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Working in collaboration. In Conversation: Penny Sloane & Wan Sing Kong

By Narelle Yabuka | Cubes Indesign | October/November 2016
JustCo Wan Sing Kong & Penny Sloane

Penny Sloane, interior designer, specialising in the workplace and founder and CEO of JustCo, Wan Sing Kong, discuss the recent shift toward more collaborative work practices and the popularity of co-working in Singapore.

Earlier this year, Penny Sloane (Managing Director of Siren Design) oversaw the opening of her first co-working project — JustCo's five-floor venue in Robinson Road. Since then, the Founder and CEO of JustCo, Kong Wan Sing, has collaborated with her on three more co-working venues, one of which has recently opened at Raffles Quay and another of which is under development in Shanghai. Already, Kong has a portfolio of serviced and virtual office locations under his company JustOffice. But co-working, it seems, has taken off in Asia. And Singapore (with Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai) is one of the centres at the crest of the wave. For this issue's ‘In Conversation' feature, Narelle Yabuka brings Sloane and Kong together at JustCo Robinson Road for a discussion about how working styles are changing and why, using JustCo as a case study

Narelle Yabuka (NY): Wan Sing, why did you want to create co-working spaces? All of your other spaces to date have been serviced offices.
Kong Wan Sing (KWS): Yes, we started our serviced office business, JustOffice, about four years ago. We tried to evolve serviced offices and offer something different. We thought we could do better than the big players in terms of hospitality. We grew the business, and two years in we were thinking, do we stop here? Is work just about service and closed doors? We started to research co-working spaces, and flew to the US and Europe to study some examples.

Work is evolving. It's becoming less isolated and more focused on collaboration, hence we started JustCo. All the people here are from different companies. They don't know each other. And the first question you're going to ask is, where's the privacy? There is no privacy. Something really struck us when we were developing the office design with Penny. We wondered, is collaborating more valuable than privacy?

After almost a year of research, we decided that yes, collaborating is really a new way of working. So we gave it a shot and there's been an overwhelming response. We've only been open for three months, but it's fully occupied. We've just opened a second branch - also designed by Penny - at 6 Raffles Quay. And it's fully occupied within its first month.
NY: Well those results show the demand for this kind of space in Singapore. What do you think is driving this trend?
KWS: This is really a new way of working. Tire biggest driving point is technology - high-speed internet and the tools for mobile working.
Penny Sloane (PS): It's also the number of entrepreneurs starting up in Singapore, who don't want to commit to a lot of real estate space. They need flexibility, so they can start small and then grow. At JustCo there are different places you can work - hot desks, drop-in meeting spaces, and suites for when your business starts growing.It gives start-ups and smaller businesses that flexibility.
NY: Has Siren designed any other co-working spaces, Penny?
PS: This was our first one. We've continued working with Wan Sing on his new locations.
NY: How did it differ from the other offices you've designed?
PS: It's not too dissimilar. There are a lot of areas required in a co-working space that are also required in a typical office - especially the communal spaces and the event spaces. They're quite similar to the big pantries and breakout areas that large companies have. In many ways it's quite similar to activity-based working in that there are dedicated desks and hot desks. The main point of difference is the fixed spaces - the suites.
KWS: I think the challenge for Penny was that our space planning had to be very efficient, but we also wanted a vibe.
PS: The planning was the hardest part for sure — trying to have those interesting spaces, trying to have enough space for the events. The community is what drives and connects all of the members here, so the design of the event space was really important. But the whole space had to be super efficient - down to every last square foot. At the end of the day real estate and rent are critical. So we needed to find the sweet spot - the right mix of hot desks, dedicated desks and suites. We went through a lot of research before we delved into the look and feel of the space. Who is a JustCo member? What sort of desk or space would they want?
NY: What industries are JustCo members from? KWS: It varies. We don't focus on a specific industry because if you want to achieve the ultimate collaboration, you need people from different industries. So we have people from IT, finance, fin-tech, fashion, services, and we even have manufacturing people here. They have their plant elsewhere of course, but the representative office is here. It really varies. It's about 30-to-40 per cent tech companies. Singapore's economy is mostly tech, financial, manufacturing and biotech. The JustCo tenant mix follows this quite closely. In terms of the proportion of big companies to start¬ups, the latter is only 20-30 per cent. People have a misconception that co-working is all entrepreneurs and start-ups. It's not entirely; it's actually a new way of working.
NY: You were talking about the right formula of space. How much space does one person need in a communal environment?
PS: Now that we've designed a few co-working spaces, we can see that there is a bit of a formula in terms of numbers. Wan Sing and I are getting closer to a working formula, but every building is different, every city is different, there are different cultures, buildings could be A Grade or B Grade. KWS: We don't just copy and paste. Penny is currently working on our Shanghai project.She flies there to experience the culture and the different design styles, and we try to localise as much as we can. We have a baseline — a guideline — and we try to move around that.
NY: Why did you choose a central CBD location here in Singapore?
KWS: Good question. From our experience of serviced offices with JustOffice, we feel that in Singapore the majority of work is still focused on the CBD. We opened a serviced office in Jurong at Westgate. Normally our serviced offices will reach a certain occupancy level by a certain month after opening, but for that location, it took much longer. And the clientele is very different.
NY: So do you think there is still a good market for serviced offices?
KWS: JustOffice is still growing; there's still a demand. It comes from companies - often those in luxury goods and services — who need to work with discretion. Also, people still want serviced offices because of the flexibility they offer. The economy is moving fast and people don't want to commit to a space for three or five years. As for whether co-working spaces will overtake serviced offices, I think it's too early to judge. Not in the next five years, I think.
PS: I get a lot of enquiries about co-working office projects. You could say it's booming right now! There are a lot of co-working companies coming onto the market and starting off with small spaces, and I don't know if they're all going to get that sense of community and collaboration that you get somewhere like JustCo.
KWS: The CEOs of the large development companies are calling us and asking to meet up because they're thinking of doing co-working spaces themselves. There's definitely a lot of attention being focused on it. I think there will be consolidation. There are a lot of people trying it in China.

It's like serviced offices about three-four years ago; when we started JustOffice, during the first two years, almost every month you could hear about small players opening. But today I hardly hear of any serviced offices opening. We started getting phone calls from people trying to sell to us. Serviced offices are not just about getting a contractor to partition the room and then renting it out; it's a hospitality-based service. It's not a real estate business at all. Some big developers who tried to do it themselves have closed their spaces down. NY: Lets talk about the influence of a hospitality approach to workplace in terms of collaboration. How are they related?
PS: Food and drinks always bring people together, and you'll see that in most major companies' offices, there's a lot of investment in a large pantry and in breakout collaboration areas. Food is a big part of that. Here there's a bar with food available. That's the main heart of the office where everyone can come together and have their lunch, have a game of ping-pong, go to the games room, really hang out and be with each other.
NY: At JustCo, is collaboration happening between companies or within companies?
PS: Both. JustCo is very good at community events. That's a big part of the membership.
KWS: Collaboration is about bringing everybody together and these people are from different companies and different backgrounds. It's about having fun and stepping away from the stress of work, but it's also about, ‘How do I solve this coding problem? Where do I find a photographer to help me take a shot of my product so I can post it online to sell it?' If you search for a Singapore- based photographer on Google, there could be 50 of them. You can't know how reliable the online reviews are. But here, we can share info about all our members; we know what they do and what they're capable of, and we can link people up. So this is the first part of collaboration.

The hospitality aspect is also about work. People outsource their office needs to you. ‘Who is going to take care of my cleaning services? Who is going to make sure my printer is working? Who is going to make sure the internet speed is stable?' Things like that. So you need to have a professional team behind all that to solve all these problems.
NY:How many floors do you have here?
KWS: Five. That's about half of the building. The intention is to take up more floors here. That's where the model for JustCo and JustOffice is very different. For JustOffice, we would normally just take one floor. But for JustCo, because of the goal of collaboration, the pool of members is very important. You need a mass. We want each location to be as big as possible so within itself it's already a big community. NY: What are the common elements on each floor? PS On the arrival floor we've got the reception, the kitchen and the double-volume main event space. Upstairs, the majority of space is dedicated to open-plan working, with dedicated desks and hot desks, plus an event space. The other floors have a combination of pantry spaces and suites.
It's funny - when we first established Siren's Singapore studio in 2012, we were in a co-working space. I still keep in touch with most of the companies who were there and we still refer each other for projects.
NY: Is there a need for a code of conduct in this sort of environment? Or are people savvy enough to respect their fellow workers?
KWS: In Singapore we don't need it, but in some other cities you might.
PS: Every time I come here, even when it's full, everyone is super engaged with each other but being respectful of each other's space and not being too noisy. It's actually a really nice buzz.



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