Putting together the best team to run your workspace

Putting together the best team to run your workspace

Coworking is a relatively new industry and, as such, there is little information out there on certain aspects. One such area is the skills that operational teams need in the management of a coworking or flexible workspace. However, in the last five years or so, a lot of progress has been made in this area as it has become more widely seen that coworking is in fact a distinct branch of the hospitality sector and therefore many of the skills required are very similar and transferrable.

Some of the veteran managers amongst you are probably pulling your hair out over this statement, but it doesn't matter the nature of your space: the industry that is closest to what we do is the hospitality industry. Obviously, the services we offer are different, the look and feel may also be different, but in essence workspace clients pay an amount of money to receive a service that allows them to make use of a physical space for a certain period of time (or to receive a virtual service often related to a physical space). 

In fact, it is worth remembering that hotels have long been offering services such as meeting room rentals and some have even created new brands (or acquired existing coworking brands) and offer coworking services, taking advantage of their experience in delivering amazing service to their clients in the traditional hospitality industry. Through my many interactions with people coming form the hospitality sector, it must be said that they really have customer service in their DNA and when you interact with them you can really see the difference.

But why is this important? For most of the flexible workspaces that come from coworking, service has been a weak point for a long time. Obviously I can't generalise, and there are exceptions, but if we are honest with ourselves the informality and familiarity was much greater in 2013 than it is now (if you are tempted to deny I would suggest you review your processes and protocols and think about how you worked 9 or 10 years ago).

So... how does one put together a team for a coworking space? Is it as simple as looking for front-desk staff for a hotel? Yes and no, the question is simple to answer but at the same time it is complex because it will depend on what coworking space you have (or expect to have) and what kind of service you want to offer to your members. Answering this question, though, is essential before you set up a good team for your specific coworking brand.

About ninjas and samurais

When someone asks me about how to hire in coworking I always resort to the following metaphor.

In coworking you should have Ninjas and Samurais. Ninjas, well they are ninjas like in western movies... they are usually invisible, climb impossible walls, dive hidden in plain sight, and then suddenly appear, throw shuriken, somersault, pirouette and put on an impressive show and then disappear in a smoke bomb as unexpectedly as they arrived. 

Samurai, however, are warriors for whom honour comes first. Their duty is above all else, no matter if it rains or snows, they are always on their feet and ready to face adversity: they are reliable.

You can ask a Ninja to pretend to be a Samurai for a while but if you ask a Samurai to do a somersault while throwing shuriken he or she will probably end up on the ground at the drop of a hat.

So which is better: having Ninjas or Samurai? As I said before, it depends on your space and the service you want to offer.

A "Samurai" will be perfect (for example) at the front-desk. He or she is reliable, service oriented, organized and responsible. This profile is ideal for positions in the operations area or where organization, planning and reliability are required.

Ninjas, on the other hand, are made of different stuff. Do you need someone who organizes events? Do you need someone who gives everything at very specific moments and who shines with their own light so that everything goes well and at the same time has something special that makes people like him or her? Do you need a person who connects your community with each other or with people from outside? That person can suddenly appear and solve a situation or connect you with someone who knows how to solve it and leaves everyone happy. That person is the right choice for events management, or to add value to the community above the expected level of service. These people are the ones who will make your members have an extraordinary experience in a workspace, but (and it’s a huge but) you first need to do a great job with the basics, because this won’t make members happy if the basics are not met. 

As I was explaining previously, the problem is the instability of these more "creative" (ninja) profiles because although you can ask them to take over monotonous operational tasks, believe me when I tell you that it will only work for a limited time.

You have probably come to a conclusion by yourself, but as the industry has evolved, there are many more positions for service oriented profiles (Samurai) than more "creative" profiles.

How do we understand service?

If your space is focused on servicing corporate clients with large teams who simply expect things to run smoothly your team should be 99% service focused. If you are also dealing with high level clients I would not risk having anyone on your team who does not have that focus, and if they do it should be a person who understands their role perfectly and who uses creativity to benefit the team at large. Bear in mind, they must also be aware of their limitations in terms of organisation and perseverance and the rest of the team will need to compensate for their shortcomings.

On one occasion a manager who had a creative profile in his team told me: "I allow him not to do certain tasks, or to be absent-minded, because he compensates: he is capable of doing things that the rest of us cannot do and provides the space and the members with skills that are not common". This manager was very clear about this person's limitations but was also well aware of what he brought to the table. In weighing up the two things, the former outweighed the latter in terms of what he was not able to do in an orderly fashion.

Despite this, you have to keep in mind that situations change, spaces evolve and so does the market, so something that offers value now, may not do so in the future. If you have someone like this in your team or you hire someone with this kind of profile, my recommendation is to hire someone who respects the work of all those people who are committed to the service and who are covering its shortcomings: they must be aware that they could not work the way they do because without them he would have to work in a different way.

Look for your Samurai among the ranks of people who work, or have been trained, in hospitality. In many markets you will not be able to pay them what they are paid in that sector but you should easily be able to offer a better work/life balance or offer a different set of challenges than a hotel environment can offer.

What was unusual a few years ago is becoming more and more common, and while I will not be the one to encourage poaching within the industry, the fact is that it will become more and more common for employees to move from one space to another. When business centres became flexible workspaces they hired staff with coworking space experience to bring a less formal energy and experience to their new workspaces. Other spaces created by real estate companies hired staff with business centre experience to organize their operations or manage their sales teams.

However, if you have a space focused on freelancers, or isolated remote workers (who are not part of a team within the space) you should pay more attention to provide a differential value beyond pure service. Also, if you manage a government owned space, focused on the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, surely in your staff creative profiles will have more weight than usual.

How do I set up my staff then?

Think about the positions you need, what skills they require, and how you want them to interact with members and other customers. Review the positions you've created and ask yourself if the combination of skills you think you need for each position is realistic. Someone who keeps their cool in stressful situations and is good at improvising creative solutions in those moments is unlikely to be organized and consistent (or if they are they will want a salary range that you may not want to take on for that position).

Think on the skills you require for each position and consider creating positions that focus on people's soft skills and not just the traditional structure of a company. For example, perhaps the person who organizes events in your space has soft skills that allow them to negotiate more easily, and more successfully, than someone more structured. Can this person also handle sales or bring value to members by connecting them with their extensive network of contacts?

Having this type of staff member varying their tasks will prevent them from finding their day-to-day life monotonous as they are presented with different challenges. Keep in mind that the schedules for people in charge of events must be compatible with other tasks (in many cases they work outside the centre's hours) and therefore it is difficult for them to comply with a strict morning schedule in order to be able to rest between working days.

However, for the core work, for that which cannot fail, because if it does we will disappoint the members, it is better to have a reliable team of people who can be focused on those tasks. To find this type of staff you can not only find them in other flexible workspaces but you can also look for them in hotels or hospitality schools: these people have the right knowledge and the right approach to give a good service to your customers.

In summary…

- For service-focused jobs, choose people with hospitality or hospitality experience. You need people who are organized, service-oriented and reliable. They also need to be able to differentiate the urgent from the important and vice versa.

- For tasks that require improvisation, or a high ability to work on the spur of the moment, a high level of interpersonal, networking and creative problem solving combined with a lot of horizontal thinking choose people with these types of skills but be aware of their limitations.

- Create the positions taking into account the soft-skills they require not only in the structure of the company.

NB: Don't make a job description that looks like that person is going to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab or in the special forces: be realistic and clear.


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