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Finding right partner key to finding Canadian business office solutions

Remote and hybrid work making it harder to justify full office for small business
Ian Chalmers, Principal, Research, Creative & Design Director of Pivot Design Group (left) and Peter Scott Principal and Founder of Q30 Design Inc. are photographed in their shared office space in Toronto, on Thursday, April 4, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

There’s more choice than ever for office space, but it can still be a challenge for smaller companies to find the right fit.

The rise of remote and hybrid work has made it harder to justify a full office, so more are leaning on co-working spaces that they share with many others for convenience and cost savings. The choice, however, comes at the expense of privacy and control.

A couple of entrepreneurs in the design world have taken the novel approach of something in between: co-leasing.

Even though Ian Chalmers, principal of Pivot Design Group, and Peter Scott, head of Q30 Design Inc. are with somewhat competing firms, they teamed up to find a space to share that could meet the expectations of their designer-trained eyes, but that also wouldn’t sit empty half the time. The two companies trade off days so they aren’t in the office at the same time.

“You don’t need an office full time, board rooms, all that overhead, so the idea really clicked and felt like a great approach,” said Chalmers.

It may sound surprising that it is hard to find an office given headlines about sharply higher vacancies, but much of the empty space is concentrated in lower-end buildings past their prime, while top-rated offerings still command a premium.

In downtown Vancouver, the highest class of rents were $46.38 per square foot last quarter, and $35.39 in Toronto, according to CBRE. Nationally, A-class downtown rent averaged $29.24, down only slightly from $29.79 a year earlier.

Scott at Q30 began his search a couple of years ago as he faced a rent increase at his longtime office space just west of downtown Toronto.

It was then that he and Chalmers decided to team up on their search. Together, they found a spot for their combined staff of around 22 people that had 15-foot ceilings, big wooden beams and polished floors that left lots of flexibility to make it their own.

It wasn’t just cost savings that motivated them, they said, with the potential for a bigger community also a draw.

“Our team would feel like they’re part of a greater whole. There could be sharing, there could be at least some stories, you know, you’re not alone,” said Chalmers.

It’s also been helpful to learn about different ways of leading a firm, and for Scott, it’s been nice to have someone to vent with after buying out his business partner and running the firm solo for the first time.

“Ian and I had already been comfortable sharing, you know, the war stories of being entrepreneurs and growing the business and the good and the bad of all that.”

The option is still quite uncommon, in part because it does require a fair bit of co-ordination and compromise.

At first, the two were just happy to get employees back into the studio and everyone came in when they wanted, but they’ve since grown and had to formalize their main days in the office, one taking Mondays and Wednesdays and the other Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Others are still allowed to come in on off days, but the schedule keeps the office from feeling crowded.

They also went through the formality of non-disclosure agreements, and have to make sure to wipe down whiteboards of anything sensitive, though it’s still more private than a frequently shared space such as a WeWork.

They also had to agree on how to brand the space, which they decided simply not to do. They’ve kept it fairly neutral, and instead added some flair with murals and fun designs like a felt floral arrangement on the ceiling of the boardroom that doubles as a sound dampener.

There are still areas that require minor navigation, like how much of Chalmers’ collection of vintage items is on display, against Scott’s more minimalist inclinations.

“We talk about it and it’s a bit like a marriage where you find the happy medium, or it’s not pleasant,” said Scott.

The pair are a year and a half into a five-year lease, so they went in with a long-term commitment, and so far, it’s going well, said Chalmers.

“[He’s] a great ‘work wife’ honestly, so far we haven’t had to go to counselling or anything,” he said with a laugh.

The needs of personal navigation, with neither company in charge of the space, help explain why it’s fairly uncommon.

A CBRE survey found only 13 per cent of U.S. companies would be interested in co-leasing, a number that dropped to six per cent in Asia. Canadian businesses weren’t asked.

There are efforts to accelerate it though. A startup in San Francisco called Tandem is trying to simplify pairings by building a bigger pool of possibilities, a sort of online dating for office sharing, but so far, it’s still limited to a few U.S. cities.

The two said they hadn’t heard of other examples, something that surprised them.

“It’s more novel than I can imagine it would be, because to me, it makes sense,” said Scott.

He said that while it’s not for everyone, there’s no reason why other companies couldn’t reap both the highly beneficial benefits to the bottom line and the work environment.

“If you have the right kind of synergies, and hopefully the right kind of relationship and/or communication, I think it’s a great solution, and I certainly would do it again.”

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