What began as an idea at various networking events spawned a tight-knit community of entrepreneurs and business owners in the coastal suburb of Wynnum outside of Brisbane, Australia. Now, Central Business Associates is one of the leading advocates of flexible workspace and collaboration in the suburbs of Brisbane, showing the value of offering coworking space in non-urban areas.
But what is it about “suburban coworking” that is so exceptional? In other words, why are coworking spaces in the suburbs so valuable for remote professionals and businesses?
According to the Community Manager of Central Business Associates, Celia Newlands, the “local” element is undeniably the best part of suburban or rural workspaces. Members of the space become one another’s extended family, rather than just being a familiar face. Newlands says this creates a different level of knowing, liking, and trusting one another, which, for members, is likely to result in more shared referrals to each other’s extended networks and opportunities for collaboration.
Coworker caught up with Newlands amidst Central Business Associates’ transition to a brand new location they’ll now be calling home (a captivating heritage building that’s right across the street from their original coworking space!)
Here’s what Newlands had to say about the new market for hub-and-spoke coworking models and why coworking has always worked so well in the suburbs.
What has been your journey with founding and developing Central Business Associates?
My family moved here in 2011 from Scotland, and I took some time out to settle my 2 young kids. We moved to a suburb where we felt there was a real community, as both my husband and I were brought up in villages in the North of Scotland and were keen to find that similar sense of community we felt as children growing up.
After becoming involved in some local networking groups and not-for-profit committees, I felt I could see a gap in the market. There were so many small businesses and consultants in the area, but networking events just weren’t enough for people to be able to build a real sense of trust.
Having spent most of my working life in customer service and management consulting, I loved helping different ‘departments’ or businesses see how they could all benefit from collaboration, but we needed somewhere to work from.
At the time, “coworking spaces” were something that happened in cities, primarily aimed at supporting startups in the tech space, and almost unheard of in the suburbs. I started seeing the possibilities, and began asking around to see if anyone else was interested in the idea of shared workspaces or “flexible workspace.”
The process of opening space in the suburbs
In order to financially support the coworking desks, we needed a large enough space to house some anchor private office tenants to cover the bulk of the rent, as commercial space was (and is) expensive, even in the suburbs.
We found some small businesses locally who were keen on the idea of being able to share costs, and have someone be the community manager (me) to make sure all the services (tea, coffee, wi-fi, etc.) were provided, and without having to take on sole responsibility for a long lease.
I opened the space at the start of 2015 with a mix of full-time office tenants, part-time office tenants (only needing one or two days per week), and coworking tenants, as well as other membership options — all with a shared business directory (and a community manager with a strong sales/business development background!) to promote their services. The businesses are very diverse — from construction and workplace health and safety, to leadership coaching, financial advisors, and marketing specialists.
Noticing a new gap in the market for consulting
This worked well for a few years, but I began to see that with that gap filled, and with the amount of in-depth conversations I was having with the local businesses who were utilizing the space, there was a new gap.
So many sole traders and consultants venture out on their own, doing something they are specialists at, but not many of them are highly-skilled at business development or sales, so they struggle to develop their business. Both those areas are within my skill-set, so I started to look at ways to help in those fields.
Within the flexible workspaces, I was able to introduce people who could tap into one another’s specialist knowledge. We moved to a new space which gave us more collaborative opportunities — a bigger community space and more meeting rooms, and I began to transform the business model. With less full-time private office space, I started to create more membership options, so that coworking and accountability sessions were higher up the list of services I was providing.
My members were really starting to see how collaboration could help them grow their businesses and allow them to individually focus on what they were really good at. By utilizing other local specialists, they could actually offer their clients more complementary services to help them – so everyone was winning!
Shifting to bigger and better workspace offerings
We are currently in the process of a bigger shift — with the global crisis we are facing at the moment, I knew I’d need to make some changes to the way I ran the workspaces. I am now looking at helping more local business owners by shifting my focus to management consulting. A beautiful heritage building just across the street started offering event spaces last year, and I have spent the last 12 months figuring out how to amalgamate what I am doing with what they are doing, so I could work there!
So from later this month, Central Business Associates will be based within a new space again — where I can focus on assisting the community I have helped create, to grow bigger, bolder, better! The new space has agreed to accommodate the coworking community, and I will now have the time and capacity to help grow the businesses I work with.
What are the key characteristics, in your opinion and experience, of running a successful coworking operation in the suburbs?
Building a community of people who ‘know, like, and trust’ each other was the ultimate goal I was looking for from a suburban coworking space. I was looking for ‘my people,’ but I needed a way to fast-track the ‘getting to know them’ stage — networking events for an hour once a month just takes too long!
To achieve real success requires a dedicated community manager. The space needs to be flexible, both in terms of the layout, and the rental capabilities — you can’t expect to suddenly get an entire community of people wanting to cowork just because you open a space, but if you get the mix (numbers and types) of coworking and private tenants right, it should work well.
What are the key benefits of coworking spaces in the suburbs for members, which urban spaces do not offer?
The ‘local’ element — the fact that the people you will end up working alongside will often be the same people you encounter in the local supermarket or wine bar on Friday night after work, or at the school gate when you are picking up your kids, or you end up on a local not-for-profit committee with one or more of them, because you discover shared values through the water-cooler chat at lunchtime.
The people I share this space with are my extended family now — could you say that as easily about the people you meet in an office in a city? Getting to know coworkers to that degree brings a different level of ‘know, like, and trust,’ which is more likely to result in shared referrals to each other’s extended networks.
Why do you think suburban coworking is on the rise and will continue its development?
People are even more reluctant to commute now than ever before. They are looking for a balance between work and home, and suburban workspaces offer that solution. You can work near home, but not at home with all it’s distractions.
Mental health is undoubtedly being affected by the fact that people are struggling to separate work from home life – you get up from your bed and go to the desk in your home office (sometimes without changing from sleepwear, let’s be honest here!) Then at the end of the day, you stay a little later at your desk because there’s no train to catch, and you can put the oven on and then sit back down and finish that block of work.
You are less likely to leave the house because you can make your own coffee in your kitchen. Before you know it, you haven’t left the house in days, except to go to the store to pick up more coffee! So even when this pandemic and all it’s lockdowns and restrictions pass, suburban coworking will rise in popularity – if they are created!
Are coworking spaces popular in Australian suburbs as well as cities? What have you noticed about the suburban market there?
Suburban coworking spaces were on the rise here in Australia (pre-COVID), but I find myself constantly harping on to politicians and councillors that there should be more of them. They are as important as libraries these days in order to help create real community.
I feel as though I could push the issue higher and further, but as a small business owner myself, it’s hard to find the time to do more than what’s in your own bubble. As I said earlier, I feel they will actually become more needed/desired — due to people wanting to move out of cities or not commute so often.
I think there’s a real opportunity for landlords to look to hire community managers for spaces they can see would be suited to coworking. My only reason for not continuing to grow the business I had here was that the rent was too high to pay me enough to keep filling the space, as well as doing my own consultancy work. If someone like me could be paid/incentivized by a building owner to bring more tenants in, that would make it a more appealing option and would actually help the commercial real-estate industry.
The people who use coworking spaces in the suburbs are often running small businesses. If those small businesses grow, and then need more space as they grow, that is the landlord’s ‘sales pipeline’ right there! They can cultivate their own longer-term tenants by offering something that maybe isn’t quite as profitable in the short-term, but will grow into your larger, long-term, sustainable client base.
For example, I am in the Brisbane Bayside area, about 30-40 minutes commute from Brisbane CBD. I’d love to see a ‘hub & spoke’ design of workhubs around cities within that sort of distance, possibly with different ‘themes’ in each – maybe a Creative Hub, a Professional Services Hub, a Trade Hub, a Tech Hub, a Health Hub, etc.
I can already see some of these popping up around the world, but if the federal or local government could actively try to create them, it would enhance the area’s appeal. Anyway, that’s my plan for world domination in the future — don’t steal it!