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VillageOffice

Course correction and cultural change

Expected to comprise 1000 offices by 2030: the Workeria in Winterthur recently joined the growing VillageOffice network. Photo: John Patrick Walder
Expected to comprise 1000 offices by 2030: the Workeria in Winterthur recently joined the growing VillageOffice network. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Coworking is very popular. The VillageOffice cooperative is taking advantage of this – and is attracting interest from location promoters and developers of former factory sites. Securing clients from large corporations is posing a challenge, however: these companies will need some convincing before they buy memberships for their employees. Engagement Migros is supporting VillageOffice as it adapts its strategy.

Jenny Schäpper-Uster’s office is wherever she opens her laptop. The mother of two small boys works when and wherever is practical on any given day: sometimes at home, sometimes on the train – and very often in coworking spaces, the nucleus of a new working culture in which employees and freelancers from all industries and of all stripes come together in an office community. Coworking is Schäpper-Uster’s mission. Because her former employer no longer offered her flexibility in working hours or locations after she started a family, she changed from a project manager into a “mompreneur”. First she opened her own coworking space in Wil, then she founded the association Coworking Switzerland in 2015, and today she is one of the formative minds behind the VillageOffice cooperative.
 

A win-win situation for all involved

The cooperative has ambitious goals: to build up by 2030 a network of 1000 coworking spaces that anyone can reach within 15 minutes. Municipalities can use these kinds of spaces to create advantages for their locations as they battle rural flight. Companies profit when their employees network, ideally through their increased efficiency and higher level of job satisfaction, as well as through the reduction in unused office space. And the environment is less affected thanks to lower commuter numbers. A win-win situation that should actually convince everyone, but it’s not that simple, says Jenny Schäpper-Uster. “Almost all companies think coworking is the wave of the future,” she says, “but they hesitate to implement it.” 

Coworking is her mission: VillageOffice cofounder Jenny Schäpper-Uster. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Coworking is her mission: VillageOffice cofounder Jenny Schäpper-Uster. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Today, Jenny Schäpper-Uster’s office is the Workeria in Winterthur’s Technopark. This coworking space just opened and its owners turned to the 13-member VillageOffice team, asking to join its country-wide network. There are many interested groups like this: since the cooperative launched its business in 2016, there has been a steady stream of partners and fans. Mayors of municipalities and real estate companies are competing for their favour, asking VillageOffice for advice in reviving their valleys and buildings, and they are prepared to pay for the privilege. So far, the network has expanded to 40 coworking spaces, two of which are their own flagship sites. But its been tough getting companies to enable their employees to work at VillageOffice coworking spaces. “We thought they would be our main target group – but we have realised they need more convincing, that there even needs to be a cultural change,” says Schäpper-Uster.
 

Small companies as low-hanging fruit

VillageOffice has even kept the bar for entry low on purpose: as part of a pilot project, for a year companies are able to take part in a “Coworking Experience” that is being supported and evaluated by the University of St. Gallen. For this project, up to five employees work either at their usual office workstation, at home or in one of the VillageOffice coworking spaces. Companies who buy a VillageOffice membership for their employees get detailed feedback – thanks also to a control group that isn’t taking part in the programme but is being asked exactly the same questions. In spring of 2017, VillageOffice began asking companies if they would be interested in the Coworking Experience. Thus far, the idea has not resonated as expected. Although big players like Tetra Pak and the Federal Office of Information Technology, Systems and Telecommunication were part of the first on board, it was mainly small companies that were quickly convinced of the idea’s value. Or, as Jenny Schäpper-Uster puts it – after growing up in Washington as the daughter of a Swiss business man – “They are the low-hanging fruit.” 

A café atmosphere instead of a large-scale office at the Workeria coworking space in Winterthur. Photo: Beat Märki

A café atmosphere instead of a large-scale office at the Workeria coworking space in Winterthur. Photo: Beat Märki

Raiffeisen Switzerland has taken up the challenge – and is participating in the pilot project

The reason for this becomes clear when speaking to those large companies that decided to take part in the pilot project after doing in-depth due diligence. Daniel Schläpfer is Head of HR Management Processes and & Projects at Raiffeisen Switzerland and explains: “The relationship between opportunities and risks for coworking is not yet clear.” Or more specifically: the company isn’t yet sure whether increases in sustainability and corporate social responsibility, attractiveness as an employer, and maybe in efficiency and employee satisfaction would balance out the potential losses in control, security and perhaps team culture. In addition, coworking currently still comes with addition costs, says Schläpfer: “Real estate contracts are long-term, which means we aren’t yet saving costs on office space with VillageOffice workstations.”

“There needs to be a new management philosophy – moving away from a culture of presence towards one of personal responsibility.”

In addition to analysing studies and experiences on this subject, Raiffeisen Switzerland decided to just try coworking out – in the same way they would test a new business model within their company. For example, an executive is currently doing a remote year, which means he won’t physically in the office for the entire 12 months. Three employees were selected for the Coworking Experience based on their positions, where they lived and the location of their regular office. It is too soon to take stock, says Schläpfer. “What is clear, however, is that we want to continue developing our management culture – moving away from a culture of presence towards one of personal responsibility.” But this kind of paradigm shift can’t happen from one day to the next. Jenny Schäpper-Uster agrees, adding: “Being physically present in the office is unfortunately still highly symbolic, especially in Switzerland.”


Starting the revolution from below

But the coworking expert and her colleagues at VillageOffice are not letting themselves be deterred. “Engagement Migros coached us in further developing our business model,” she says. She finds it extremely helpful that the development fund offers the opportunity to meet with experts and sparring partners who offer support in important decision-making. “Projects can also come to us if things ever get difficult,” says Engagement Migros’ Franziska Barmettler. She closely follows the project and regularly meets the VillageOffice team for updates. When it became clear in summer 2017 that acquiring business clients was more of a challenge than expected, she offered to link VillageOffice with a “Challenger” from the Pioneerlab to bring an outsider’s view to the start-up. Through this lab, the development fund provides individual support to its projects as needed.

After taking further steps in development, VillageOffice came up with the idea to reorient itself slightly: “In future, in addition to large corporations, we will increasingly orient our offering towards SMEs and the users of coworking spaces,” says Jenny Schäpper-Uster. Because as we know, revolutions are started from below – and once enough people want to work in VillageOffice coworking spaces, their bosses will have to react. Until then, says Schäpper-Uster, she will continue to lobby for the coworking idea – at events, from home, or in whichever space she has decided is that day’s office.