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In Heterogeneous ASEAN, Collaborative Work Spaces Bring Bang for the Start-Up’s Buck

The reality is that the boring old office cubicle set-up sucks

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BY Tricia V. Morente - 25 Aug 2017

collaborative work spaces

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The fact that the biggest series A round that came out of the Philippines thus far was raised by FlySpaces — a digital platform that connects entrepreneurs, freelancers, and start-ups to collaborative workplaces— says a lot about the growth in the country’s gig economy.

Beyond drivers like overseas remittances and the country’s thriving business process outsourcing sector, largely lost in the economic growth narrative of the Philippines is its increasing number of freelancers — more than a million of which, a Manila Times article reveals, are registered in the Upwork and Freelancer.com platforms alone. The figure, reads the article, does not indicate “if they are part-timers or full-time workers.”

Stats like these, compounded by the millennial workforce and emerging tech start-up ecosystem in the country, is driving the growth of co-work spaces not only in the Philippines but in other Southeast Asian countries as well.

Speaking at The Coworking Forum held in Manila last August 23, FlySpaces founder Mario Berta points to “Bali, Chiang Mai, and Phuket as destination co-working places” where the co-working culture is more visible, as it is in these destinations where corporate-weary digital nomads converge. It’s a different picture in big cities, he says, where co-working operators still largely earn from leasing private offices.

According to Gregory Kittelson, chairman and co-founder of property advisory firm KMC Savills, while demand for the overall office take-up in Metro Manila is still coming from the IT-BPO sector, the growing number of start-ups keen on expanding their footprint in heterogeneous Southeast Asia are driving demand for these collaborative spaces to build out their local network and talent pool. “We’re seeing emerging within our client portfolio are the tech start-ups, whether local and foreign who start here with one to three people, as well as non-tech start-ups, freelancers, with some creative types streaming into these offices. It’s a nice mix coming about,” he says.

Evolution of the workspace

Matthew Morrison, founder of ASPACE Philippines, one of the pioneering co-working space brands in the country, relates that whereas four years ago there were hardly any collaborative work spaces in Metro Manila, it’s a different picture these days. There are now around 35 co-working spaces active in Metro Manila alone, whereas four years ago there were only two to three. “Co-working now ‘means something’,” asserts Morrison, “and what it means to different groups is unique.”

Some co-working spaces are born out of the desire to break away from traditional offices that are designed for maximum efficiency but are often “anti-human environments” that aren’t exactly great breeding grounds for inspiration and innovation. “There are people trapped in horrible workplaces every day, so co-working for whoever does it becomes a liberation of their minds and bodies,” says Morrison.

There are also those who are inspired by the community they’re working in, and because running their own space can be expensive, they bring in like-minded people to work alongside them. “That’s created a lot of smaller co-working start-ups,” points out Morrison.

Their intentions regardless, there’s definitely a growing pool of players getting involved: traditional real estate players, international operators, hostel developers, independent property owners, and, yes, even the friendly neighborhood coffee shop. “The market is definitely shifting, changing, and evolving for anyone who wants to explore co-working in their own way,” says Morrison.

Human-centric design

With the way co-work spaces are designed, it seems the original archetype is still the coffee shop, which interestingly is also among the “new” players coming out of the space.

Ros Juan, owner of Commune café, says that her shop often gets mistaken as a co-working space. “We’re primarily a café, but in a way, Commune has been intended to be a place where communities can gather. And in the Philippines where people tend to gather in cliques, we’re one of the first cafes in the country to put a communal table, to force Filipinos to sit beside strangers,” she says.

Denise de Castro, principal architect for DDC Architecture Studio, shares that the rise of co-working spaces makes it an exciting time for her as a designer.

“Work is so complex now — there’s group work, individual work, communication through technology, so the space has to be so flexible and still practical. Some say the cubicle is dead, but it’s really just about having it in places where people need it, and having places where people can do collaborative work which is where innovation happens,” she says.

While there’s a host of reasons why co-working is successful — collaboration and autonomy, among them — perhaps the most compelling are the emotional benefits employees get out of it: a recent co-working report reveals that 84% of respondents claimed to be more engaged and motivated when co-working; 89% report they were happier; and 78% report co-working helps keep them sane.

Happier people, at the end of the day, just tend to get more things done. “It’s not about the time you put in, but the results you put out,” says Morrison.