As one of the founders of Canada's coworking movement, Ashley has worn many hats over the past 2 decades and through her consultancy Creative Blueprint has inspired a global network of catalysts and change makers, working in partnership with neighbourhood residents, community organizers, students, unions, collectives, coworking leaders, community groups, policy makers, activists and all levels of government to build bridges between individuals and industries around the world.
Ashley co-founded the Coworking IDEA project, an alliance-of-alliances called Coworking Canada (which supports the country's indie coworking operator community), and many more organizations. For the past year or so she has worked with Deskpass to lead partnerships and growth in Canada.
For this episode of StartWell's Gathering podcast series, we discuss virtues of coworking which can inform the practice of anyone planning how physical space can best support the needs of teams in their organisation and/or community.
Spend time with this conversation - here's the full transcript
Work culture and remote work
Ashley Proctor 0:13
It's nice to actually be in person.
Qasim Virjee 0:15
Honestly, I can't, I just can't do the Zooms man. I'm sick of it. I hate it. And like the fake backgrounds and then no one's comfortable. And then like, can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? And the connection errors and then like the cinematics of it because even if you're front of someone like this in real life, it's just more fun. It's just more fun. I've it's not fun sitting in front of my computer. Yeah.
Ashley Proctor 0:38
And I think it really adds to the conversational aspect to it, rather than it being like interview. I get so sick of being asked the same questions. It's nice to just talk about stuff.
Qasim Virjee 0:48
Yeah, I agree. Okay, so let's jump into it then. So, Ashley Proctor, the great benefactor of co working in Canada, one of the oh geez in the scene in the studio, and it's awesome to have you here. So, so thankful that you were able to take time to come and join me for this episode of The Start world podcast slash the gathering podcast. We are going to talk about a bunch of stuff. This will be published through the gathering podcast by start well, which really is a series that we've launched to kind of an earth a lot of tips, tricks, anecdotes from brilliant minds, such as yourself, about everything to do with like emergent workplace culture, or the current millio we work in. We have a lot of clients at start, well, you know, who support other teams. And so in digging into our roster of customers, but also the people that are contacting us, inquiring about ways that we can help them do that work. You know, I kind of said, well, we need more than just to be able to place people with meeting space, because we do more than that when people are here. And so this series is really about dialogue that can you know, on Earth helpful information for those folks in the work that they're doing. So, yeah, so that's some background on this chat. But let's kick it off with a little bit of history. If you're down for that. I know you talk about this all the time. But the background of how you got into what you see is co working. Because you were one of the earlier entrepreneurs in co working in Toronto, definitely. Right? Yeah, for sure. So give us some background. What got you going on, like on that first project, the first co working space that you started? Yeah,
Co-working origins and intentions
Ashley Proctor 2:47
the first one I started was actually for the students at the Ontario College of Art and Design. And that was a project we launched in about 2002 2003. And the space opened first in Kensington Market in 2004, only a couple of months before the Center for Social Innovation opened up in Toronto. So it was right as co working was sort of born in the city. And I think that that project, so I was working for the Student Union at the time, that's that's how I got involved with it. But I think that project really formed or informed, co working for me moving forward in the sense that it was a collaborative project from the start. And I was a representative as a as a member of the Student Union, and carrying out the wishes of the community, this larger community of all of the students at OCAD, who had had their external space taken away from them through the supervillain reconstruction project. So renovation project funded by the government. And we decided as students to self funded and run our own space, which is external, from the campus external from the school, and any kind of oversight in that funds, and really make it a space that met the needs of the community. And they asked for exhibition space, they asked for retail space, they asked for gallery space, they asked for studio and production space, they asked for co working space, and its earliest days, we were barely working from laptops. So it was it was the earliest versions, I think that we could have done with the right timing for technology. But that community led design and that co creation is actually what for me is the essential part of co working that I hope we carry through and has carried through my nine other projects over the years. But I think that is actually where all of my thoughts about co working come from it's really serving the needs of the people rather than a top down or if you build it they will come approach.
Qasim Virjee 4:39
Yeah. And it's really interesting to kind of look back I think on foundational kind of, you know, motivations for creating these spaces. In those days. I was one of the first tenants at Center for Social division and Spadina that's where I first kind of got the vibe. I kind of knew I mean the the concept of people coming together to create a space that's conducive to their collective needs and work. And not just efficiency, but social dynamics as well. You know, I had experience in working before that, you know, in New York, in Africa. And even just like, it's funny, because even at McGill, like the same kind of thing, I was involved in some, some projects like that, mainly in the art communities in the Plateau, not just McGill students, but like people coming together to even take over like a nightlife establishment on a weekly roster to figure out how to share as artists performing space, you know, yeah, so it's some it's funny, because I think what's interesting, as I look back on this stuff, is that, you know, co working capital, see the word, you know, is in the zeitgeist today, mainly, thanks to a lot of advertising, you know, advertising money from big brands, in the last 510 years. I think people like we work have advertised co working to be something and branded it to be something that the consumers may know. But the concept that we define it by is perhaps unknown, and, and even just before we jumped on the mic, you were telling me an anecdote. What What was that story?
Ashley Proctor 6:16
Oh, we're talking about this is 20 years, and now almost 20 years of me explaining to folks what co working is or what the intention is. And I met a fellow traveler in Memphis last week. And he asked me what I do. I said, it's all I do a lot of things that run aid organizations, they're all related to co working. And he said, What is co working? And I thought, Gosh, 20 years, I've been explaining what co working is to people? How do I play this? You know, and I thought for him, I'll go with the mainstream. So I asked him if he'd ever heard of we work. Because, yeah, I work from away work. And it blew my mind that, you know, actually, it doesn't blow my mind. It just reinforced what I what I come to know and feel about we work and how far they've distanced themselves from co working intentionally now. Since they trashed his name in the media, they might have brought it to the forefront, but they also kind of gave it a bad rap with how it got so closely tied to their commercial real estate endeavors and investments. And that's not what co working is about co working is solving a problem for a lot of folks. And it does it in a lot of different ways. And I think the one thing that is consistent between genuine co working communities is that collective mindset that, you know, working together to build something better than we could achieve on our own the collaboration over competition, and I think that's really the only way forward on a lot of friends, the way we work the way we live. It has to be a collaborative approach. Yet
Toronto's commercial real estate market during pandemic
Qasim Virjee 7:47
it's so funny that like, firstly, that that would happen that someone Yeah, in a space that's been sold, as you know, probably had a banner on the front of the building saying you know, coworking seeds offices available. wouldn't wouldn't kind of know what the word means. The Yeah, I mean, like, it's funny because we're, we're working with a lot of different types of organizations, as customers, as clients, as friends partners, at start, well to facilitate that exploration. Organizations now saying, Okay, we have to come up with hybrid plans that don't involve a unitary chunk of space to accommodate, you know, the workplace for all people. People are remote, especially in Toronto, the GTA, you have distributed teams by nature of the urban typography. So some of our listeners who are unfamiliar with our city, just a little bit of backdrop, which is this is kind of like mega city that got formed a decades ago, by an enlightened, you know, city councilors that kind of clumped a number of cities together into a single city administratively. But it also meant that that centralized a, perhaps the Toronto urban cores, importance for organizations in the greater area. And that meant that like, you know, Toronto became this kind of nine to five city, or continued becoming growing to be a nine to five city where commuter traffic demanded a little bit of nightlife post, you know, like dinner venues, post work, but then everyone kind of had this urban flight in the evening. This is like a problem with maybe a lot of North American cities in general, that don't have the piazza as in Gillette theory, as you know, forever to relax in the evening. All the familiars to get to know each other. But anyway, so we live in this big city, that was pre pandemic, you know, a commuter city, and then the commuting stopped, and then commercial vacancies increased. And, you know, 2019 we had less than 2% commercial Well, let's call it a Office real estate availability offices were packed, you know, everyone was oversubscribed. And then also us having this like innovation ecosystem in the city. And even as early as 2018, we were dealing with a lot of startups that were well funded and, and revenue positive, and companies looking to have a kind of a North Eastern North American footprint. And post Trump, a lot of money moved up here, where people are like, Oh, America is too scary for us. Like it's just uncertain. And for globally relevant companies, they were saying Canada's a safer, more civil society to be based. So Toronto got a kind of a boom in 2019. But yeah, so everything kind of like went crazy with the pandemic. And now we're sitting at, it's funny, because every every kind of commercial real estate, quote unquote, professional that I speak to whether they're at a reate, or their brokers or work at brokerages, or landlords of some sort, or property managers even, they don't kind of understand what's happening to their property, and in the market and the drop off in demand. But I talked to people and they're confused about two things. I'd love your take on this. So one thing is the vacancy rate, right? So a lot of people are saying in commercial real estate that, okay, we've got about a 20%, you know, vacancy rate in downtown Toronto, but half of that's available through sublets. So they see that as an enticing weigh in for tenants. And then on the other side, they're saying, we have underutilized it under utilization, but that's not our problem. So from my perspective, there's about a 40% vacancy rate in Toronto, because you've got a lot of leased floors, and no one works at the ghost floors. And they're not, you know, they might be being paid for until the lease is up, and then those companies are gone. So we're almost heading into this kind of like what the industry would see as a crisis, because you've got massive availability of real estate. And, and the only way it can be come attractive, according to conventional business is to drop prices. However, a lot of property can't do that. And a lot of small landlord property on the property like we're in, for example, even those 20,000 square feet, it'll continue at the same price for me to run. My landlord would rather demolish it, you know, if I couldn't pay the money. So it's very interesting. On one hand, you've got this, like, tons of sublets available. And I like counterbalancing that sublet availability with the race to the bottom and the commercial co working operators or shared space vendors, like we work in IW. Eg. And then on the other side, you've got this issue of of kind of stock coming on market. What are what what are your thoughts around this sort of stuff? I know, that's a generalistic kind of question. Honestly, I
Commercial real estate trends and the future of workplaces
Ashley Proctor 13:01
think anytime the ground is shaking, it's a good thing. I think there are a lot of, there's a lot of room for improvement and care, there needs to be a Great ShakeOut and people who typically maintain the access or hold access to these kinds of spaces need to be shaken up a little bit, too. I think in the same way that people, workers are starting to realize that the whole system of work is broken, and demanding more and demanding better and better conditions and a better work life balance. This isn't new to a lot of us co working operators, we've been creating space for these folks for a long time. It feels like we're having a lot of the older conversations in the earliest days of the movement when we were realizing that this system isn't working for us anymore. Emerging from school and thinking of new ways of working and the way technology is shaping the way we've been working over the course of the first 20 years of my career has greatly shifted. Folks who are just folks that are hanging on are so far beyond I think we had better this conversation before to it. I mean, 50 years behind, it's not even a little slow.
Qasim Virjee 14:13
Yeah, you're talking about like we were when we were speaking downstairs about off Off mic for our audience. We were talking about how commercial real estate incumbents you know, especially here in a city where the majority of the downtown real estate that's commercial is owned by riots, you know, very long term thinking, people or companies that don't move quickly. They're not agile, they're not repurposing stuff. They're kind of hoping for Don Draper to come back to the office.
Ashley Proctor 14:43
What they're waiting for, for sure. Yeah, and it's not gonna happen. It's not gonna happen. And we know this in the same way that we know. People get coworking when they come through the doors, not when they see it online or when they hear about it they get when they try it. These folks are starting to see that It's not just, you know, the space needs to be rented in the same way that we know as operators, you could have 140 co working members, and maybe 20 of them are in the space today. But if that continues to be true, that space not going to be around for very long that it's the feeling of being in community, it's the socializing that we leave the house for. And so if the space isn't also animated, curated, if people aren't being educated, if there is an opportunity and networking going on, if there isn't some kind of newness to the experience, people get bored. It's like going to a mall, like a fancy office, ooh, we all use Airbnb, we can work from anywhere we want, we can travel the world, a beautiful building is is not the be all end all. And most people have beautiful desks, beautiful offices, beautiful space, and their home net, where they can sit and work even if it might be small. And it might be compact or, or based on productivity. We also know that that we can change our minds. And we can go into a co working space for the afternoon or a couple of days a week, I hear these folks talking about adding hospitality into them. That means coffee service and maybe a receptionist. I hear about these amenities. And you know, people are bringing in beer kegs and ping pong tables and climbing walls. And I actually really appreciate the way I'm seeing some of the indie operators pivoting. They're asking customers, they're asking, entrepreneurs are asking small businesses what they need and want, where the gaps are for them. And this is how we're coming about finding these spaces, creating podcasting rooms, creating studios for production, creating, meeting experience. For team building, we're thinking differently about the ways we come together, why we come together, what we come together for. And I think the people who will succeed through this are the ones who are holding space and transforming space into more of a sort of the placemaking effort. Right? It's, it's, I've always had an issue just with commercial real estate in general, and the idea of ownership and the land and, and the idea of sustainability and, and what the purpose of real estate is, rather than holding space for all these incredible things we could do. Yeah, it's trying space, it's
Work-life balance and employee expectations
Qasim Virjee 17:22
sad to see the under utilization of space. By by, by that I mean, for myself, I think you agree that it's not about whether someone sat at their desk or not, it's about whether that person even sat at a desk or any other piece of furniture is like loving life, you know, buildings should facilitate social betterment, and engagement and, and happiness, the built environment, of course, you know, we've kind of adopted a legacy, perhaps a cultural legacy in North America, that was a post industrial list, you know, retooling of the machinery. But it's very interesting now to see two things for me. One is the machinery being wielded at home, which I think is a shitty thing like, look for everyone who's at home listening to this or watching this, free the shackle, go out for a walk, like I do hope that people aren't, you know, feeling like indentured laborers at home. Despite having won some efficiencies of time management, you know, it should make work no matter what you do, should, from my perspective, enrich your life. And sometimes, yeah, you got to you got to suffer, to get a paycheck to be able to sustain yourself to figure out what you can do better. But I think we're at a kind of a reckoning in North America is this hasn't happened in the rest of the world. Like I talked to any people that I know, around the world, about this whole refusal to work thing is people aren't refusing work here. But they're, they're kind of refusing to suffer in order to work. And, and that's an interesting thing and how it's played out, especially in Toronto, where people are saying, I don't want to ride the subway for an hour and a half or be stuck on a highway when gas cost twice what it used to, and I've got, you know, inflation to deal with in a recession. So I think it's kind of interesting that you know, employees are kind of saying or starting to think about lifestyle. Yeah, work
Ashley Proctor 19:21
lifestyle. Yeah. And granted, there's some privilege in that too. Not everyone can you know, stop doing labor that they dislike in order to proceed saying they like
Qasim Virjee 19:32
I was running around with a screwdriver out.
Co-working spaces and their impact on work culture
Ashley Proctor 19:35
But, um, but in some of it is location specific. You're never going to be you know, working remotely if your job is hands on. But, but yeah, I think I think that is really what I'm talking about in terms of the ground shaking and people saying, if I'm going to work if I'm going to sacrifice, an hour commuting, if I'm going to dedicate this time, which I'd rather be spending with my family, we're going to be paid well for it. There's going to be some benefit, like incredible benefits for health or dental insurance or something for my family, I'm going to have vacation time so that I can actually take the time off. And I think people are just, you know, Don with that sort of hustle culture just for the just for the sense of hustling, because that's what we should be doing. And if you're hustling, you're hustling, because you're working hard for a period to achieve a goal, whatever that might be. Not just because that's what we're supposed to be doing. And I'm hoping that a lot of things about the way work was broken will change. And I'm hoping that we don't just recreate the old toxic ways of the office in these co working communities and the share communities. I'm hoping that our structures or the hierarchical structures that we had in old offices and old work, culture change, and that co working spaces could really become leading by example, really, and I think we have been for a long time how to create more inclusive, more diverse, more equitable, more accessible space. And that's really what my work this last couple of years with the co working idea project has been about. Because we have that ability, we are smaller operators, usually the Indies, we can pivot quickly. And these are the folks who are thriving right now because they have pivoted to be able to meet these new demands from the membership. And we are seeing more women working in those spaces, we're seeing more folks that have disabilities or accessibility issues or mobility issues working from the spaces we're seeing working parents, launching businesses, which used to be prohibitive than the idea of, of working extra hours or renting an office. All of these things are within reach now and they were even 1015 years ago.
Qasim Virjee 21:37
Two things first thing, coworking idea break it out. Yeah,
Ashley Proctor 21:42
so the idea of projects, an informal Alliance, made up of many of us who are longtime co working operators, but also representatives from co working collectives and alliances around the world. Even collaborative consultants like anyone's welcome. And what unites us is that we want to work to make the industry more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible. And that's what the idea stands for. And each month, we issue a challenge to co working operators, or alliances, and ask them to launch a conversation around a topic, you know, whether it be at the collective level or in the space with their members, and really engage their community in these topics, like how do we hold space for you and the community? What does a more inclusive space look like to you? Like, where are we doing well, and where do we need to improve? And I think having a dialogue at many levels about these issues, are really what's needed to make change on a large scale, and that the impact we're making in these communities, you know, hundreds of communities around the world each month, that's rippling out and and that's having an impact and how those members carry themselves and do business in the world and exist, they have this knowledge now to start. So that's a project I feel pretty passionately about.
Qasim Virjee 22:52
I think it's fascinating when you when you really kind of peel back the onion and say the communities that form in co working spaces, which are made up of diverse peoples. That could be the simplest expression of that could be people from different types of job and different organizations, let alone their personal lives and identities. That diversity, which breeds a kind of unique culture, or enables a unique culture that shares values, which allow people to do things like you know, really physically just share space and not be tripping over each other and their bags in the hallways and stuff is really interesting, because I think there's a lot of lessons from co working and from us indie co working brands and operators to feed back into the RE development of the workplace for corporate entities and large enterprises that are rethinking real estate. You know, on one hand, you've got this kind of like small stakeholder perspective, or SMB perspective of like, what's happened during the pandemic of like, let's cut our backs and kill our lease because everyone's happier at home, and we'll give them $1,000 task chair. Now, I think we're hearing a lot more people reaching out to say, at start while reaching out to say, Okay, we're done with that. That's cool, like people have their space at home, but we want to like really resocialize them a little bit. They're feeling alone, we're seeing attrition. And this is another thing in the tech community, especially a lot of attrition. You've got every type of organization facing realities of economics that the ignored for the last two years, and so layoffs are becoming the norm. But the converse to that is that, you know, people are kind of looking for alternatives as employees and they're if they're at home, they have maybe more time and more privacy to be able to like cover calls with recruiters. So it's really, really interesting to see people now representing organizations and hopefully some of those I'm sorry, and our audience listening and watching, who are thinking about how do you increase engagement at organizations in the rebuild of physical space, or the rental of physical space when it's utilized for team building. And I think the lessons from co working are simply that it has to be what you just described, which is an inclusive space where everyone has a kind of a sense of purchasing power parity, you know, and, and we've seen that with organizations like Shopify, so we were working with Shopify and some experiments in the last year, more, we hosted like 150, meeting days, different groups, different organizations, different locations, like we had people flying in from all over the place. They're all kind of working for Shopify. But they all had the same budget. So kind of one group, not real estate, I forget what group it was within Shopify decreed that, you know, your spend, allotment had to be x, but it was price per head. So any meeting had almost the same per person budget, to figure out, you know, hotels, food entertainment, and they were allowed to do anything they wanted. And it was like, okay, all of you shopping folk, as they call themselves can go and do stuff, whatever you want, when you get together, and self organize. And we saw a lot of cool, happy people, you know. And it was such an interesting experiment, because, you know, and it's continued on, they've had some bureaucracy, refactoring that into, like, whatever they need to internally in terms of procurement, and budgeting, and so on, which has, you know, hindered, I think, the freedoms of some people to be able to, like make bookings happen. At certain locations that they want. But interesting things like some teams would be here for meetings. And then in the afternoon, they'd have rented out a theater, and have private movie screenings, because they all wanted to watch the same movie. Yeah, I think that can be work.
Remote work, productivity, and community building
Ashley Proctor 26:57
Yeah, I love the way things are shifting for the corporates right now. And I think it's also something that as indie operators, we were afraid of these larger groups, in the early days, in particular, like a large team coming into our space, because they would dominate the culture in the space. And we start to see everything we were building with the independence or smaller teams, being overwhelmed by the corporate culture that this one company had. And so, you know, in a sense, over time, we've built up this a bit of fear of these larger teams. But you're right, the way they're working. Now, they're really enjoying the time they're spending together when they are spending it together and being really intentional about their time. And I see this through my role at desk pass a lot, a lot of these larger organizations, they are just waking up, they're just starting to realize people are not going back to the office, they're not going back to the office, you're not going to actually going back to the office, and I think they have it right in terms of, you know, handing the funds over to their employees to be able to decide how to spend them, that could look like giving them a budget on a platform like a dust pass, or whatever that might be. Let's
Qasim Virjee 28:05
pause and just break it down. For people that don't know what does passes. What is this
Ashley Proctor 28:08
does pass is an international network of amazing indie spaces. We're on there was one that was one of them. And, and anyone can really be on it, if you've got an amazing space. And anyone can book we have a lot of corporate teams that books, so they'll roll it out to all their employees, for example. But you can also just be an independent worker or a small business and join as well. So you can book meeting rooms, desk day passes, you can book day offices, or you know, offices by the month, for example. But the focus is on shorter term, it's a drop in it's a part time, few hours or days. Totally Yeah. And you get what you need, you need access to a studio, you need access. And so I've been using platform desktops, for example, but but platforms like does fast for a very long time. Because I work in multiple cities, and I like to try different spaces, and I want to meet people and I want to tap into the local community, entrepreneurial, as well as just what is there to do in this amazing city. That's where I tap in when I go. So it's always made sense for remote workers and independents who travel for work. But now it's making more sense for distributed teams who are only coming together one day, a week or one day a month on site and exactly that they're having these really incredible meetings. And they're experiencing, they're just starting to experience what people who were working from home previously would say to us coming into a co working space for the first time. I'm productive, but you know, I could be more productive. I'm lonely, you know, dismantling loneliness, you know, has become one of our main missions as an industry. And I think we've become more and more aware of that over the last couple of years, particularly through the pandemic, we've seen so many people dealing with mental health issues, and the the fallout is just beginning from the isolation that we've all experienced through this tale. Right. Exactly, exactly. And so these organizations are just starting to understand that there's more than you know, A meeting happening when we gather. And I think you understand that too, with your work with the gathering and what you're doing here, it's, well, it's the coming together, that's really important. And so I also produce a lot of events for the the co working industry and for leaders in social impact. And it's really about the journey to get there together, we just hosted a pilgrimage for changemakers. In Memphis, the the journey of getting from where you are to where you're going of being together, and then taking that home and implementing it in your community. And so that's always been something that's really important to me. And I think, I think in the years to come, we'll see more of that. And the teams are starting to do this themselves. Yeah,
Qasim Virjee 30:38
and how, okay, so desk paths, how are the teams that come onto desk paths, finding their way to desk paths, to then discover spaces that are unique and different, and
Ashley Proctor 30:51
I think a lot of them are looking for meaning to be honest, they're just thinking of it as an Airbnb, like, I need a space for a meeting, and a marketplace to be able to book something. Yeah. And it's, it's really easy. So it's just like super quick for someone. And they can easily compare different spaces in their region, or prices for this nine person meeting room or whatever it is you're looking for. So you know, that search ability that function and it's something we're used to, I mean, we do this for Airbnb, we do this for Expedia, we look, we look things up. So it makes sense to folks to search that way. But then once they use it, they realize like, oh, wow, there are all these co working space, they go in for a meeting. They see people that work there all the time, they start to meet some of the members, or they meet other teams that are using the space and suddenly start increasing their usage. And, and you'll see a lot of folks, you know, we'll pick a space that they really love, they'll try a bunch and pick one that's kind of in the middle for their team to meet out or when that's near their home. And sometimes the company is paying for a certain amount of use for the team to gather. But then on their own, the individual is signing up for a membership. That's cool. When they're working from home some days, they want to be working from the space.
On-demand workspace platforms and their growth
Qasim Virjee 31:58
Super cool. Yeah. And desk pass is global. Yes,
Ashley Proctor 32:03
yes. I don't even know the current number of countries, I should know this, that I think we're at about 1400 spaces on the network right now.
Qasim Virjee 32:11
So from that network, and from the user base that you're privy to, are there trends that you're noticing in terms of that kind of self organization story, like people using because am I right in saying that dusk pass enables organizations to kind of almost like pre purchase availability, and then it's spent as credits or whatever, buy the stuff,
Ashley Proctor 32:32
there's no credit system. So right now, the overhaul that we've just done makes it so that anyone can just sort of book whatever they need using the platform. And it's all pay as you go. So there's no commitment. And it's just pick a
Qasim Virjee 32:44
space needed space paid to central billing on the account. For teams,
Ashley Proctor 32:47
it's a lot easier, because we can do one central to all their employees can be booking, you can also you know, break it down by team. So they each have different access for features, or maybe they're in different countries. But yeah, you can make it really easy. And so it makes it easy for the team to put all their employees on the platform and say use it whenever you need a desk to focus or whenever you're doing sales tours look a meeting space all along your way. And there's a lot of large companies that I can actually talk about yet, because they haven't announced this publicly, but have been doing pilots or trials with desktops. And it's going really well with their team. And they're adding more and more members and, and eventually we'll be able to talk about these organizations. But you'll see they're, they're some of the top companies in the world, putting all of their employees on the platform, so that they will have access to this when they need it. It's on demand. So
Qasim Virjee 33:33
now it's super interesting. I mean, we see this coming from all seeing the demand coming from all over the spectrum in terms of, let's say size of company, Industry Focus, and everything here on campus has struggled, because we've really, like doubled down on this whole meeting thing, right? So it's not for us. It's not getting around a board room table. That's a meeting meeting is simply just an opportunity to collaborate where people come together. Yeah. So we've built out all these different spaces that merge like lounge, dining, everything has fridges, you can bring your drinks and put it in the fridge. If you want to toast at the end of the meeting, go for it, you know. And it's really, really interesting, because I think the what we're finding with every single group that comes to meet here is that they're happier to have met at start well, a big part of it is logistical piece. So even a platform like desk pass takes part of the logistics out which might be just simply procurement. No. But I think the idea of people belonging to a space and knowing that they can belong when they want to is a new angle on co working to this on demand resource mix, to be honest look for anyone listening that's interested in commercial real estate, the truth of the matter is, the business model is not great. You know, like for example, I will lease real estate at a certain price and commit to that price for 10 years. Okay, so I'm on the hook for Millions of dollars to lease the space to then make it available on a day rate, you know, for people that might come or might not. And it's gone from subleasing, which was conventional co working, particularly, you know, you derisk your intermediary position, by having a chunk of real estate be small offices, small offices would pay your operating costs. And then everything above that would be a delta, which is, you know, a hybrid or co working like dropping hot desks and stuff, maybe event space, meeting space. But everything's shifted, because at least in a city like Toronto, real estate costs, at least unless I wanted to port to a different building and be in a sublet situation, my real estate costs have stayed the same through the pandemic, right. But what I've gone from is say, having, maybe like 50 organizations, support my business, as clients to about like, 5000 organizations with no expectation of recurring booking, you know, not one that I would rely my business model on. So it's kind of a scary proposition to be able to cater to this market segment, I definitely think it's like the ask of the future. And every organization is looking for flexibility and on demand. So it's an interesting time to be providing space in this way. And not everyone can do it. And not everyone is willing to look at the risk profile of the offering and say, it's something I'm comfortable with. Yeah.
The future of workspaces and community building
Ashley Proctor 36:34
And I don't think people have to take on the risk alone. In some cases, purchase of the building makes sense. In some cases, partnership with the landlord makes sense. In some cases. There are there are other ways to mitigate that risk. But I think you're absolutely right. I mean, the the older models were based on the anchor tenant, and then that was the shore shot, and everything else is gravy. And if we can get some bums in seats in the co working space, we're doing great. I've always approached it a bit differently. Every space I've built, has been multifaceted. So I've always had an event space, I've always had a cafe, I've always had a makerspace artists production studios, in addition to the co working and co working has always been split into a couple of models for me, because of the way people work. And as someone who's neurodivergent, the way I work throughout the day changes even and so yeah, like the open co working space, like open plan office, the flexible lounge space, all the different ways we like to work sitting and gathering and privately. And then also some some dedicated offices for this team to really do need to huddle like they would be taking up a meeting room all day long if they were out in the in the regular space. So I've always been thinking about how these different elements work to feed each other and how they complement the experience for the person who comes to the space. And so if I can't have a coffee, have a good conversation, stay for an event book a meeting work for a bit lounge around in space, why would I go there, I can do most of that thing. Most of those things from home, I'm coming to the space to have all of them some access to some equipment, some really cool people I wouldn't see otherwise. And that's more than hospitality that folks are talking about today. What they're bringing, it's animating a community, it's actually being a community organizer. And they're missing the most essential piece, which is what we do as indie operators,
Urban planning, community ownership, and inclusive spaces
Qasim Virjee 38:25
I think is so interesting, because I haven't really said this yet or articulated it this way. But I am willing to boldly go where I haven't gotten before and say it here on the mic that it sounds to me, it seems to me quite plausible that the culture crisis that's affecting North America right now, in this post pandemic reality, especially with this call, like I don't want to go to work, I don't want to travel work, I'll do my work. But I don't want to go there. thing. And what you just articulated is really, really interesting, because I think it's about the failure of our urban spaces. Like North American cities typically are ugly, uncomfortable, difficult to get to and navigate through. There's looming fear feelings of unsafety that, you know, will stigmatize various neighborhoods. There's all sorts of kind of like bad things to do with our cities. And they were the bulk of them built like in the 1950s or the kernel of them right in this kind of like very office Towery. Lloyd Wright kind of put it up, put the people in the cubicles make the honey bee buzz. And, and it's funny because I think there's this kind of like, resurgence of kind of an artistically minded impetus for wanting more from the place. But maybe employers and the spaces that they use for employing, you know, human resources you In a very functional description is taking the fall in the in the popular mainstream media in North America for these larger issues that are at play. Like, yeah, conventional 1950s Google offices suck. And because they suck, they're not going to breed a culture of inclusiveness and and mirth. But then the whole city is structured around those spaces. This has never been a lounging city. Like I remember even when I moved here from New York in 2005, there were playgrounds that were closed on Sundays, they literally put a sign up, you can't play in the playground on Sunday, what are you talking about? So playground, but that was a whole like Christianity thing, you had to be in church, you know. So even the LCBO, most of them were not open, you couldn't sell for all our international listeners. the LCBO is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, we have centralized alcohol purchasing for the province of Ontario, that is state owned, regulated, and is a real behemoth of a monopoly on the industry. And all of its retail locations are where Ontarians buy liquor until the pandemic when anyone would license to serve it in restaurants, for example, became Bodega has, you know, to try and kind of hustle up some bucks and that stayed. So there's some reforms happening in liquor control in the state but or in the province, but it was a very puritanical kind of society in a way, you know, not long ago, like not even 20 years ago, and coworking was getting started. And I think coworking offered people, especially these, like indie spaces that we're talking about, offer people a break from that outside reality, you came inside in the indoor space planning? It was it was not Spaceman is it? placemaking, right, is the word you used. And, and again, that was a word that was coined by the organization I worked at in New York called the project for public spaces. So the thought there, of course, for anyone new to placemaking is that you take a space, you make it inclusive, you make it comfortable and sensitive to the needs of the community that shares it. And it's a place its, it has a mode of connection. And people have that connection to each other through it. So these interior domains that were crafted to enable communities to form, you know, or go like, co working, indie co working. Yeah, I think harking of this kind of, like larger critique of the urban space, and in Toronto, we're seeing that were like, the cities, you know, people want more from the city. Yeah,
Ashley Proctor 42:35
I think a lot of a lot of my approach is sort of an urban planning approach to in terms of what the space needs to have to feel good. And definitely throwback to Jane Jacobs on that one. And how a space makes you feel and, and the, in the who, the just the decision making, and were to really be at the community level, I think is is what I'm trying to say, and, and how it all comes together to create a space of belonging. And you're right, it's that ownership of the space, that investment into the space that feeling like I can be here and part of this community, I can just spend time in this space. And I realized this as I was taking a group through the Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tennessee, it's basically a 1.3 million square foot redevelopment project and the old Sears warehouse, and they've built a vertical city. So there's me. If you name something, it's in that building co working spaces, there's a college result radio station, a YMCA, there's an entire Church Health Program, a churches synagogue. I mean, the atriums are beautiful event spaces. All the arts organizations are based there. robotics labs. It's crazy. Yeah, absolutely everything. But the, but there are still people who live in Memphis. And this building has been open and must have taken almost 20 years to get from design to the space it is now who don't know that that space is for those who who don't know what's in that building, who haven't walked around in this massive public space where everyone is welcome. And it's fully open. Almost all the time to the public. People live on site as well. There's affordable housing as well as sounds incredible. It's absolutely, absolutely amazing. But But I guess what I'm trying to say is there are still folks in the community that don't know that space was built for them with city funds with all these different co investors and partnerships and as a nonprofit, to be a place for the community. And I see this at 312 main in Vancouver and other space that I worked on. Not everyone knows that that space was built for them. It was built with them and and not, you know, a top down model. It was based on consultation with 300 community groups. And so the members of the spaces really need to feel that that ownership they need to know that that is there. Basic, they are welcomed that they belong. And they actually can have an influence and an impact on how that space is run organized, what the objectives are the kinds of facilities they have access to the kinds of people that they might welcome into the space. That's all all up for negotiation in a in a genuine co working community. Yeah,
Retail access and urban ambassadorship
Qasim Virjee 45:19
and I look at that here with with something that I've always done, since the first start, well that no one knows about, which was 1000 square foot retail storefront on St. Clair Avenue, down the road from my house, it was all very lazy for me to start that business. But also it didn't make sense because the neighborhood didn't want to pay for it, memberships. But it born a friend that was born our King Street mega location. The cool thing is, since day one, I've always been retail. First we need retail access, we need to, you know, occupy entire buildings. It gives people a sense of place, and a sense of the buildings themselves have an openness by walking in from the street and not taking some elevator to the 25th floor. Very important to be connected to the street. Because often cases a lot of our users or customers that come in for the day, or a few hours, they may never experience retail proximity in their neighborhood, they might live in a condo building on the 25th floor, they might also come from a suburban context. And, and you know, buy everything online. I don't know, whatever the kind of reason is. So it's really interesting for me to protect the urban feeling for pedestrian reality by having retail access. And then also the other side of it is I really have been very, I don't know how I would express this. But in choosing a site or sites for start well, and buildings and even growing this footprint in this neighborhood. I've been very focused on being an ambassador for the neighborhood for the people that come to us. And it's interesting, because that whole thing of like groups coming together for experiences, mostly it's a culinary thing, but like, everyone who comes here is going to have lunch or dinner or go for drinks afterwards and accessing this place by it being downtown, but still, you know, surrounded by residential is so important. Of course, mixed use in urban typography in general is so important for inclusiveness, but like people love the fact that they can come here do their thing, have all those hospitality things you mentioned, like we have baristas downstairs and stuff, have their cappuccino, not whip out their wallet, but that they can also very comfortably leave their stuff behind. And like go have lunch and have some great tacos or whatever food they want any food and walk back in 10 minutes, and no one's touch their stuff. It's safe. And they've Wow, they've had a whole experience of Toronto that doesn't exist except for here, you know. So I think it's really, really important that these like that people experience neighborhoods as furtive environments for commercial enterprise.
Co-working spaces and their impact on communities
Ashley Proctor 48:05
Yeah, it's interesting that the tone sort of changes when you walk into a communal area in a co working space. It's almost like that's the community that I would build If I got to build this city. And we're seeing it inside instead of outside in a public forum. But we're creating what feels like public space. That's common. That's important. Yeah, yeah. And I think that really speaks to the themes around collaboration, and community building that are really at the core of the co working values, the co working movement, because we talked about co working now as an industry, I really, really am thinking about the movement here and the intention behind why we get together. And it's that common space, it's that it's that common experience. It's a common understanding, and then also systems of support. And we do this and sometimes in a top down model in a co working community, if we have experience with mentoring new startups, if we have experience in these startup cultures, and we're helping to accelerate to incubate, of course, we're doing all these things in sort of the traditional top down model. But what's great about the co working community is that they play these roles for each other. And the members are equal, like you said, there is not really a hierarchy of membership in the space, if you remember, you're a member and you have the same sort of access and right to belong and to be and, and influence the culture of the space as well. And I think it's that common. The systems of support around starting new ventures and just being there to celebrate wins with each other, to to go through the losses together. That's what makes a really resilient community and a resilient neighborhood. And we know a lot of our members are located near this space, like proximity makes a lot of sense for any co working members, but we are strengthening the neighborhood with our spend but also in just those meaningful connections we're making between people because I see folks still to this day, who are members of my co working space Because I still live in the same neighborhood as my co working space operated for 10 years, 10 years ago. And these people still live there. And they're still contributing in incredible ways, through their businesses, through their families through their volunteering in the community. And a lot of these connections were made in the foundry buildings. And that's something that, you know, it's partially the building design and the way we invite people in in the common public space outdoors and things like that, and the intentional way we hosted, but a lot of it is the the serendipitous moments between people who wouldn't, you know, knock on their neighbor's door and ask them, What are you working on? What do you do from? Exactly what are you doing this weekend? So, yeah, I think we're actually playing a really incredible role in strengthening the fabric in our communities. And a lot of the times are working out for years, don't get the credit they deserve as community organizers. They're really just seen as entrepreneurs are in there in commercial real estate. And that's the furthest thing from what we're actually doing. Yeah, and
Qasim Virjee 50:55
a big part of it is, of course, without participating in that community and participating in the experience of these spaces, it's difficult to understand what participation gives people. And it's a tough thing to put on the website, you know, so that's part of that, going back to your anecdote kind of full circle is like someone could work in a we work, and not know what co working is, yeah. And then go into a co working space, and wonder why they're a member we work. So you know, it's the snake eating its tail.
Ashley Proctor 51:29
But I'm glad we're at a point now where I think we can start calling what we're all doing working. I've been saying this for a long time, that one day co working will just be working. And then we can actually start referring to co working as this for this action we take while we're in these collaborative space, right? These third places, we're co working while we're here. And we can go work between organizations, we can go work between industries, there is co working to be done all around the world,
Qasim Virjee 51:55
even within and just like within organizations, that's the other thing, too, we're doing a lot of interesting kind of activations or whatever you want to call it where a single company with so many different working teams will drop in a start well, and they'll all they might not admit like, especially now two years of kind of closeted home dwelling working people come here, and they might not another co workers, like they've never met them in person. Yeah. And they're all different teams. But we would have like 150 people, 200 people here for a day or two days or three days. And they're getting to know each other for the first time. And they're discovering who each other are. And they have social interactions. And then they have meetings that are cross team. And it's such a powerful thing. That, that it's such a fulfilling thing to play that role. And so I see a lot of potentiality for, you know, even internal culture at single organizations to be advanced and supported by co working.
Ashley Proctor 52:55
Yeah, it's actually a lot of the consulting I do these days is around like larger organizations like universities, City Community Economic Development Offices reached out to me at Creative blueprint, a lot. Just to talk about, like, what is it that you're doing? What's this magic I see in the spaces? Like, how are you actually creating all of this, and a lot of it is not that we're meddling, you know, there are community animators and cultivators in the space and their job is to make introductions and things of course, but that's not the magic, the magic is that we all have collectively decided when we come to this space, it's a collaborative ownership. We're all responsible for maintaining this culture in some ways. That's not what we do when we go the office. That's not how we show up to work when we show up to be part of the thing someone else built for us to be a part of. And, and what I really love about the space is people showing up as themselves bringing themselves to work bringing their values to their work, bringing their own community and their own background and their own culture into the work and and creating this new collaborative culture where we help each other we want each other to succeed and, and we are competing against old versions of ourselves rather than each other.
Qasim Virjee 54:04
I love that. It's been a wonderful time having you on the podcast. If if anyone wants to reach out to you about the work that you do a consultant consultancy or desk pass or anything else, yeah. You want to drop some links.
Ashley Proctor 54:20
Yeah, creative blueprint.ca is where you can find me and and links to some of the other projects. And then I would also suggest co working canada.com And the co working idea project is co working idea dot work. Awesome.
Qasim Virjee 54:34
Thanks again, so much fun.
Ashley Proctor 54:35
Thanks for having me. It
Qasim Virjee 54:36
was great. Thanks for spending your time with us.