Mark Breen is the Chairman of Us&Co, a leading coworking operator in London and Dublin offering professional, shared workspaces. Prior to opening Us&Co’s first location in London, Mark has been a longtime property entrepreneur active in residential, hotel, and office developments.
Learn more about the founding of Us&Co and the coworking brand’s mission to create an environment that combines sophistication and quality of design with the spirit of community and coworking in our latest interview.
How did you first discover coworking?
I became interested in the concept of serviced offices 20 years ago, and we built up a five-star operation of six properties in Mayfair and Belgravia, under the brand of Argyll Business Centers, which we sold in 2004.
The concept was very different: you could only rent separate offices and there were no break-out areas, only a reception area and meeting rooms for hire. This time with coworking, we devote up to 30% of our building to common areas and facilities for the benefit of all members. The quality of these spaces are central to the offering.
What is your involvement at Us&Co and when was it founded?
As the Chairman of Us&Co, I am involved in every aspect of the business, but primarily business development, construction, and design. Our first building, in London Monument, needed complete refurbishment which took 12 months to complete before we launched at the end of 2016.
The ability to design from scratch is a big advantage. We can create the particular spaces we need and build the infrastructure required to give us maximum flexibility, such as air conditioning that has capacity for high density and is ready to be adapted for subdivision. We dislike traditional grey offices, so our buildings are full of innovative features like stunning copper bars and dramatic floors to get away from that ‘office feeling,’ at the same time retaining a professional feel. Good lighting is also very important.
The team is involved in every aspect of creating the brand, from choosing the coffee cups and furniture to agreeing the house rules for members and everything in between. Since then we have opened two more centers – one in Dublin, which opened in 2018, and one more in Stratford, East London, which opened at the beginning of 2020.
What has been the mission of Us&Co since the beginning?
We wanted to create a professional work environment which combined sophistication and quality of design with the feeling of community and coworking. Our aim is to make an impression with modern design and quality furniture and fittings to encourage productivity and professionalism.
We also wanted to be completely transparent with our clients. When they sign up at Us&Co, everything is presented to them with no hidden costs. This remains very important for us, as is the provision of excellent service by both front and back of house.
How has the market for coworking in the UK and Ireland evolved over the past couple of years?
In the UK and Ireland, our experience lies predominantly in London and Dublin. London has seen a considerable increase in centers opening and the market is currently very crowded, which provides stiff competition. There are now more coworking spaces in London than there are in New York.
Dublin, though relatively new to the coworking market, has seen a significant rise in demand. The Dublin market has been dominated in the past by the larger coworking companies, but we believe has great potential for innovative newcomers.
What emerging trends have you noticed this year?
Owing to the global pandemic, any trends that have emerged this year have been predominantly dictated by COVID-19. Understandably, clients want reassurance that all buildings are COVID secure and COVID ready. There is also a significant emphasis on providing state-of-the-art AV technology and reliable wi-fi as we’ve all become increasingly reliant on virtual meetings and events.
What are three key ingredients for operating a successful co-working space in a post-COVID-19 work environment?
First, there needs to be thorough communication between staff and members. Listening to your members is vital to ensure that you understand their needs.
In the current climate, this leads on to the second key ingredient: all buildings now require the implementation of enhanced cleaning practices which includes monthly fogging, daily sanitizing and cleaning of workstations, and allowing space for social distancing in communal areas.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, reliable AV technology and fast, resilient wi-fi is a must in order for members to have trouble-free video calls and remote team engagement.
How have you pivoted your operations during 2020 in an effort to navigate the consequences of COVID-19?
During these unpredictable times, what we all want is reassurance. We believe that the relationship between the operator and member is rooted in collaboration, so we have been in constant communication with our clients.
We have been offering flexible terms to facilitate their ever-changing business needs and encourage and reward loyalty. We realize this is a difficult time for everyone and if there was ever a time for community, it is now.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to open a new coworking space in the current market?
While people have been advised to work from home if they can during this pandemic, offices of all types have been deserted and therefore business has been challenging to say the least. However, the advantages of working from home: lack of commuting, flexible hours, etc. are counterbalanced by disadvantages: loneliness, lack of interaction with colleagues, and all the benefits that collaboration can bring to creativity and productivity.
I personally have always believed in city centers and the buzz we get from working there. However, there should be a demand for more local coworking centers closer to home, both now and on a permanent basis, so I would look there, especially if funds are more limited as city centers require greater investment.