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Texas expert: Coworking in Houston isn't going away — it's evolving

Austin-based Firmspace opened its Houston location last year. Courtesy of Firmspace

Before the pandemic, Houston coworking demand mirrored that of the rest of the country: shared space was booming, new operators were opening up. Demand was growing in Houston, as it was in other markets.

When the pandemic arrived in Houston last spring, the city was hit with a crisis on two fronts: local public health challenges due to the arrival of COVID-19 were further complicated by a downturn in the price of oil and gas industry — the literal fuel of this city's dominant industry.

But coworking hasn't faded away as office spaces closed or reduced capacity – it's evolved. In fact, the ongoing pandemic has accelerated this changing space and pushed operators to adapt their offerings to meet the market's needs. The result in Houston is the emergence of three major trends that we expect to see persist beyond 2021.

Increased demand for private offices

According to a recent report from JLL, up to 70 percent of all office spaces were primarily or partially open plan in design by the first quarter of 2020. But few of us want to sit in an open plan office with a dozen other masked professionals while fielding Zoom calls, but working from home isn't an option for those who lack the space and privacy they need to effectively work from home.

This combination of pandemic-related stressors has driven more Houstonians to seek out private office space for rent. The basic requirements in the pandemic era look slightly different than what we might have observed a year ago. Professionals want:

  • Private office spaces with doors that close and lock
  • Walls that provide privacy and noise insulation
  • Secure IT infrastructure, chiefly high-speed internet access
  • Enhanced cleaning protocols in common spaces and high-touch areas
  • Closed ventilation loops and as much clean air piped in from the outdoors as possible

And coworking spaces are doing their best to deliver this calm, safe environment where busy professionals can come to do focused work.

More short-term arrangements

The future has never looked more uncertain to professionals and leadership in all sectors. Here at the end of 2020, many companies that have paid nearly nine months of rent on office space that they've been unable to safely use are weighing the benefits of breaking their years-long commercial leases.

Companies are not sure what the structure of their teams will be in three months, nevermind three years, and this is changing how leaders think about their real estate contracts. In this climate, many are turning to coworking spaces that offer six- and 12-month contracts with furnishes and IT infrastructure in place to lighten their financial commitments to physical spaces.

The other trend in short-term leasing that local coworking spaces have embraced is the day office. Given that many of us are planning to work at least part-time from our home offices for the near future, coworking spaces have spotted the opportunity to offer a pay-per-day model to engage professionals that only need a break from the home office one or two days a week.

A private office as a status symbol

The office used to be where we went to get away from home five days a week. For members of traditional coworking spaces in the startup and tech industries, the office often felt like an incubator where spontaneous connections happened.

But in light of the pandemic, private office space has become a refuge where professionals go to feel safe, achieve focused work, and execute sensitive tasks with assurance that they have a level of privacy that can't be achieved at home.

Whether you're looking to speak with clients or prospective employees remotely, private office space and polished meeting rooms have also come to be a status symbol. A video call with chic design elements visible in the background of their office space communicates something powerful – the people in those chairs are invested in the time they spend at work.


Moving into 2021, Houstonians are ready to return to work. Even before the pandemic arrived, commercial real estate was beginning to see that the future of work will be more flexible and more often remote than it was in the past. While we're not through this crisis yet, many professionals are already looking for a new kind of private office arrangement, and local coworking operators are working to deliver the space these Houstonians need.

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Anish Michael is the CEO of Austin-based Firmspace, which has a 32,000-square-foot space in BBVA Compass Plaza in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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