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Coworking: Fixed Desks or Hot-Desking?

[fr] A l'occasion de la conférence Coworking Europe, j'ai pris part à un panel discutant des avantages/inconvénients des postes fixes ou mobiles.

I was on a panel at Coworking Europe about fixed desks versus hot-desking. When I opened eclau, I had a vision for it based on how Citizen Space had been set up. Mid-2008, Citizen Space was my ur-coworking-space. I was in contact with Chris and Tara and had spent a little time at the space over the summer 2007 during my stay in San Francisco.

It quickly became apparent to me that eclau’s architecture (and possibly Lausanne’s business culture) was not working out well with my desire to have a heart of fixed-desk resident coworkers.

Eclau has very few walls that are not interrupted by pipes, radiators, or windows, making it difficult to install desk+bookcase combos that most people needing a fixed desk required.

Also, people who came to visit for a fixed desk often turned out to be either people who wanted to store a lot of stuff in the space, or who wanted a “real office” and were just trying to save on the costs.

After a year or two, eclau counted only a couple of fixed desks, and way more “hot-desking” members. Roughly two years after opening, eclau 2.0 re-focused the offer on free seating, making fixed desks an extra option available to existing members. So far, nobody has actually got around to taking the fixed desk option.

That’s for my story.

One interesting idea that emerged from the panel was that coworking space managers are trying to maximize the returns for the space they have. This is kind of an alien idea to me, as I don’t earn a living with eclau — I just want it to “not cost me anything”. The debate over fixed vs. flexible desks brought us to speak of our price plans and business models, which tend to reflect how important revenue is to the space manager. Clearly, if you’re trying to make a living out of your coworking space, or if you’re making a living doing something else, the way you approach these issues will be quite different.

At eclau, I don’t really worry that summer months are “empty”. Or Fridays. Of course it’s nicer when you’re not alone when you come to work at the coworking space. But from a financial perspective it doesn’t change anything for me, because I don’t sell desk space, or time in the space, or services. People sign up to be members, for six months or a year minimum, and the yearly membership fee is spread over 12 months. So people still pay for the space in July/August, even if they’re on holiday. They’re paying to be part of the community. Not because they occupy a seat.

This fits with my vision of coworking as “community/people first”. For me the desk renting business is the business that business centers are in.

Some argue that the type of price plan I propose is not flexible. On the contrary, I see it as very flexible. The membership fee is low, because all I’m looking to do is cover my costs. Once you’re a member, you have a key, and come whenever you want. Complete flexibility.

And the rather serious commitment required of full members is balanced with an “occasional member” offer which is virtually free (tip jar) for those who want to come less than three times a month.

I also believe in keeping things dead simple. Want to be a member? Here’s how it works. You don’t need to agonize over which price plan to choose, or wonder if you want to drop in at the coworking space today and use up some of your credit. Once you’re a member, the only thing that determines whether you come or not is your need of a place to work for the day.

Now of course, if I were trying to make a living (or at least money) out of eclau, I would be doing things very differently. Because on a given day, there are a lot of empty desks at eclau. So clearly, I’m not maximizing my revenue from the space. But that’s not my objective. (Which brings us to the other session I co-held at Coworking Europe, about the criteria of success for coworking.)

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Posted in Coworking | Tagged business model, Coworking, eclau, finances, fixed desks, free seating, hot desking, occupancy, vacancy | Leave a comment