The Virtual Workplace: Generator – Powering a new business model

Generator, in the heart of Auckland city. That could conjure images of the five-week-long power outage in 1998 that brought much of the central city to standstill. But this 2011 vintage Generator is contemporary powerhouse facilitating the operation and networking of new breed of businesses that needs kilowatts to power laptops rather than large office blocks. Much of the energy required for these ‘virtual’ businesses is of the intellectual kind.
Generator occupies floor of former shipping industry warehouse on Customs Street in the revitalised Britomart precinct in Auckland central. But its success means that more space within the building is being developed.

Generator – deconstructed
An update on the serviced-office concept, Generator is hybrid of number of successful models overseas. As founder and executive director Ryan Wilson explains, it has three key components:

Serviced office
Generator has large impressive reception area and, depending on the level of membership companies or individuals subscribe to, full range of office infrastructure services including: mail service, desk, phone, wireless broadband, PA support, meeting rooms and minute-taking.

Members’ club
A modern take on the prestigious ‘gentleman’s’ clubs of yesteryear with its personal services including taking care of your drycleaning. Wilson cites Soho House in London as one inspiration; “It’s the new-age version of the club. It was conceived out of the need to create space in central London where people of similar ilk – entrepreneurs, creatives – could meet. And there was certain prestige in meeting at ‘my club’ in the middle of London.”

Business lounge
Based on the Koru Club-type airline lounge, this is the general informal meeting area with both large tables and chairs and comfortable lounge chair settings. There is both bar and espresso coffee service and members charge purchases to their accounts which, along with membership fees, meeting room charges and other costs, are invoiced monthly.
Wilson says Generator members benefit from the best elements of all three models. “It’s members’ club and there’s four types of membership.” He explains the options:

Resident membership
“As resident, you and your company can be based out of here; it’s your office and you get all essential office support including secretaries and PAs and we collect your post. Residents include Kea [the international expat Kiwi network] and Escalator [the NZ Trade and Enterprise investment training service] and they are the core of the concept.”

Hot-desking membership
“This is for those who work out of town, Australia or wherever; they come in and swipe their member’s card, get allocated desk and off they go. They have access to all the other facilities as well.”

Casual membership
“If you want to get out of the house for few days week and just want some space in our lounge [there’s wireless broadband throughout the facility] to do your emails, write proposals or whatever, this can work for you. You can have casual meeting, meet colleague or client for coffee, or if you want some privacy you can book meeting room.”

Corporate membership
“This is unit-based; you get number of units, say four or five membership cards. They can be allocated to anyone in your company and you can use them however you like; for meeting rooms, beers or coffees, you just apply those units.”
Wilson explains that the corporate membership was designed to facilitate growth for small businesses allowing them to network readily with large companies. “For example, one of our members is in experiential marketing and he might want to get alongside brand ambassadors at the large corporates. We’ve created an environment where they can all meet up.
“We have another member who works in Kumeu, but his base is warehouse – not good environment to host clients. This is perfect for him; he’s got presence in town, great choices for lunching in Britomart and he can have his private meetings.
“We’re in very virtual world now, where much business is done in the cloud. It’s good to do some things face-to-face; to do business over beer.”
The success of the Generator concept is yet another indication of an increasingly mobile workforce. According to Wilson, “We’re on the cusp of phenomenon that’s sweeping the world. The way people work is changing forever. More than 50 percent of the mobile workforce and SME sector in New Zealand spend at least two days week off site.”
And the trend was accelerated by the GFC and associated credit crunch. In many cases businesses found themselves saddled with expensive commercial leases and other high overheads – costly infrastructure that they could no longer maintain in the new lean environment. “Those factors have played part in the evolution of this kind of working model,” Wilson says.
Christchurch’s catastrophe in February was remote-working’s gain, as businesses scrambled to set employees up to work from home. Some may never return to working from central office as chief executives and employees alike discover the benefits of greatly diminished overheads.
“We provide the infrastructure to make it incredibly easy to come in and do your work, making sure that technology supports it, so when you’re in meeting room you’ve got wireless, you can skype, you can plug in to the AV, whatever you need. We’ve eliminated the barriers to being involved [in the new mobile, wireless economy]. There’s no lease costs, you’re not tied in for four years, and you’re not putting up your third child as security.”
Wilson’s business partner Scott Kuegler, with experience in fit-out, was responsible for creating the space. It’s comfortable mix of the chic and the functional, utilising many of the original features of the converted warehouse. The office spaces, meeting rooms, lounge and cafe, blend easily into sophisticated contemporary environment that’s natural fit for its enthusiastic full-time, part-time and occasional inhabitants.
While the members are engaged in individual and separate pursuits, Wilson’s philosophy of connecting those sometimes isolated in virtual world has spawned successful model.
For some individuals and businesses the Generator model can be long-term or permanent solution to the need for minimal infrastructure and office services. For others it could provide the springboard for growth that takes them to the next phase of their business. That growth could be assisted by partnerships or opportunities out of the networking and relationships that Generator facilitates. That’s key part of the philosophy behind the concept; connecting people who work remotely – and providing the infrastructure for company or individuals to conduct business.
“Its success comes from the culture and the networking,” explains Wilson, “ending the isolation of those who work independently. Most of us thrive on new ideas, meeting new people and getting different perspectives. Here we want members to be inspired by the space and the people; by creating culture that encourages interaction and making things happen.”
Although they may be spearheading the changes, it’s not only SMEs that are embracing virtual working. Large corporates are increasingly weighing up the benefits of flexible working arrangements for employees. And aside from the benefits accruing to the business, there are significant upsides from reduction in traffic congestion and carbon emissions.
The concept of teleworking is not new but its application is growing because information technology and mobile communication systems have evolved sufficiently to support it for all sizes and types of business.
Mediaweb’s Toni Myers says that she could not have set up her virtual business without the benefits of relatively new technologies like skype. “Audio and video conferencing have their place, but the instant access and no-cost skype option allowed us to have virtual meetings on dail

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