Free beer and cider on tap. Weekly breakfasts, massages, business presentations, networking and sport events. It’s like working in a groovy hotel … and pets and babies are welcome. WeWork is an organisation delivering shared working spaces to 90,000 people in 30 cities around the world. The secret, according to the company’s Director of Community in Australia, Balder Tol, is understanding the importance of delivering a personally fulfilling work experience, not just a place to work.
John: I’m sitting here today with Balder Tol who is the Director of Community for Australia for one of the fastest growing companies, a company called We Work. We Work is a sixteen billion dollar business after just seven years of operation, founded in 2010. It provides shared office space to more than ninety thousand people in thirty different cities, at one hundred and twenty different building. It’s a remarkable story. It includes the building we’re sitting here, in here today, at one hundred Harris Street, in Sydney and Balder has just been awarded globally for his community management efforts and I’m really looking forward to having him explain a bit about We Work on customers, welcome Balder.
Balder: Thank you for having me John.
John: So before we get to the business that is We Work, you’ve made a career in the shared economy and I’m really interested to understand a little bit about how you came to be in Australia from your native- the Netherlands, and how you came to be involved with Air BnB and subsequently with the business is owned by the guys who run Airtasker in Australia.
Balder: Yes, it’s- well a bit of background so my background is in hospitality in the Netherlands. I completed a Bachelor in Business Administration of Hospitality Management and- and that really set the groundwork of hospitality focus with a business management degree. Now, following my degree I was going to do my Masters in International Business Management at the Erasmus in Rotterdam, although I could start in Sydney three weeks later. So I made my way to Sydney, completed my Master of Management Degree at the University of Sydney after which I ran into recruiters for a company called Air BnB. That- yeah was a very interesting discussion around community building within the shared economy and they hired me as their first employee here in Australia. So that was the first time I really started to build communities both online and offline. I was lucky enough to be- to be part of the founding team here in Australia and we grew Air BnB significantly over time. Following that it was the founders of Airtasker that took roughly seven hundred square metres of CBD office space and asked me run the operations as they were obviously involved with the company called Airtasker. That set the groundwork’s of the CBD focused co working space for start-ups where community is- is central. So together we built the co-working space to up to three hundred and fifty members over the course of four years and in May last year, I joined We Work as their Director of Community for Australia.
John: So tell me a little bit about what We Work is, the model and how it works. Obviously I have a bit of insight, being a member of your business model but I think a lot of people will be very interested to understand what it is and- and how it operates.
Balder: Yeah. So We Work is really a platform for creators. Our mission is to create a world where people create a life and not just a living. With that in mind the member experience in any We Work location is central for our operation so if you look at the company that is We Work, we really provide beautifully designed office space, services and a global community.
John: I mean the thing that blows away the old serviced office space model I think is the- the way in which the culture is brought to the table, can you tell me what you do to create culture. I notice for instance that the- the women who work on the desk when you arrive, you don’t refer to them as receptionists, they’re- they’re community managers.
Balder: Correct. So everything is focused around community and that comes from one of our founders who grew up in the Kibbutz which is a collective community focused on the agriculture in Israel and it is based around the idea that you can achieve more together than when you are alone and that is core into what is We Work and what I do. So we have our community team that are the heart and soul of our operations and the community managers are not just there to provide assistance when you have visitors or that everything works in the space, but they’re part therapist, they help on a lifestyle level, on a business level and are really there to facilitate meaningful connection between different companies and all of our members locally in the space, but globally through technology as well.
John: So I think one thing that blew my staff away, first of all every Monday there’s a Thank God it’s Monday free breakfast, often members of the businesses in the community of We Work are running presentations and those presentations are usually catered so you can wander out, hear something interesting, there’s free beer on tap after two o’clock every day, which is quite extraordinary. There are pets in the building, I saw a Dad asleep with his baby on a beanbag.
Balder: [laugh] That’s- that sounds like the perfect environment here is We Work. So We Work is redefining success and it is measured by personal fulfilment. Across the globe we see a macro shift in how the world of work is changing and it’s changing towards a more meaningful life. With that we try to create a cu- or we create a culture that supports not only the business founders by meaningful interactions on a business level, but by supporting all the employees in creating the best office environment you can find. So we do that through a number of different ways. You mentioned the beer, people are always surprised about that but it is really that we see our members as adults and the beer is there to make those connections outside of the private office environment. Now the community team does a whole range in terms of our programming. So we do something every day for our members. If I run you through a general week, we celebrate the Mondays both for our members and for our employees as well, so TGIM, Thank God it’s Monday, we welcome everyone on a Monday morning with full breakfast in the space, then on a Tuesday it tends to be more business focused, on a Wednesday it is Wellness Wednesday and that is something we do globally as well. We provide masseuses, we have nail salons, there’s running groups, anything that has to do with wellness and mindfulness. On Thursdays again it’s a lot more business focused, and on Friday it is happy hour, you’ve got to finish the week with a drink.
John: Fantastic and I think one of the other things that strikes me in terms of the core business model, I- I mean I’m leasing some dedicated space, it’s much smaller than the space and probably more expensive frankly per- per square metre than the space I’ve come from, however there’s a tonne of communal space and people tend to be thrust into almost the lounge of what feels like a bit of a- a groovy hotel. And this is quite deliberate I think- well it’s both good commercial model but I think you’ve deliberately engineered a lot of communal space.
Balder: It is- it is the communal spaces that really act as an engagement platform for all of our members to come together. So our communal spaces, there is a lot of thought that goes into the design of these areas because they inspire collaboration between all of our members. So where your private space might be a little bit smaller than you’re used to, you actually gain a whole range of different facilities and amenities that increase your work life balance. So with that in mind, you mention cost, but if you actually factors in all the different services and amenities, we tend to be cheaper on an annual basis than your traditional lease and comparisons and research show that that can actually be a reduction of two to three thousand US dollars on an annual basis, per employee.
John: And can you talk a bit about the way the role that you have works, what do you actually do on a day to day basis and what surprised you about what you’re doing compared with what you might have imagined.
Balder: Well [laugh] what I do on a day to day basis is different every day, it- it really runs on how- what the day brings, what we can organised for our members, but as Director of Community I make sure that our members have the best possible experience day to day in any of our locations here in Australia. So I work intensely with our team of community managers that are on site every single day to make sure our members get the best- best experience.
John: So how do you- how do you motivate that team and what- what are the tricks of the trade, how are you getting these guys to be ‘cause they are absolutely ebullient, you know, they’re terrific team members you’ve got here who make everyone feel welcome and excited by what- what they’re doing. But how- how do you instil that in them?
Balder: So it starts with the hiring process. We are looking for self-starters with an entrepreneurial spirit, people that can solve problems on the spot in- in front of members but mainly create the best experience possible. So it is really those extrovert personalities that- that bring that quality for our members and that’s sometimes a little bit harder to find, especially in a new market but we’ve seen huge interest in the positions here available because the experience we create for our members we create for our employees as well and that is we do team meetings on a Monday but with full dinner to really set us up for a great week for the team but on a global level we have summer camp where we not only invite our employees for a three day summer camp experience, but that is mixed with our members as well, again to create that interaction on a global level.
John: Now you’ve just won an award, a global award in We Work business, can you tell me what you- what you won and- and how you were selected for this award?
Balder: It’s- it is called an Employee of Excellence award. It is- it was awarded to me but it is really team effort. In Australia we’ve seen that the We Work model has been very well received, over the course of the last four months we have over sixteen hundred members that joined our global community and that in a new market has been a great- a great achievement for us here in Australia. So that award was recognition not just for me, but for the entire team and the relentless energy they put in their day to day work life here in Australia.
John: So the other thing that might surprise people about the business model is that it truly is joining a global community and so my finance- my financial control of work from three different We Work spaces in London, on three different days, because as a member I get a certain number of credits and I can chose to use those credits to take a hot desk in another building in another city. It- it’s a remarkable kind of concept and has that been something that has been, you know, important?
Balder: Yeah, hugely important. Not- not only to create flexibility for our member to not be solely limited to one location, but our members now have access to over a hundred and twenty locations in the world that they can call home. So this makes- making valuable connections in those locations, but mainly to create flexibility for travel, international expansion on a business level, but again to make international connections that can actually help you and the best example that we have here in Sydney is that even before we opened the location a member joined us and the moment they join us they can get access to our members network which is the digital platform that really connects members internationally. He posted that one of his newly hired employees was actually stuck in London and had some immigration issues. We put the platform to the test and we posted on the member’s network a question, if there any immigration lawyers in London. Thirty five minutes later we had a response from an immigration lawyer, an hour and a half later they met up in a We Work, in London, and two hours later that entire problem was solved and that- he couldn’t have imagined a quicker resolution to that issue other than being part of the global We Work network.
John: So it is important and maybe just if you could explain a little more about the We Work App, because in some ways I see this almost as a- it’s almost like you’ve manifested Linked In physically as well as virtually, but how- how was the app conceived and what’s the role of technology in your disruption(?) model?
Balder: Yeah so technology is obviously a huge part of what we do here at We Work and that comes through that global connectivity. So we don’t only want to create very strong communities on a local level within the space but connect all of our hundred and thousand members in the world and you do that through technology. So we’ve created a member’s platform that not only allows our members to directly reach out to any other company within the We Work community, but to steer business opportunities and business development opportunities to the businesses as well. So automatically when joining We Work you create a company profile that allows you to create more visibility on the digital platform and because we’re all part of the We generation in that global community, we feel that there’s a certain level of trust and connectivity and more willingness for our members to help each other out whether that is on a financial transaction or on good will, it is really that platform that allows members to find each other in an easy way.
John: And how are customer expectations driving the way in which a business like yours operates.
Balder: Yeah so obviously mem- members come in with an idea of office space and quite quickly they realise it’s so much more than just an office space. It is truly the service and member experience that they receive every single day and well, you’re a member so if you remember your first day at We Work, we welcomed you with Mimosas and a tour of- of the business so it is- it is truly a different experience that adds to your daily life so we tend to exceed member expectations on a daily basis.
John: I mean in some respects the way I look at it is that you’ve identified how important culture is for organisations, for- for small companies and large, and to some extent you’re not just providing space you’re providing what might be seen as value adding- value adding HR.
Balder: Correct and that- that goes a lot further than just the office space. So if we look at our network in the United States at the moment, our services part is a huge value add for all of our members. So we provide HR services, payroll services, there’s even health insurance and obviously we’re planning to role that out on a global level as well.
John: Just speaking about the growth of the company, can you tell me how quickly it’s growing and- and what are your forward plans in Australia?
Balder: Yeah so if we look at 2016 we actually doubled in sized. 2016 was a great year, we’ve added fifty eight locations in eighteen(?) new cities in six new countries. We have a very, very quick growth expansion plan and in Australia it’s been so well received that obviously we’re expanding into multiple cities as well so this morning we’ve announced our expansion into Melbourne later this year.
John: Fantastic. Finally Balder any tips for businesses who are trying to survive in the- the share economy? Obviously the- the landscape is profoundly disruptive and disrupting, what- what would you say having now spent time working inside the share economy, what do you think it means for- for traditional businesses and what should they be thinking about as they- as they navigate the- the changing world around them?
Balder: Well, I mean there- there’s a complete shift in multiple industries and it is a shift and almost a revolution that people want to own less and experience more and you see that in the models of Air BnB, We Work, and a lot more different industries, so I would definitely take that into consideration when you’re expanding your business and I think it is you know a more connected world as well, so the more valuable connections you make on a day to day basis, the more measurement for success you actually have.
John: Well thanks very much for joining us for- and sharing your time with us.
Balder: Thanks John.