Share this on Facebook:
Between the rising cost of doing business in Boston and the expanding influence of technology on today’s workforce, there’s a tide of change flowing towards the North Shore. In downtown Salem’s Opus Underground on Thursday night, the InnoNorth program hosted a panel of workspace experts to address the challenges and rewards of attracting the tech community to the area.
After a round of drinks and networking, the assembled crowd (including Mayor Kim Driscoll) turned towards the night’s mediator, Salem’s economic planner Andrew Shapiro, who asked the three panel members about some of the area’s obstacles to growth.
All three agreed that a shortage in the supply of high-quality office space could constrict the area’s ripe potential for growth. While two of the panelists were on the client-side of providing workspace (John Frisch of T3 Advisors and Devin Cole of the Workbar coworking network), Glenn Kennedy’s voice represented the perspective of local companies, such as his Salem-based design collaborative, ZeroDegrees.
Andrew Shapiro, Salem’s Economic Planner
Frisch piped up, first acknowledging how strange it felt to be up on the same stage where he had seen so many bands play, then segueing into the observation that today’s workforce values choice. Whether it’s an open office setting or a cubicle, a heads-down environment or a collaborative setting, he noted how customization and personalization have enabled workers to have an unprecedented amount of working options. They’re seeking environments where they have choices, he said, “They’re finding a healthy medium, they’re striking a balance.”
Pivoting on that point, Cole elaborated on the wide variety of workers he sees in the coworking ecosystem, and some of the commonalities that unite them. Despite a member base that runs the gamut of professions and demographics, “They all care about flexibility and convenience, and shortening commutes.” His company has gained members by providing different kinds of offices in the Greater Boston Area and now, because of a partnership with Staples, to suburban professionals as well.
Kennedy concurred, saying that he sees the broad diversity of working styles tempered with some universal commonalities. “Options and variety are important, because we all work in different ways, but everybody likes being able to walk outside, go down Essex Street for lunch, and having all the options available downtown.” At the thought of all the local businesses in Salem, Cole added how important it was to partner with local businesses, hinting that part of Workbar’s success was its active involvement in the community, and encouraging its members to do the same.
John Frisch and Devin Cole
An expert at finding office space for Tech and Life Sciences companies, Frisch brought up an important point about some of today’s leasing quandaries. “Supply is low and demand is high. Landlords are looking to lock in leases at these historically high rates, which puts pressure on the construction side.” Of course, chimed in Kennedy, the cost of a build-out is such a prohibitive barrier that most small companies are forced to partner up to overcome it. He cited area locales like Shetland Park and 10 Federal Street as good examples of affordable offices, but confessed that any new construction needs its own vision. “Looking at the short-term value, to try to flip these places in two to three years, they’re not gonna get it.” Recycling the same kinds of tenants- those with high expectations for their space- was the best way to keep building upon these expensive build-outs.
“We use the space to help create the culture, which acts as the driver for the company,” said Cole, referencing the changing way he’s seen new offices being built. It seems that the providers of today’s workspaces are figuring out how to ensure the best aspects of the space endure from lease to lease. “There’s more transferability when you can leave the space as-is for the next tenant.”
Kennedy got the room chuckling when he quipped, “We wanted people to walk into our space and say, ‘Look at this amazing 2,300 square foot condo!”
Innonorth’s Justin Miller and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll
As a parting look towards the future of North Shore innovation, one last question asked how the needs of the modern workspace vary with age. Possibly addressing some image stereotypes of the millennial work force, Frisch explained how amenities themselves aren’t as important as how they connect to the culture and mission of the space. Cole thought that age mattered less than one’s familiarity with technology, which seemed to be a bigger determinant of who you worked with. “We see members next to each other at 25, 45, 65 years old, doing the same thing. Honestly, the biggest difference is that the older crowd with kids wants to have their happy hour earlier.”
Kennedy pointed out that Gen X-ers say they can multi-task, but that millennials don’t know what “multi-tasking” — it’s just the way they do things. He touted the merits of creating spaces that limit the number of things going on at once. “We don’t necessarily need ping pong tables at work- we’re trying to create spaces where we can be the most productive in a limited amount of time.”
Around the corner from Opus there’s a magic shop. Before the InnoNorth event, the owner was describing to me his ascent from sidewalk vampire tooth-installer to proud small business owner, when a woman in a black dress peeked from behind a curtain and then disappeared. It took me a moment to realize that she must be the psychic I’d seen advertised on the window, another pair of Salem eyes peering into the future.