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Co-working in a flex space

Office design is changing in line with new ways of working

The Greenway on St Stephen’s Green, Iconic Offices’ flagship building.

The Greenway on St Stephen’s Green, Iconic Offices’ flagship building.


Going to work used to be an uncomplicated – and uninspiring – business. You went into the office, sat at your desk, booted up your PC and got on with the job. The office was predictably minimalist – white walls, grey desks and blinding strip lights on the ceiling. There might be a clock on the wall, or a Sasco wall planner, or a printed-up A3 sheet saying “You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps”. The only colour added was the colourful language of the regional manager when you didn’t meet your monthly sales targets.

We didn’t really give much thought to our workspaces, and whether they helped boost our productivity, creativity and general well-being. We just got on with the job, counting the hours until we could get back to our nice, comfy, beautifully designed homes. Who cares if the office is a stultifying, grey expanse of nothingness? We’ll be out of there by 5.30pm.

Nowadays, we are spending more time at our jobs, and realising how integral our work is to our lives, so we need our workspaces to work better for us. The office environment can no longer be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Technology, digital communication, entrepreneurship and the rise of the gig economy have wrought huge changes in our working lives, and workspaces need to evolve to meet the new paradigm. And that new paradigm is co-working and flex space.

For many small companies and start-ups – and the larger tech and finance companies – the traditional workplace environment doesn’t cut it anymore. The way companies set up their workspace has completely changed – the office space needs to be far more flexible to suit individual entrepreneurs, small start-ups or dynamic teams within a larger company. And with the business landscape changing rapidly, and an uncertain future due to factors such as Brexit or a more fragmented market, companies often need shorter-term arrangements rather than the traditional long lease.

Conducive to creativity

The way we work has changed too – we’ve swapped industrial-age repetitive work for more creative, tech-driven tasks, and our office space needs to be conducive to creativity and outside-the-box thinking. The big tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter set the trend – when they set up in Ireland, their workplace set-up became a talking point: coffee stations, foosball tables, basketball hoops, exercise machines – it all sounded like a hipster’s paradise.

It wasn’t long before some smart young entrepreneurs were creating a new kind of serviced office – a space where people could work individually, in small groups or as an entire company, fitted out in a nice building, with eye-catching design elements, good use of floor space, and comfortable, user-friendly workstations.

“Co-working is where you go into a large area with lots of desks and you hot-desk. Flex-working is where you have a big company like Facebook taking 400 seats at 1GQ or Microsoft having 300-500 seats in 5 Harcourt,” says Fionnuala O’Buachalla, director of tenant representation at property company JLL. “They don’t want to sign up to long-term leases, and Ireland has among the longest leases in the world. That’s where the flex-space market in Dublin is really responding to that need. They’re able to accommodate those requirements.”

There’s been a boom in customised office spaces, as smaller companies eschew the huge costs of commercial property and sign up for flexible working arrangements.

Into this market 12 months ago came WeWork, an American company, headquartered in New York, which provides shared workspaces for technology start-ups, entrepreneurs, small businesses and large enterprises. WeWork has a global network of dedicated workspaces, and it’s already taken 250,000sq ft in its first year here, with another 250,000sq ft in its sights.

Joe McGinley set up Iconic Offices five years ago, with the idea of making workplaces more aesthetically pleasing places to be as well as more productive. Ireland was in the teeth of a recession and McGinley could see that businesses were looking for more flexible and cost-effective ways of working, and they needed to be lean, mean trading machines in order to survive austerity.

“There was a demand for flexible space at that time, where a lot of people had been burned on long-term leases and were naturally trying to stay away from that risk profile,” says McGinley. “We were seeing a lot of people who were coming looking for flexibility – their business was uncertain, and they weren’t sure whether they’d be downsizing or upsizing. And as time has gone on, the hard times and the hard lessons that came with the recession are still there. But I think that people are starting to realise the other benefits that come with taking flexible space, and the added benefits to businesses. We’re seeing a shift from where people are looking at it as a temporary space for a short period of time, to starting to look at it as a longer-term real estate for their business.”?

Snappy design concept

Iconic Offices has several buildings refitted for co-working and flex space. Its flagship building is the Greenway on St Stephen’s Green. It’s a bright, modern-looking space with a snappy design concept, and as soon as you walk in there, you immediately want to grab a desk, boot up and start developing that app you’ve been thinking about, or set up that online business that’s been sitting on the back-boiler. The place just exudes productivity, and you get the sense that the people working there are totally in their element.

“The concept of what we do is not a new thing,” says McGinley. “Iconic Offices didn’t invent it. I think we do it better than most other people, but there are operators who have been doing it in Ireland for the last 20 years. But it’s really only in the last five years that we’ve seen it really start to come on and really create a personality, and the spaces have become more visual and more interesting, with more and more amenities. It’s become a lot more exciting, and we’ve seen a lot more people come on board with it.”

There’s no particular demographic that uses Iconic Offices’ space. You don’t have to be at the cutting edge of fintech or a Silicon Valley prodigy to work there – all you have to be is a businessperson looking to get the best out of your workspace. Typically, they would take office space on a short-term agreement – usually 12 months – which gives them enough time to see where the business is going, and if their product idea will take off. McGinley finds most clients end up expanding after a year, taking more space and taking on more staff. With 13 buildings up and running around the city, all of them beautifully designed and fitted out, Iconic has ample space to allow for expansion.

“Our clients are looking for an exciting place to work, a place that will energise their business, and attract good-quality people to work there. Most of our clients would be innovators, they’d be growth businesses. So it’s about giving businesses the tools to expand,” says McGinley. “A big thing now is customisation, so we’d be putting in things like a tea station and private meeting room, custom arts project, and room for customisation so they can carve out their own corporate messages and empower staff and explain to new candidates what they’re all about.

“We design the building, so we deliver design that we love ourselves. Our buildings aren’t understated – they have a definite identity. Cafes, meeting spaces, lounges – they’re all heavily designed, but companies can come in and brand that space and do whatever with it they want. When they take space with us they buy into the design of the building. The look, what it stands for, and it usually ties in with their own brand.”

Crossover and collaboration

One of the big advantages touted about co-working and flex spaces is the opportunity for crossover and collaboration between different businesses working in the same space. McGinley finds that happening a lot, as people tap into the abundance of talent that’s just a desk space away.

“It does happen. If you’re specialising in early development tech, and you’re in a co-working space that caters to that, there’s a lot of opportunity for working together. In our community, the range of industries is so diverse that you have interior designers beside graphic designers beside online retailers – the whole spectrum of industries. And there have been cases where businesses have come together for a project, or a business has used another company’s services.”

It looks like co-working and flex space is the future, says O’Buachalla, taking long leases and prohibitive property prices out of the equation and allowing people to get on with growing their businesses and developing their ideas.

“I think that the flex-space market is going to continue to increase, not at the huge percentage rate we’ve seen for the past two years with the likes of WeWork coming in so aggressively, but for as long as we’re a long-term market. In terms of people not having to pay out millions in terms of a fit-out, or to sign 10- or 15-year leases when they only have contracts for three years, the flex space will do that for you.”