What’s it like to work in New Zealand’s largest shared working space?

Co-working space B:HIVE opened its first two floors in December and a third in February, so it’s a good time to check on its progress as it attempts to scale up the benefits of shared workspaces to the size of a five-storey building. Gareth Shute talks to two B:HIVE tenants and Smales Farm CEO Paul Gunn to get an insider’s perspective.

B:HIVE is an attempt to take the shared workspace model and put it on steroids. The basic idea remains similar, with an all-inclusive desk hire that means internet, coffee, furniture, cleaning etc are included in the rental price. The main difference at this space in Smales Farm, Takapuna, is that tenants can range from single-person operations through to companies with 200 staff.

Some benefits of shared workspaces can be scaled up easily enough – like the ease of set-up and short lease times (one month minimum for dedicated desks, one year for office spaces). But how easy is it to retain other purported upsides of co-working, like the ability to network across companies, when the tenants vary so widely in size?

The best way to get a sense of how the place works in practice is to head inside and meet some of the tenants who call the B:HIVE home. The exterior entrance is currently flanked by an active building site, although this makes arrival into the main foyer even more of a pleasant surprise. The giant spiralling orange staircase in the centre can’t help but draw your attention upward to the alternating curves of the upper balconies and a generous skylight high above. You pass a shared reception desk and then use a proximity card to access the interior (the gates can also be triggered by a cellphone app).

When you walk out onto one of the upper floors, you find all the hallmarks of a shared working space – pods of open plan desks, edged by breakout areas and box-like glass meeting rooms where tenants can work or talk privately. Further back, there are ceiling-height glass walls that allow medium-sized businesses to block off their own corner office.

SIMON ANDERSON (CENTRE) AND NICK NIBLETT (RIGHT). THE DEDICATED OFFICES THAT RING EACH FLOOR CAN BE SEEN IN THE BACKGROUND (PHOTO: GARETH SHUTE)

Nick Niblett has a dedicated desk on the first floor. He’s the founder of Blue Eye Deer, an inbound marketing agency, and has been here since mid-February.

“I think it’s quite different from those other shared workspaces, where it’s very startup-centric,” he says. “Here there’s also established businesses in the same building, so you can find out what other people have done before you to scale and grow.”

“For me, I’m quite a roamer – I walk and meet people. We’ve had people sitting nearby and then they’ve gone up a floor, so to maintain that relationship, you’ve got to make the effort to go up and visit. Other times, people just walk past your desk and we have talks about the football World Cup. Through those connections, what I’ve found is that I’ve been able to refer people internally to outside clients and likewise converted a couple of clients internally as well, so for us, it’s been a huge opportunity.”

Simon Anderson’s Custom Design Printing allows rganisations to design merchandise online and sell them through their own free store, without the need to hold stock or order minimum quantities. He arrived four months ago and has found the networking and idea-sharing opportunities to be one of the main benefits of the space, along with the regular social events.

“The staff here are always actively looking to create events and bring in speakers, so I try to sit in every session. I even did a corporate yoga session, which is something I hadn’t previously tried. As far as the Friday night drinks – it’d be rude to miss one of those. There are some really good people from a range of completely random businesses around here, so it’s really cool.”

EACH MEETING ROOM (LEFT) HAS A DESIGN BY JANINE WILLAMS INSPIRED BY A DIFFERENT MUSIC ARTIST (IN THIS CASE: ‘CUBE’ AFTER ICE CUBE). BEYOND IS A PRIVACY BOOTH FOR MAKING PHONE CALLS. (PHOTO: GARETH SHUTE)

The sheer size of B:HIVE means that it can go beyond the type of events typical of a shared workspace, given that it has a 250 seat conference room on its ground floor. Staying in the same building beyond business hours for these events might not suit some, but Anderson relishes the extra-curricular opportunities. He even claims his work-life balance has improved since moving into B:HIVE.

“Working from home, it could all blend into one and you’d never really escape your work. Whereas by coming in here, you arrive, you bang it out, and then you go home and you can actually switch off. Everyone around here is in a similar position and gets along really well, and they’re fine if you don’t want to talk shop. Ease of access is also great with Smales Farm bus station right next door. I get a bus in each day, so it makes it a heck of a lot easier than worrying about parking.”

Working in such a large space does raise the question of privacy but that doesn’t overly concern Niblett. “It’s just your work desk that you’ve got to worry about in terms of making sure what’s on your screen isn’t confidential. If you want to do anything that’s private, for example accounts, then you can go into a privacy booth. If I have to have a really focused session, I’ll just lock myself in one of those and be super productive. There are phone booths as well if you need privacy for calls.

“From a focus point of view, I can always just chuck the headphones on and block myself out mentally. When some of the other tenants get a big win, they might ring a bell. It doesn’t happen enough to get annoying so it’s quite cool to see someone else doing well – it gets you amped and I think it just adds to the culture of the place.”

SMALES FARM CEO PAUL GUNN BESIDE THE GROUND FLOOR GARDEN, WHICH HAS VINES THAT WILL BE GROWN TO THE ROOF (PHOTO: GARETH SHUTE)

Of course, when it comes to noise, it can’t be ignored that B:HIVE is still an active construction site. One floor is yet to be completed, as is the ground floor hospitality precinct The Goodside (which will offer upmarket food outlets and a craft beer bar). Niblett hasn’t found the construction too disruptive, but says his clients have occasionally struggled to find parking. He’s looking forward to when The Goodside opens in November since this will also draw people from the Sovereign, Vodafone, and Air New Zealand buildings nearby – a chance to expand networking opportunities, he hopes.

Smales Farm CEO Paul Gunn also sees this as a crucial stage in the development of the neighbourhood as a whole. “We’re just nearing the end of the largest growth and development phase for Smales Farm, because at the same time as we’re finishing B:HIVE, we’re also building the hospitality precinct and doing the second half of the massive $35 million redevelopment of the Vodafone building. So there have been a lot of contractors onsite and we’re very much looking forward to the end of the year when there won’t be so many vans and people in hard hats.”

In many ways, the biggest challenge for the B:HIVE operation still lies ahead with the need to bring in more tenants to the space without impacting the open business culture that’s been carefully created. Gunn has this at the forefront of his mind when it comes to planning where to put each new tenant:

‘It’s really important to keep a mix of the different businesses around each other. For example, ASB has taken up around 65% of the dedicated office space on the third floor, so we’ve made sure all the other tenants up there are small guys. Working with a big corporate like ASB, they try to adjust things to suit them. Whereas we’ve been very firm in saying ‘Look, you’re most welcome to come in here, but you have to accept our way of working.’ To their credit, they’ve got on board with that.”

Equally important is keeping the flexibility inherent in the shared workspace approach. For tenants with a two to three year lease, there are options to expand or contract, which leaves Gunn and his team facing a mighty juggling act. “I call it the biggest game of Tetris ever played in New Zealand. We’ve now filled up all the dedicated offices on floors one, two, and three, but we need to keep vacancy to honour the commitment we’ve made to people for expansion rights. That’s driven us to develop our hot-desking product because we can now backfill this office space that we need to keep free. We are under no illusions about the management challenge ahead, but we’re up for it.’

Exterior shot of B:HIVE on Auckland’s North Shore (Photo: Smales Farm)

In the meantime, the early tenants seem excited about what the building has been able to offer and Simon Anderson believes it’s a business model that will spread in years to come. “For a small business, even for a relatively established one, asking them to commit to a five-year lease is forcing them to say with a lot of confidence exactly how many staff they plan to have by that stage.

“No one’s got a crystal ball. I can’t help but think there must be so many businesses out there that could make far better use of the capital or resources that they’re committing to a long-term lease. I would also say that my increase in productivity, along with the added support and opinions from other tenants have more than justified the rent. A place like this is so necessary and I believe they’ll be more and more common as time goes on.”


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