Elizabeth Hurt

Tech tips every coworking center operator should consider

Photo above depicts 312 Main, a social mission coworking space in Vancouver, designed by Kanawha Design Studio. Photo courtesy of Jacob Sayles/Kanawha Design Studio.

Back in the good ol' days of in-person industry conferences, we had the pleasure of meeting Jacob Sayles of Kanawha Design Studio. As technical director of the family-run coworking design studio, Jacob is responsible for supporting collaborative communities – coworking spaces, coliving spaces, makerspaces and artists’ communities – with whatever tools they need to be healthy and successful.

Below, Jacob has graciously shared his insights on how technology can help or hurt shared workspaces, what operators should consider before engaging any new technology, and the unexpected ways tech has influenced the industry during the pandemic.

With your knowledge of technology and of coworking, what would you tell a new/prospective coworking space owner is the most important thing to think about when planning their technology?

You don’t have to, nor should you do this alone. Wherever you are, there are coworking spaces close by. Reach out and talk to the owners and tell them about your plans. Most coworking space operators are eager to talk to others and share stories. We are collaborative people after all. Join the local coworking alliance, or start one if there isn’t one. If you choose to hire a consultant, there are great people out there, many of whom have started their own spaces, who are available to help. Build up your community of perspective members and work together to flesh out the vision. That will inform your technology plan more than any sales presentation. You need support to do this and if you don’t have it, focus there and build up the support you need before diving in.

When it comes to choosing technology, start by checking your assumptions about the role it plays in the process. There is a lot of exciting technology out there but it is important to understand that humans are by far the most important part of any implementation. Any automation tools deployed are not there to remove the need for people but are designed to help you and your staff work more effectively. Technology is great for automating repetitive tasks, but it is the human touch that will make your members feel at home. Keep a keen eye on this as you are planning out which technology you are going to deploy and how it will intersect with your members.

What is the biggest gap or failure you've seen in the shared workspace technology arena?

You need to keep your finger on the pulse of your community so you can quickly react and adjust as things evolve. This is central to why people choose to work at a coworking space and which coworking space to work at. Your business will be more successful and be around longer if your members can’t imagine how they would live without it. If you dilute that by reducing your business to faceless transactions and a money-for-services model, then your members will leave when another service is cheaper, or offers other incentives.

Keep this in mind as you are planning out your operation. Again and again, I see people push efficiency above all else at the expense of keeping certain key things in hand. Billing is a good example. If everything was automated and all you saw each month was the total amount deposited into your bank account, you would have no view into who is coming, who is going, who is expanding, or who is struggling. These metrics are vital when assessing the health of your community. Don’t just look at what technology can do, or as one big solution for everything but instead look at what you require, and use technology to fill in the gaps where needed.

Generally, what should coworking centers start doing that most do not? Is there any tech that more should be taking advantage? Conversely, what should coworking centers stop doing when it comes to tech?

You don’t have, or need all of the answers to all of the problems on day one. Pick solutions that are flexible and will grow with you and your business. Yes, it is more efficient to deploy a technical solution early, but it is far less efficient to deploy a solution based on a weak understanding of the issues and then have to backtrack. When I’ve seen businesses convert from an excel spreadsheet to a coworking management platform I’ve seen a much easier transition than people who buy every solution on day one but haven’t fully wrapped their heads around the business of running a coworking space. This is not to say you need to start with a spreadsheet but the platforms I recommend to people understand the point I am making here and allow you to grow into the software over time.

We all need to stop believing that technology will fix everything and make up for our lack of understanding. Technology is only a tool and any tool only works if we know how to use it. Be leery of any sales person who promises otherwise and prays on your anxiety over not knowing what you need. The anxiety is real so take the time to understand the problem before you spend money on solutions. Choose consultants that will meet you where you are at and help you understand the business of running a coworking space with technology acting as a simple means to that end.

What unexpected or new ways have you observed tech playing a role in coworking operations during and hopefully post-COVID?

This past year has shown us how adaptable and resilient we can be and how we can shift our use of technology quickly. The trend to work from anywhere was already growing fast and this has only accelerated with the pandemic.

Isolation has always been the primary driver to coworking and now more than ever more people understand the negative impacts that come with isolation. There are plenty of examples of how technology falls short of real human connection. A zoom happy hour is no substitute for a celebration with friends and colleges when you have landed a big contract, for example. This more universal understanding will shape how the industry moves forward.

Combining a clear understanding of the role isolation plays in this and the point I’ve been driving home that technology isn’t always the answer, I see more people recognizing the true value of coworking and other facilitated, curated communities. I’m interested to see how the industry adapts to this and what tools can be developed to help the facilitators and curators.

Please tell me a little more about your company, Kanawha Design Studio. Where can people find you?

Kanawha Design Studio is a multidisciplinary design, technology and business consulting firm based in the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the United States. We combine design, software and community-building skills to consult on and build out spaces, experiences and systems. Our projects are both grounded in immediate, practical problems and influenced by larger directional shifts in the coworking and shared resource movements. We are designers who create built environments that are comfortable, flexible and specific to the needs of each community. We develop or deploy technology systems and create safe, flexible networks for communities with vibrant, diversified memberships. We also help with business plans and operational systems to achieve these goals. It is a magical thing when all of these elements work together to support people and facilitate strong communities.

My wife, Katie Davis-Sayles, began the studio in 2011 with a Master of Architecture, 10 years of experience in theatre and event design and a specialty in graphic design for built environments. She found coworking as a lonely entrepreneur in search of the feel of a collaborative and supportive design studio. I joined the firm in 2015 and supplied expertise in technology and management of coworking spaces. I co-founder of Office Nomads, the oldest coworking space in Seattle and I have been a speaker and advocate for many spaces around the world and the growing coworking movement as a whole.

Thank you, Jacob, for your valuable insight on tech's role coworking. For more information on Kanawha Design, visit https://kanawha.design/.