American companies are still figuring out what the future of work will look like, but a few factors are clear. Workers expect more flexibility around office and remote work, vacation time and parental leave. Changing health risks are forcing constant updating to requirements such as masking, vaccination and social distancing. And software engineered for remote work, like Zoom, is crucial to keep everyone tapped in.
These factors make it so a startup may have 20 employees in-office one month, and 50 the next — creating many problems for whoever’s in charge of managing office space. But one office leasing company is trying to engineer itself a solution: Werqwise.
The co-working company, which offers private office and co-working spaces at its San Francisco and San Mateo locations, has always positioned itself as a more flexible alternative to traditional office buildings. Their specialty is in meeting the individual needs of employees and easing coronavirus fears, for example, with: temperature checking machines at the entrance; self-cleaning elevator buttons and door handles; and socially distanced furniture. But they also allow companies to ultimately decide their own coronavirus rules.
Their newly unveiled Werqwalls take the meaning of flexible office space to the extreme. These movable, sound-proofed office walls allow clients to customize floor plans down to the last square foot.
“We know things are going to change, and that we’re not going to go down the final route the first time,” says Werqwise Founder and CEO Alan Mackay, about entrepreneurs experimenting with different office solutions. “So let’s build systems that allow us to change our mind every five minutes.”
As a commercial real estate business working mostly with startups in the Bay Area, Werkwise serves mainly tech companies — and tech workers have changed their work preferences in the past year.
A tech employee survey performed by Protocol and Morning Consult this summer found 75% of workers think it’s important their company allows them to work remotely, at least part of the time, indefinitely. A similar poll, conducted by the New York Times and Morning Consult found 86% are satisfied at home.
Most of San Francisco’s biggest tech companies, such as Twitter, Uber and Salesforce, have delayed their return to the office, struggling to get a grip on changing coronavirus risks and to encourage employees that it’s a worthwhile commute.
Werqwalls are meant to make the transition easier. Made primarily of aluminum frames and glass, the modular walls require only two people to snap them in and out of place along a white steel grid on the ceiling. That grid breaks down the office floor into 2 ½-foot squares, which clients are able to pick and choose from to decide how they want their office floor plan to be arranged.
Werqwise’s in-house construction team handles the labor of moving the walls around. But Werqwalls allow executives almost as much flexibility in designing an office as they would have sketching it out on a sheet of graph paper. An office might be shaped like an L one week and reconfigured into a square the next.
The grid on the ceiling also holds the electrical wiring typically encased behind a sheet of drywall in standard offices. When Werqwalls are clipped into place, electrical outlets, lights, and wall-mounted televisions are electrified, too. Each of the walls has notches that allow design features such as wood paneling to be clipped on top, or accessories such as white boards easily hung at the optimal height.
Mackay says this isn’t just about appeasing startup founders and CEOs — it’s about making sure employees work in an environment optimized for their needs and, thus, productivity. Werqwise has an academic advisory board that had input on the Werqwalls and design features which attach to them. Lights can be changed to custom colors — green recommended for collaborating, blue for crunching financial numbers — while air conditioning panels allow employees to customize the temperature in individual, Werqwall-divided offices.
In short, the Werqwalls are practically Legos for office design: Just snap into place the design features of your choosing.
“We’re a hyper flex workspace company, but we’ve had to become an adaptive architecture company,” says Mackay.
They’ve made that transition in the nick of time. Flex offices have become far more popular in the last 18 months than they have for years, and industry analysts expect the trend to keep accelerating. The Global Coworking Growth Study released in June estimated approximately 5 million people will be using co-working spaces in 2025 — 158% growth from 2020. And while the co-working market is expected to have grown from $7.97 billion in 2020 to $8.14 by the end of this year, it’s expected to reach a whopping $13.03 billion by 2025. A lot of that growth appears to be caused by the way the pandemic increased interest in hybrid and flexible work.
“The big thing about the pandemic is that it’s made the real estate industry start to realize that they need to think about the people in their space — not just talk about it, but really deeply think,” says Mackay. “It’s meant we get to take a bit of extra time to really push product development, and make good on that.”