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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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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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