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Leadership during a crisis: The Great Room CEO Jaelle Ang on how co-working spaces may emerge stronger post-Covid

Insights from leaders, CEOs and business owners on confronting the challenges posed by the pandemic.

When The Great Room was set up in 2016, it was considered a rebel upstart. The young company faced negative sentiments, with naysayers predicting it would not survive as it lacked economies of scale, and especially with the gargantuan American brand, Wework, on the cusp of entering Asia. Yet, its reach has since expanded across three cities – Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok ­– with a current strength of six co-working spaces, and a seventh on the way.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought out the naysayers once more, as lockdowns affect the very heart of a business model based on the congregation of people, CEO Jaelle Ang is not disheartened.

She says, “Building a company in this context meant we always had to outwork, outwit and outperform the big guys in our industry. And that has served us well in this pandemic. It is in our DNA to get a lot done with very little and to be able to leverage the high-trust, deep relationships we’ve built with members and partners. We’ve also been lucky enough to have credible and smart investors who drilled into us the first principle, ‘Don’t lose my money’, when it was way more trendy to ‘Grow at all costs’.”

In the fifth instalment of a six-part digital series, Ang tells us how The Great Room is navigating the new landscape and preparing for the days ahead.

(Related: The Great Room’s Yian Huang and Jaelle Ang on writing their own rules for success)

Don’t lose sight of the people

“In challenging times, the light and warmth of hospitality is more important than ever. People are looking for brands that are directly engaging and empathising with them, even when we can’t fix all their problems,” says Ang. To that end, The Great Room brought in professional theatre and communication specialists to guide members on how to ace virtual meetings, and created The Great Room Zoom backgrounds.

In addition, the company is co-creating content with partners like Zouk and Masterclass, based on its spirit of #ItsAllWorkItsAllPlay. “We want to be there, from your first cup of cappuccino to your last night cap ­– that means virtual yoga, to trivia night with the Zouk x The Great Room playlist, for play amid periods of deep work.” TGR has also curated inspiring resources for its community, and some of its virtual events are listed here.

 

 

 

Changes are opportunities

The crisis has emphasised the urgent need to move to a real estate model that is more agile, distributed, and which better supports business continuity and more uncertain business cycles.

Moving ahead, employees will demand more flexible arrangements, and they may have the opportunity to choose where they want to work, Ang points out. From the companies’ standpoint, she highlights that businesses still see the need for a physical space – in order to build collaborative ties and a work culture in a shared environment, as well as to benefit from technology. The thread linking both sides of the coin is the desire for in-person social interaction.

In that way, co-work spaces will benefit as they offer the chance to work in a community, even as they offer flexibility and a distributed network of offices designed for collaboration and productivity.

“I believe that in sunny weather, one can overtake one car but, in rainy weather, one can overtake seven cars. This is an opportunity: If we can articulate and deliver a stronger value proposition, we are able to build more brand equity and customer loyalty,” she says.

“More than ever, companies are facing extreme uncertainty and are turning to shared offices to minimise long-term commitments and major capital outlays. Companies and landlords have realised that providing a productive and safe workplace that people will choose to come to requires real expertise and specialisation.”

 

Adjusting to a post-Covid world

Ang elaborates that the co-working sector is estimated to take up 30 per cent of total commercial real estate space by 2030, with current figures being at 2 – 3 per cent. Covid-19 will be a catalyst to the acceleration of this growth, because companies are realising that agility is the counter to uncertainty due to pandemics and volatility in business environments.

 “The demand for co-working will grow but the supply side must also grow – not just in square footage but also in the delivery of better quality spaces, more relevant content to engage members, and an overall stronger price-value proposition for the different segments of demand,” she says.

She adds that The Great Room is dedicated to the needs of Fortune 1000 companies and is relentless in pushing boundaries on three fronts – wellness; deeper engagement at touchpoints with less personal contact; and turning workspaces into agoras for learning and social networks.

 

The Great Return

The-Great-Room-Raffles-Arcade

“We are planning for The Great Return, with our locations in Hong Kong and Bangkok leading the way. Our clients and members are eager to make up for lost revenue from the first half of the year and we are there to support them to do so in a safe and high-impact way.”

In Singapore, a new co-working space is the works. The Great Room will be opening a location in the Grade A Afro-Asia i-Mark building at 63 Robinson Road, and renovations will be helmed by renowned hotel designer Joyce Wang. The design and layout will underscore workplace wellness.

Ang says, “This will be our flagship property in Singapore and we are pushing the boundaries of global best practices of workplace design, hospitality and wellness. To attract the best talent and get the most out of them, companies must truly show that they care for their well-being and will be rewarded by their happiness, productivity and loyalty.”

(Related: The rise of co-working spaces)

 

Lessons and silver linings

Ang says candidly, “Watching how world leaders lead and manage this crisis scares and inspires me at the same time. We are watching a play-by-play of leaders making life-and-death decisions in conditions of deep uncertainty and under the weight of generations of consequences.

“As an entrepreneur, I had a clear vision but always felt uncomfortable as a leader, often wondering if leaders are made or born, and if I have what it takes. Now I truly believe leaders are forged in the most trying of crises. My big wake-up call is that if I’m a leader, I damn well do my job and lead. If I’m not good yet, get good.”

She credits her motivation to her team, as well as business leaders and peers with whom she has formed bonds and who are invested in her success.

“I think this crisis has forced many companies, leaders and investors to challenge the status quo, to take creative risks and to accelerate technological initiatives that we have been thinking about and putting off. For those that survive and emerge, they will have business models that are more agile and resilient, teams that are bonded, and leadership that is tested.”

As part of the Leadership During a Crisis series, The Peak also collaborated with Money FM 89.3 to bring these interviews to radio. You can listen to Jaelle’s segment below.

 

More from The Peak’s Leadership During a Crisis series:

The Lo & Behold Group founder Wee Teng Wen

Hexogon Solution group MD Adrian Goh

Safe Space CEO Antoinette Renee Patterson

Ninja Van CEO Lai Chang Wen