked on the app by May 10, 2015.
Soon vāga will be expanding to new cities; contact vāga to nominate your city.