By Megan Harman
A new flexible workspace startup called LAUFT has opened its first location at Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket, north of Toronto, and is pursuing an ambitious growth strategy which will eventually see a vast network of locations across Canada and around the world.
As flexible co-working spaces become increasingly popular, and with opportunities for locations in a wide range of retail, commercial and even residential spaces, the concept presents a potentially transformative real estate trend for the years to come.
“It’s a global vision,” says Graham Wong, CEO and co-founder of LAUFT. “We think we can be fairly disruptive, building the largest network of workspace.”
LAUFT locations include desks, meeting rooms and workshop spaces that can be booked by the hour, by the day or by the week through a mobile application. Reserving a desk for one hour costs $5, with the hourly rate descending for longer bookings. The locations also feature secure WIFI and amenities such as printers, scanners, fax machines, white boards, projectors and lockers that customers can use to keep their belongings safe.
The company caters to a broad target market—“anyone who works,” as Wong puts it. That includes entrepreneurs, freelancers, independent consultants, sales teams, commuters and anyone else looking for a quiet, professional space to get work done or meet with clients or colleagues.
Wong and co-founder Andrew Laufer came up with the idea for LAUFT upon experiencing their own frustrations in past roles, when they were on the road and trying to find suitable spaces to work in between client meetings.
“Inevitably, you end up with a few hours free, and you end up going to a coffee shop or a restaurant. You need a table or a desk to sit at, or somewhere to meet,” Wong says. “You want an environment where it’s more professional.”
Flexible workspace also provides a solution for the growing portion of the population engaging in freelance and contract work—often with irregular hours—amid the rise of the gig economy.
The initial LAUFT location in Upper Canada Mall, which opened in December, boasts 2,400 square feet of space. Shopping centres present attractive locations for LAUFT, Wong says, since they’re high-traffic destinations that are convenient for customers. For families visiting the mall together, LAUFT provides an option for one person to get some work done while the others shop, before meeting for lunch or dinner.
From the perspective of the landlord, adding workspace to the tenant mix in a shopping centre presents an appealing opportunity in today’s retail environment. The rise of e-commerce and shifting consumer behaviour has resulted in lots of under-performing retail space, and as a result, landlords are looking to re-invent some of that space. A growing number of malls feature amenities such as fitness clubs, and by adding flexible workspace, shopping centres can attract an even broader array of customers who are likely to make purchases while they’re there.
“As the future of shopping centres continue to evolve, adapting our real estate as not only a place to shop and be entertained but also a place for the community to come together. With the flex economy brings a need for short term flexible work spaces,” said Nick Iozzo, Senior Director Retail Innovation & Lead Generation at Oxford Properties. “LAUFT provide an ideal platform in our retail environment for a drop-in, short term work space that compliments the new uses we are introducing in our centres such as Market & Co.”
“It takes the ‘working out of a coffee shop’ up a notch with a state-of-the -art platform which we see as an ideal addition to our merchandise mix. Oxford Properties is proud to have partnered with LAUFT for their first shopping centre location and will continue to grow with them across Oxford’s portfolio of shopping centre and office building asset across Canada,” he said.
Beyond the retail world, Wong sees vast potential for LAUFT locations in other types of spaces, such as airports, hotel lobbies, existing office buildings, conference centres and condo buildings.
“Our core model would be to partner with landlords and property holders who have underutilized space where they want to generate traffic,” he says.
Many condo buildings now feature retail space at the base of the building, and Wong says that’s an example of a space where LAUFT would fit in nicely.
“We’d be able to set up a LAUFT and also create a heartbeat of workers who can engage with other tenants. They might be buying coffee, they might be buying clothes, or they need to get their dry-cleaning done,” he says. “Providing that ecosystem or that footprint really benefits everybody. It benefits the landlord, it benefits us and it benefits the other tenants.”
LAUFT has partnered with architecture firm large [medium] design office inc. on the design of the locations. The project has been a unique challenge, according to Francesco Martire, principal of the firm.
“We were immediately intrigued in the possibilities of taking the traditional working experience and turning it on its head. Creating innovative spaces and ideas is extremely important to us and our alliance with LAUFT has given us an opportunity to explore new avenues in not just the working environment but also how we work,” Martire says. “Helping create a flexible system and allowing environments to be reshaped by user needs is a huge design challenge which we found compelling. The ideas embedded in the LAUFT experience have reverberations beyond the scale of the retail space and into the city at large.”
The Upper Canada Mall location is bright and modern in design, featuring neutral colours and open-concept spaces. As LAUFT expands, each location will boast a similar look and feel, Wong says.
“You’ll get a consistent experience and you’ll know what to expect, very much like you would going into a Starbucks,” he says.
Two more LAUFT locations are set to open later this month – one in Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park retail complex and one at Queen’s University’s Innovation Park in Kingston. LAUFT is also exploring locations in Toronto, including both commercial and retail spaces.
“The goal is to have LAUFTs in airports, conference centres, hotels—pretty well anywhere that a worker would see value in finding an on-demand work experience,” Wong says. “That’s the global vision.”