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Behind JustCo’s ambitions to reshape the future of work through tech

Co-working spaces are rife in Southeast Asia today, but as recently as 10 years ago, this was not the case. And Lu Liu, the co-founder and chief operating officer of workplace innovator JustCo was one of those who had realized this early on and decided to act on it.  
 
“My husband Kong Wan Sing founded JustCo in 2011. Back then, the co-working concept was already widely adopted in Western countries, but not yet in Asia,” Liu shares. “We saw that this model was disrupting real estate markets in the West, changing the way corporates and individuals work, and breaking the walls of traditional offices.”

Prior to assuming her role in JustCo, Liu was with consumer goods major Procter & Gamble, which took her from the US to Europe and then Asia between 2004 and 2013.  

Her exposure to the complexities of each region and country – including their varying cultural norms and lifestyle habits – was instrumental to JustCo’s eventual success. In 2013, Liu made the decision to join the co-working company with her brother-in-law Kong Wan Long, and together, the trio sought to build an ecosystem where members can work, network, and collaborate through cost-efficient workspace solutions.  
 

Early innovators 

Another thing Liu had recognized early on was the fact that women were in the minority in both the co-working industry and the commercial real estate sector. But rather than let the fact deter her, she chose to channel her focus into growing the then-fledgling company.  
 
“I left my much-loved American life and a stable job in order to challenge myself,” Liu says. “During the JustCo team’s early years, we knew that the entrepreneurial journey would not be easy, but I also knew the sense of fulfillment from building a company was something I wouldn’t find elsewhere.”  
 
The co-founder shares that some of the setbacks they faced included educating the market on the benefits of co-working spaces and building strong relationships with landlords in order to secure premium office locations for JustCo members.

JustCo’s on-demand workspace area, Switch, at The Centrepoint in Singapore. / Photo credit: JustCo
JustCo’s on-demand workspace area, Switch, at The Centrepoint in Singapore. / Photo credit: JustCo

The company’s turning point came in 2018, thanks to a joint investment of US$177 million from Singapore-based sovereign wealth fund GIC and property development firm Frasers Property – an agreement that would boost JustCo’s regional expansion plans and tech solutions. 

Riding on the back of this funding, the company piloted two tech offerings between the latter part of 2019 and 2020: Switch, a first-of-its-kind collection of mobile work booths and workspace areas that can be rented by the minute, and SixSense, an AI-powered spatial analytics tool that allows members to monitor crowd levels at JustCo centers in real time via its app. In particular, SixSense came as a response to the pandemic, since individuals wanted the option to remain working flexibly while avoiding crowded locations. 

These aren’t the only drivers of change in the company’s effort to reshape the modern workspace. Both Switch and SixSense are part of JustCo’s Digital Future of Work platform, which aims to transform the office space into an on-demand service through smart, tech-enabled features, such as member admittance through facial recognition turnstiles or bluetooth access, thus eliminating the need for physical cards. 

“These have made our members’ lives smarter and more efficient. Innovation has always been the backbone of our business,” Liu notes, adding that co-working companies must remain inventive in deploying smart technology across both physical and digital spaces to create “an integrated and flexible workspace solution” and thus maintain their edge. 

 

Building strong teams 

However, she says that JustCo’s success isn’t hinged only on partnerships and support from investors. 

From the get-go, Liu realized the importance of prioritizing customers’ changing needs in the evolving business landscape. Naturally, this starts with ensuring that the company’s internal processes are sound, and that its staff are aligned with JustCo’s focus on building long-lasting relationships with its members.  

“As a female leader, it was important to step up and out of my comfort zone, and undertake my role in providing guidance, training, mentoring, and personal development to our teams,” Liu shares.

Rather than adopt a top-down management style, she takes an on-the-ground approach that was fundamentally built on her trusting the employees to do their best work. She also leads and provides training sessions at the company’s Centre of Excellence, a training ground for building strong teams among JustCo staff and ensuring that service standards are consistent across the board. 

This is just one instance of how Liu has helped JustCo retain employees while growing and strengthening its community of members. And it’s a tactic that has paid off. 

 

The future of work  

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, both co-working companies and large businesses were forced to review their strategies – and JustCo was primed to address their needs. 

“We had members who either scaled down their office spaces, could not renew their memberships, or were looking for alternative working arrangements as part of their business continuity plans (BCPs),” Liu admits. In response, the workplace innovator doubled down on offering businesses several hybrid workspace solutions, such as lease flexibility and the option to “right-size” their office spaces when needed, as well as being able to customize their workspace options to suit their remote-working arrangements or BCPs. 

As a result, Liu says that JustCo has since provided services to more large corporations and Fortune 500 companies that are opting for alternative workspace solutions with shorter-term leases, as opposed to longer-term leases with traditional office spaces. 

This demand both underscores and amplifies one fact: More entrepreneurs and businesses are turning to flexible workspace solutions that allow them to easily move between co-working spaces, mobile work booths, and their office suites. Such tech solutions are slowly but surely reshaping the modern workspace.  

And to think it all began with a simple idea. 

“I knew I had to take the chance and challenge myself,” Liu says of JustCo’s founding. “I strongly believe that the best way to overcome fear is to recognize it, but to do [what you wanted to do] anyway. This mindset has created newer and better opportunities for myself.”  

 

The original article was first published on Tech In Asia on 11 Mar 2021. 

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