A summary of this in depth post can be found here: Nacho Rodriguez - Founder, Coliving Canary Islands & NomadCity Conference
I’m Nacho Rodriguez, founder of Coworking and Co-living Canary Islands. It’s a network of coworking space and co-living spaces, hosting both local and international entrepreneurs, who work remotely from Gran Canary in the Canary Islands.
It can be hard to make a small coworking space sustainable, but the business became more interesting when we evolved, in response to demand from freelancers from all over the world, to establish three co-living spaces.
Co-livers have 24/7 access control via an app. This is crucial to our sustainability and more importantly, empowers co-livers to take ownership of the space. Work environments aren’t just people in a space together, they are about interacting and generating positive synergies with coworkers. As more companies become remote-friendly, it’s important that community remains a priority.
Our response to COVID has been more physical than technology based so far: no sharing of desks, minimum distance respected, and more demand for private offices. More generally, 5G will open opportunities to work in rural areas where connectivity currently is a challenge.
We started our coworking space out of our own needs. We had a spin-off project that needed to be relocated and we had a property available. We decided to prepare that property for ourselves, but as it was large enough to host other companies, other entrepreneurs, we decided to make it available.
When we started, we didn’t know too much about the whole coworking industry. It was more of a concept of a shared office. And we weren’t aware that that was happening five years ago already in our hometown. And that’s when we first decided to fully focus our coworking space into digital remote workers. And as this evolved, the second problem that we encountered was, that they needed flexible accommodation, which basically wasn’t being offered in our home city. And that’s how we started our first co-living, almost three years ago.
That actually worked out really well. It was a great experience. And it also made our business more interesting. A small coworking space, as you know, it’s sometimes hard to make sustainable. Ours was already sustainable, but the co-living actually made the business even more interesting. And that’s why we actually decided to invest more resources into opening more co-livings. And we kept the coworking sites the same.
Over time, it evolved, in not only maintaining the original coworking space, but actually opening up three co-living locations, connected to the coworking spaces. But all our co-livings also have a workspace in-house. So, our co-livers are free to work from home, or actually walk over to the coworking space if they want.
I don’t think that we are really special. We are just really focused on the value proposition that our city, our destination offers. And again, we are really focused on hosting remote workers. And therefore, trying to solve all their pains, in order to make sure that we can facilitate as much, their [softlanding 00:15:38] in the city, to maintain their productivity as much as possible, and also allow them to engage with an interesting like-minded community of professionals, so that they also feel like home while they are working remotely from Gran Canaria.
One of our co-living locations, it’s a very interesting architecture. It’s a 300 square meter penthouse, with seven bedrooms, a very large, almost 600 square meters of rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean. So, the problem that we actually have at The Roof, that’s what we call it, is that co-livers don’t ever leave The Roof.
So, even if we encourage them, sometimes you come to the coworking space to connect and meet with the rest of the local community, and other coworkers from other co-living locations, they actually prefer to stay at The Roof, and work from there, enjoying the outdoors. So, sometimes it’s hard to make them leave the house.
We have looked into technology aspects and solutions. The idea for the spin off from our family business was to implement open source solutions for companies, replicating what we have done and implemented in our own company. Our family-owned business is for efficient tech solutions for hospitals. I have an engineering background I’m always interested in technology. So, that’s why I’ve always been, somehow, interested in the whole field.
In terms of technology, I know that many other coworkers that have seen a lot of very, very interesting tools, that could be interesting if we had a larger scale, so if we had larger coworking, or even provided more services.
But then, also, I need to explain that, at the coworking space, it was not our primary business.
We needed to be very practical, in terms of particularly investing, to make sure that our business was sustainable. In order for the technology aspect of business itself to make sense, we had to keep our investments shorter on that side. If we had more skill in our coworking spaces, so if we have planned to open other coworking locations, we will probably have invested also more in technology.
Our coworking location is very small, we can only host a maximum of 30 people at once. We always kept it simple in many ways, although found over time, some interesting tech solutions that solved some of our pains.
In terms of COVID-19 we are still evaluating how the situation evolves, and to see what the new normal is going to be like. Just look back, and think, how many changes and new regulations have we had over the last three months. If we had implemented, or done things for each of them, we’d be first, crazy, and second, I’d spend a lot of money. For a lot of this, it’s not only for working spaces, it made more sense just to close, and wait until there is some sort of near-reality that they can understand, and know what the new rules are.
So far during this period for us Technology has not helped much more than before because most of the time our coworking space was closed. So, that has been the case for us. And, we will have to see, because we are still evaluating the different measures that need to be implemented, obviously still under a very small rate of usage, in terms of occupancy in the coworking space. So, we’ll have to see how things evolve, and we’ll have to analyze it, if there’s anything else that we should implement, in order to comply with the new regulations under the new situation.
During the first period, the first two months, we had to close down the workspace. There was just too much misinformation. The rules weren’t clear, and most of coworkers have the ability to work remotely. So, they don’t need to go to the workspace. They go to the workspace, because they like the atmosphere and the resource that we make available. But they can always work from home.
So, as most of them decided to stay home, we also decided that it didn’t make sense to have the workspace available. And, we have just recently, two weeks ago, made it available again to current coworkers, and since last week to new coworkers.
The first measures that we have implemented are not connected to technology. So basically, what we did in the space was, we canceled the helpdesks. So, we separated the helpdesk, and made only permanent desks available, so that every coworker only gets to use their desk. And, there’s no sharing of desks. Also, we implemented regulations to make sure that the minimum distance was respected within the space. Obviously made available all kinds of products for disinfection of hands, we have a face mask available in the workspace, if anyone wants to pick one up, because they missed their own. Obviously increased the cleaning.
What I see more demand, is to have private offices. Because of the current situation, a lot of businesses that have decided to leave their office space, want to replicate what they had in their office in a coworking, or in a flexible space. Therefore, request private areas, so that they can bring in their teams, and have their own office space. And also, because of obviously, security reasons, and health reasons connected to COVID. For example one of the things that I’ve seen being questioned, are actually the phone booths. With COVID, nobody wants to go inside in a phone booth. They feel that, everywhere you touch, you’re going to be infected. There is certainly a challenge around it.
For example if video conferencing rooms are needed, they actually are needed, and they need to be larger. So, that’s a huge challenge for a coworking space, because they have to allocate a lot of space, and it’s not going to be used the whole time, just temporarily, for this. And if there’s several people wanting to have a video call at the same time, then it’s a big issue. There’s no easy solution for it. But, we have to see how things evolve. And, eventually, as I’ve discussed with other coworking managers, I think that we’re going to see two phases from now on. We’re going to see the pre-vaccine phase, which is the most difficult one, and we’re going to see the post-vaccine stage, which you never know when that’s going to be. But, eventually the things are going to go back to a new normal, that is similar to the old normal.
We’ll probably have to see what happens in both. And, that’s why in other hands, we’ll be taking cautious measures, in terms of, we haven’t invested in, I don’t know, a lot of separations, and all kinds of accompaniments that people are trying to sell now, with the coworking space, because we don’t really know how long the situation is going to take.
And also, just thinking out with a little bit of common sense. We know that everyone working in the coworking space is taking a risk, unless they wear one of those dry suits. They’re going to take a risk, no matter what you do. So, it doesn’t make sense for a coworking space manager to invest on daily cleaning, or twice a day, or every hour, or … I don’t know how many different cleaning ratios I’ve read about … or all kinds of different tools. Those investments might go into the trash after the vaccine is developed.
So, we as operators, particularly those who run small spaces like mine, that are hard to make profitable, or even sustainable, need to really be cautious about it, because otherwise … we’re already losing money, because our spaces are empty. If we invest a lot of money that is going to be trashed, that’s even worse.
For us, in terms of technology, what I would emphasize, what has been super important and a lifesaver, it’s the access control.
So, to have the facility on with an app, to be able to grant or cancel access to anyone in our community, to access the coworking space. Also, since we are not there as members all the time, or as managers, the visualization of what’s happening in the space, so we have a couple of webcams on each floor, so that we can make sure that everything is okay, and there is no issues.
In order for our coworking space to be sustainable again business-wise, our coworking space is self-managed, meaning that every coworker has 24/7 access through an app that they can have on their phones. We don’t have a member of the team presentially there, or during even office hours. Sometimes I’m there, sometimes one of my colleagues is there, but sometimes there’s nobody there.
In the coworking sector there is some nervousness about costs, about losing that personal touch, with putting in access technology. But in our case the opposite happened. Because when we took away the artificial host, some of the more stronger community members came forward, and became the host. Normally, new coworkers normally request appointments, in order to be shown the space etc. But sometimes people already using the coworking space take the role of the managers, and actually they are the ones, if somebody comes up without notice, and just knocks on our door, they are the ones who take care of it. it’s better, because it doesn’t have to be always the same person. Otherwise, it becomes a job. Right? Imagine that that particular person is busy at that time, on a video call. If she feels that she has to leave the video call to attend the person, then it doesn’t work. If there’s someone else around, and knows the dynamic … and funny enough, particularly with the new ones, see another coworker that they know that he’s not part of the team, he’s just another coworker, doing it, then they’re like, “This is cool. I want to do it too.”
it’s our responsibility as managers, to detect who are those people that don’t mind, and actually enjoy doing this. And just engaging in an informal conversation with them, and be like, “Hey, would you mind doing this if there was the case?” And normally, the answer is always yes. And it works really well
We implement the same strategy in the co-living space. And at the end, our way of thinking about this is that we implement the infrastructure. We implement the site services. But, we empower our co-livers, our coworkers to take ownership of this space, as if they were part of it. And that not only solves us a lot of problems, and makes us work less, but it makes them be part of it, and feel part of it. And it works very well.
Also I think the third tool that has been also for us a lifesaver, which we didn’t have at the beginning, was obviously a tool to outmake the invoicing.
So that, in order to reduce the amount of administrative tasks, and time spent on that, a tool that can generate after monthly, the invoices, and send them, and make the payments easy for our customers. That has been also an important part of the tools that we have used.
In the short term, we are thinking about just implementing tools connected to sales and marketing.
So, we’re looking into implementing the CRM, and we’re also looking into the tools to automate our bookings a step further, so we make them available online. And also, we’re looking into improve the access control in the co-livings, as the current doors that we have at the co-livings are mechanical, they are not electrical. And, it’s a bit tricky to automate access with those, and make sure that it doesn’t become a recurring problem, in terms of maintenance. Those are the things that we are looking into at the moment.
One of the general thoughts that I could share connected to technology is, I believe that 5G, so wireless connectivity, will certainly change some of the needs for coworking spaces. Up until now, were a solution for remote workers that couldn’t find good connectivity anywhere else. And I think that 5G could actually make that happen. In fact, we’ll also probably allow people to work in from areas that it is impossible to work at the moment, like rural environments, et cetera, and with very, very good capacities and capabilities, as if you were connected in an office space.
So I think that’s always going to bring challenges, but also opportunities to the flexible space. Also, connected to COVID, more and more new office spaces being started in rural areas where people decide to move to, but they also want to also go to a space where they can gather with other workers in their regions.
Above technology, the main reason, at least for us, why customers join our coworking space is, because they want a work environment. Work environments is also connected to community, because if you don’t have more people, you don’t have a work environment, you just have an empty office.
But also, to interact, and to generate positive synergies with other coworkers. And I see that this is even going to become more important, particularly because of COVID. I think that more and more communities are going to have to suffer from loneliness, and they are going to need that community aspect. So they’re going to look for it, and they’re going to be part of a community. And I think that flexible and coworking spaces have a lot to say. And for that, they definitely should be a priority to, not just provide a service, but also care a lot about the community [inaudible 00:25:06].
Certainly we are watching how things evolve, and trying to understand the new trends. For example, one of the things that we are looking forward to, is to open new co-living locations and coworking locations in rural areas within the Canary Islands. I think that will provide a very good experience for those who visit us.
We’ve been mostly focused in a rural are here in Las Palmas De Gran Canaria. But right now, because of all of this, and because we see that this is a trend, and more and more people are asking for it, we’re also looking forward to develop our network into those areas where more workers are wanting to be.
Rural co-livings they already exist in many places, and I think that they play a very important role, and they add a lot of value. But, on certain regions, where there’s already a community of remote workers that don’t want to work at home the whole time, and they would prefer to go somewhere close in their rural area, where they can be with other remote workers. I think that also, there are going to be coworking spaces offering services.
I am very positive about the future of flexible work spaces, because of their connection with remote work, basically. We see more and more companies worldwide becoming remote-friendly, or even remote-first. And, all that workforce, it’s going to look to relocate, or to stop going to the office, and probably start using their closest coworking space, if they don’t want to work at home.
So, this whole transition that we’ve lived through over the last three months, where we have seen remote work evolve five or 10 years in three months’ time, I think, it’s certainly going to make a positive impact on the flexible workspace. And there’s going to be a lot of new opportunities for operators.
One of the challenges is to defend the interest of the private sector in coworking. It’s very common in many cities, in many regions in Europe, that there is a lot of coworking spaces financed by the public sector. Sometimes with conditions that compete against the private sector.
Four years ago we created the Association of Coworking Spaces of the Canary Islands almost four years ago to ballad together, in order to make sure that the public sector was aligned, and that they were doing fair competition with the private sector. But also, it was an interesting way to connect, exchange, find different synergies between the different spaces that were spread out throughout the seven islands.
It was reactivated because of Covid. There are a lot of new operators in the Canary Islands. Right now, we have about 70 spaces in total, spread out through different islands. And the interest around the association was really high, as everybody understood that this was a very important time to stick together, to exchange information, and try to create positive synergies together. And that’s what we’ve been up to in the last weeks.
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