Coworking Grows Up: Industry Insights from Kris Elliott

“Coworking is the only industry I can think of that gets cooler with time,” said Kris Elliott, Chief Operating Officer of Novel Coworking. “The older I get, the more relevant the industry gets. How many people can say that?”

Elliott has the experience to make the call on “cool” for coworking, too. Since her time as an MBA student at Troy University in 1999, Elliott has worked in the flexible office space industry.

“It was an accident, really. I was trying to find something I could do while getting my MBA,” she said. She found a position writing contracts for Omni Offices’ national sales department—and that job proved to be the beginning of a long career in the flexible office space industry.

Omni Offices was bought by HQ Global Workplaces, which was eventually bought by Regus in 2004. Elliott stayed with the company through these changes, eventually working as Senior Vice President for Regus before stepping away to start Preferred Office Network with her business partners in 2010. Today, Preferred Office Network offers flexible workplace solutions to growing corporate clients via its network of nearly 600 independent coworking locations, the largest of its kind in North America.

Coworking Changes

“I used to sell office space,” Elliott said of her first several years in the industry. “Today, that’s not at all what I do. Today, I create experiences that people want to be part of. Our beautiful spaces are vibrant and alive and our clients determine the direction of our progress.” she said.

That focus on hospitality, she said, is the core of modern coworking. This client-centric approach stems from the wide variety of reasons for why clients to come into a space.

“We’re building these experiences to touch everyone,” Elliott said. From the introverted entrepreneur trying to push out of their comfort zone and into a community to the large corporation shifting toward a more modern form of consuming office space, the challenge of coworking is designing a service package for everyone.

“It has to work for everybody in their own way,” she said.

Major industry disruptions, like WeWork’s arrival on the coworking scene to challenge the Regus monopoly, function on innovators’ ability to fill specific, unaddressed client needs. For example, Elliott’s current position is with Novel Coworking, which buys their buildings in order to maximize control and create a more customizable, affordable option for their clients.

“We believe that everybody should be able to afford a great office,” she said.

Owning their buildings allows them to put client logos in their building lobbies and custom build suites and full-floor spaces for clients. Elliott explained that Novel Coworking noted that clients in the coworking industry can struggle with a sense of business identity. Their emphasis on control over their own spaces and customization ability filled a need in a specific segment of the industry.

“We constantly think about what that traditional tenant might like better about a traditional office environment. And then we say, ‘How can we put that in our building?’” Elliott explained.

She said Novel Coworking custom-built an entire floor for one of their major clients, Sunrun. “They get a custom solution, it feels like a traditional office space, but it has all the bells and whistles and service of a coworking space.”

It’s this constant change that makes the industry exciting, Elliott explained.

“Every time I think maybe I should be bored by now, 19 years later, it just gets more exciting and more fun.”

Networking Is Key

Elliott explained that when she stepped away from her position with Regus, she wasn’t familiar with organizations like the Global Workspace Association, but their resources quickly became invaluable.

“I’m probably one of the biggest fans of the GWA that you’ll ever meet,” she said.

While her background at Regus gave her a solid understanding of how to sell and run coworking communities, Elliott said the lack of community within the industry when she left Regus to start Preferred Office Network was intimidating.

“I was pretty terrified,” she said, explaining that when she left Regus, she started with nothing except a laptop and a small office on a three-month loan from Office Suites Plus.

At the time, one of her partners was becoming the GWA president and introduced her to the GWA conference, which took place in Miami that year. She said she was impressed to find a group of experts who were running spaces that were often more profitable than the spaces she had overseen at Regus.

“These guys had the formula down, and I was lucky enough to be in the room,” she said.

The GWA network is how she eventually met Bill Bennett, Founder and Principal of Novel Coworking and former GWA board member, who hired her for her current position. “Our relationship started by me stalking him to join our network, and I think he liked that persistence,” Elliott explained.

Bennett agreed. “We spent more than a year pursuing Kris Elliott to join our team, because she has the knowledge and skills to lead Novel Coworking to the scale that will redefine the coworking sector,” he said.

Shifting Careers

“The GWA has just always been there for me, no matter what,” Elliott said. “They have filled my requirements no matter what I’ve done.” As Elliott has moved out of Preferred Office Network and into her new position at Novel Coworking, she said the GWA’s impact has shifted with her changing needs.

“I think now it’s more about my relationships,” she said, citing several industry experts she now knows and can call for advice or help with problem-solving.

Her terms on the board have provided further resources for her while also giving her a chance to give back to the community. “The brightest and the best folks in the industry are at our conference,” she said.

The GWA has also shifted in response to industry needs, Elliott noted. “We’re a lot more inclusive than we used to be.”

She cited that the GWA has started allowing in members of related industries, including Davinci, LiquidSpace and Preferred Office Network, and that their perspectives have brought valuable resources and skills to the table.

“The last few years have been very open-minded and inclusive, and I’m happy to see that,” she said. “We’ve done a good job of pivoting to offer more of what people really want.”

She said her focus as a board member is to ensure that GWA continues to be the single-stop resource for the latest information, educational resources, and networking opportunities in both coworking and related industries.

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