Workplace Talks: Operationalizing Flex Space

Recently, Melanie Jones on the workplace team at CORT had the opportunity to chat with Chantal Wirekoh about her perspectives on work, commercial real estate, flex space, and an eye for innovation. From her time at WeWork to building startups and now with her own consulting projects.

MJ: I’ll never forget the day I read your initial (and now famous) Medium article on flexible office and the future of work. Immediately I noted to myself, I don’t know this woman and I need to! Since then, we’ve developed a friendship. Thank you for joining me in this conversation.

Let’s dive right in! Our world is recognizing the need to foster and support diversity. That goes for women, of course. Recently I’ve had fantastic conversations with women in leadership and roles of disruption. I gladly put us both in that bucket.

CW: Yes! Let’s face it. The world of real estate was a boy’s club, and I am intentionally using past-tense here because we’re all working hard to change that. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had, where I was the only female in a full conference room. When I vet opportunities, I always note the diversity, or lack thereof, in company leadership. As talent coming up through the ranks, it’s noticeable. I think the industry is ripe for new perspectives, and new products. Being so early in my career, I make it a priority to learn from other women in leadership roles — and that’s how we met!

MJ: I loved your comment that you basically “grew up” at WeWork, and had a unique opportunity as one of the females in a leading research role. What were the highlights for you there, and what do you take with you as you walk forward?

CW: Coming from the world of architecture, I joined WeWork to innovate on the future of real estate. At the time, WeWork was the largest, mission-driven company evolving commercial office. If you think about it, one-third of our lives is spent at work. That’s a huge potential for impact. WeWork recognized earlier than anyone that people don’t want nicer office space, they want to a better lifestyle, and that’s driven both by design and services.

To move that needle, it requires a lot of heavy lifting. Real estate is notoriously opaque, and to affect any kind of change, you have to arm yourself with the right information. There’s a great quote from Kurt Lewin, “If you want to understand something, try to change it”.

At WeWork, I fell into an incredible opportunity on a brand-new R&D team to help the company do exactly that. I led research projects to understand the current-state development process, identify operational bottlenecks, and develop solutions. These solutions focused on the implementation of technology and workflows for data-capture along the end-to-end delivery process to close the feedback cycle and drive continuous improvement. If that sounds straight out of the software world, then bingo. Space-as-a-Service requires a great product; in this case, that product just happens to be physical. Radical transparency with the help of spatial data is key for unlocking silos, tracking performance, reducing risk, and producing a high-quality experience for members.

I say that I “grew up” at WeWork because I gained the necessary exposure there to understand how things work today — and how they need to change. In a fast-moving startup, you can either get lost or create your own path. I worked hard to take any opportunity to challenge my skill set and grow experience, changed roles three times, rode the wave of countless Re-orgs, and got THE crash course in data-driven rapid delivery frameworks.

MJ: I was able to help you start connecting within my network and it’s been rewarding to see how quickly you’ve immersed yourself into a dynamic group of pioneers and CRE thought-leadership.

I know you agree there are powerful conversations going on in the digital commercial real estate community, and it’s fascinating to witness such a meteoric rise in a collaboration that’s bloomed on Twitter and LinkedIn. How is social media helping you connect, and express your views on change and learn from others?

CW: One unexpected positive side-effect of this global pandemic is that people are suddenly available. Not only that, but they’re open to sharing their expertise to move the conversation forward.

LinkedIn has been a great platform to connect with other professionals, and with the larger flex community (thanks to you!). I also joined Lunchclub, which curates matches between like-minded people in 45-minute virtual sessions. Another thing I’ve been getting into is writing articles, and recently partnered with Ben Wright at Upsuite to produce some thought-pieces leveraging their industry data. These days, my biggest problem is that my AirPods run out of juice before the day is over.

MJ: One of the strong bonds we share is a keen interest in the continued escalation in flexible space. We’ve theorized on how occupiers and landlords will handle the need to flex in order to best support the employee, embrace the changing concept of “office” and manage assets and portfolios. You’ve spent considerable time researching and analyzing the required elements of flex and Space-as-a-Service. In fact, I bet Caleb Parker calls you soon to join him in his WorkBold podcast! Here’s a link to a chat he and I had. What can you share to help those working to put the puzzle pieces of flex in order?

CW: Because of the pandemic, it seems like we’re at a pivotal moment for flexible space right now. Pre-pandemic, real estate wasn’t challenged. Most companies signed traditional leases, and coworking was seen more as an amenity. Now, it’s solving a mainstream problem. Coworking and flex is moving from “first-adopters” to “first-mainstream” because as an office solution, it provides flexibility in the face of uncertainty. Now, both landlords and corporations are actively considering flex components as a part of their portfolio strategies.

“The thing to remember is that “flexible space” is not the product itself, it’s a mechanism by which space is financed, developed, and operated as agile real estate. It’s about aligning interests, forming partnerships, and unlocking value.”

MJ: One of your recent articles outlines the three pillars to consider when retooling for flex. The third pillar aligns with my mission so much I’d like to hear an expanded perspective on the topic.

CW: If we think about how to launch a flex space, there are trade-offs to traditional real estate products. When you’re designing a space for 10 years, it makes sense to invest in the fit-out, use high-end finishes, and own your assets.

When you’re designing for a 1–3-year lease, that doesn’t necessarily hold true. It’s an operational challenge. How do you standardize the process to create a productized, lightweight solution at a known cost, rapid speed, and competitive quality? This is where partnerships can unlock cost-savings and minimize upfront capital expenditures.

MJ: Well said, and as you well know, the message I so diligently share with commercial real estate leaders is that CORT’s Furniture-as-a-Service™ offering does indeed support your third pillar.

FaaS is access rather than an ownership approach. Furniture that can align to an office lease term, to projects, offers real-time utilization and provides a lightweight approach that is fast, changeable, returnable, managed. Just as you described above.

Of course, this is just one example representing many ideas bubbling up and enabling real estate owners to try new approaches in capturing innovative revenue streams and answering growing demand. Then you layer on incredible advancements in connected technology.

We are entering a new era in space creation and utilization. You mentioned that flex is the mechanism for change. Would you share your perspective on the pros and cons of flexible space creation and utilization? How are operational efficiencies leveraged and how can the results be evaluated?

CW: Absolutely. It’s all about aligning the flexible space operations with its objectives. If the objective is to deploy a lightweight, short-term solution that can flex to the needs of tenants in quick succession, then rental FF&E just makes sense. Anything to shorten the build-out cycle and reduce capital outlay by spreading costs month-to-month is a smart play — in fact, the dream is a 100% construction-free solution.

With high turnover, landlords cannot afford the typical vacancy periods between occupiers. A rapid delivery framework is critical, and it is powered by technology and solutions like CORT’s Furniture-as-a-Service.

MJ: Your article goes on to mention how critical it is for owner-operators to leverage spatial analytics and workplace insights. This is an area of expertise for you. What tips do you have for those embarking on a transition towards flex, and what are some of the KPIs necessary to make the right moves?

CW: When space is created like a product and operated as a service, then the role of the developer becomes product manager. Flexible space is a consumer product, and development is data-driven, iterative, and continuous to meet the needs of the customer. The fast deployment cycles of Space-as-a-Service and the networked nature provide perfect tests to learn and improve on every new launch.

This is only possible if the data created throughout development and operations are fully integrated with other business metrics. The digital transformation of real estate development allows for spatial data to inform the business upstream, and project teams downstream.

At WeWork, the single most important KPI was desks delivered. But we didn’t have an army of interns counting furniture on drawing sets — instead, we built software to harvest that model data into our databases. This is supplemented by data collected during the operations of a space to understand occupancy and customer satisfaction, and the feedback cycle is closed when both development and operations metrics flow back upstream to inform the next product.

MJ: You’ve provided a terrific segway for me to mention 4SITE by CORT. Collecting, understanding, and leveraging data and evolving AI solutions will become essential in workplaces and buildings of the future. As such, we’ve invested in the necessary technology to help our clients collect information gathered by sensors placed throughout our client’s offices and have access to utilization metrics. My guess is you believe tools such as sensor technology to be a no brainer in the future?

CW: 100%. Sensor-based technologies eliminate tedious administrative burdens and unlock previously non-existent insights if you ask the right questions. The sheer amount of data created can tend to overwhelm, and I’ve seen a lot of tracking technologies fail because they actually provided too much information and not enough insights. A service like 4SITE is great because you’re providing clients with the metrics they need, to only the questions they need to answer.

MJ: Ben Seidl, Founder of Neyborly saw a tweet of mine and reached out. From the moment we connected in conversation I was fascinated by his concept. When we talk about a new era in commercial real estate, this is a prime example, a convergence of real estate, retail space, workplace, and hospitality. I know you are now providing some consulting for Neyborly. What are you doing for them, and what’s your favorite part of the concept?

CW: Neyborly is a fascinating concept — flexible retail for anyone by the day. People like you and me can rent space for events, pop-ups, art shows…anything. It’s a whole other way to experience San Francisco. I am helping Ben right-size operations for Neyborly 2.0.

During the pandemic, Ben pivoted Neyborly’s business model from leases to partnerships, and landlords are knocking down his door to activate their vacant ground-floor spaces. Instead of launching one new space every few months, he’s opening 10 in September alone. But instead of signing a space for multiple years, some are only under Neyborly management during a “meanwhile use” period, until the Landlord signs the next traditional lease. This requires the entire operations to be rethought as probably THE most lightweight, flexible solution out there. As you put it — the complete end to ownership, for unprecedented accessibility not only to brands, but entrepreneurs, artists, creators, and the everyday person.

MJ: I’ve adopted Ben’s “in the meantime” phrase. I just love it! It supports parts of our strategy too, and is an ideal concept at this point and time in our world!

I know you are also working with my CORT colleague Beverly Steele on this. How do you see the FaaS model supporting Neyborly’s growth, cash flow, and reduced risk?

CW: The challenge facing Neyborly is one of agility and affordability — how do you deploy the right furniture package for an event one day, a corporate meeting the next, and a retail pop-up the one after, all in the same space with a fixed, known cost?

CORT has a national logistics network, a wide variety of furnishing types, and allows Neyborly to spread costs across monthly bookings. FF&E is the biggest variable in Neyborly’s fully flexible operating model. When Neyborly’s new model takes off, it’s going to be unstoppable because the value chain is fully aligned between Landlord, Neyborly, and flex tenant. Every party shares in risk and reward.

MJ: Curious, I reached out to Ben Seidl, to capture his point of view. Here’s what he had to say, “
BS: “In the Neyborly model, furnishings are the most critical component to delivering space on time and on budget. We’ve looked at a variety of FF&E rental providers, and CORT has shown a portfolio and range of inventory that is unmatched. There are lots of players vying for this market leadership position in the space-as-a-service category, and CORT has a great chance to pave the way for the future of commercial real-estate development. Neyborly is also paving this pathway towards flexibility, enabling everyone to access their neighborhood spaces. It’s a team effort industry-wide and it’s exciting to see all the innovation during this unforgettable moment in time.”

MJ: As mentioned my colleague Bev Steele, Director Strategic Business Development, is supporting the blossoming CORT partnership with Neyborly. Her take? “The favorite part of my job is working with clients, like Neyborly, who may have been purchasing furniture. As companies scale, and often this means a national expansion, they realize there are a number of pain points. It’s always my goal to uncover how we can support growth and provide clients the ability to pivot, as their businesses do. The business model of buying furniture assets, and storing or shipping these assets, does not make financial sense. We get the furniture there when it’s needed, moved when it needs to move, and gone when the need is complete.”

Chantal, occasionally I remind myself and my team to “get our nerve on” as we work to bring our problem-solving ideas into the changing commercial real estate environment. To circle back to the opening comments about women, what advice or suggestions do you have for women charged with creating change, being bold, and going the distance?

CW: Forget the cover letter: let me write the job description. That’s my #1 advice, and I’ve done it 3 times. Doing so allows you to take ownership of your role, set expectations, and control your path. The most exciting opportunities to me are the ones that are asking a question, not setting predefined responsibilities. I like to be uncomfortable because it leads to growth, and if we’re not learning, we’re not moving the needle. Right?!

MJ: Most who have met you recently are simply amazed you are available and seeking your next role and the right team. What does your perfect next step look like to you?

CW: We have the potential to change the way people live and work — I believe that as a former designer, and I have seen it happen at WeWork. I’m passionate about building transparent, data-driven operations for high-impact products that advance the future of real estate. Most buildings quietly steer our lives, but the right ones give us superpowers. If you’re working on the hard problems, let’s talk!

MJ: I always like to get the last word in. I am excited to see what team you end up joining! Your ability to serve up creative ideas coupled with intense data-driven expertise is refreshing and unique. In my opinion, these are exactly the kind of skillsets that will drive forward the change in commercial real estate that is already motion. Keep going Chantal! We’ll be watching!

CORT Furniture for workplace

Melanie Jones is the National CRE Development Manager at CORT. She is responsible for building awareness and sharing strategy with commercial real estate teams and innovators around an access vs. ownership approach. This is known as CORT’s Furniture-as-a-Service™ model. Follow Melanie on LinkedIn.

Chantal Wirekoh is passionate about building operations with impact to advance real estate and ultimately create better places to work, play, and live. Previously, she was a researcher at WeWork, design strategist and operational consultant, and is currently searching for new opportunities.