This Startup Helps Corporate India Take Work To Where Employees Are Rather than demanding of their employees to relocate to offices in select cities, companies are now partnering with co-working spaces in both metros and smaller cities to recruit talent from a country-wide pool

By Soumya Duggal

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Are you a young entrepreneur looking to open an office for your edtech startup in Bengaluru soon but do not understand commercial real estate very well? Are you having trouble with scouting properties, installing amenities and ensuring safety and hygiene for your employees?

Or perhaps you are on the business development team of a corporate in Gurgaon that has scrapped plans to open new offices in the near future due to the losses incurred during the pandemic. How are you to provide workspace to those employees who returned to their hometowns in the neighbouring states amid the 2020 lockdowns and are unwilling to relocate now?

One consequence of the COVID pandemic on the Indian office real estate market is that companies are now expanding their definition of the 'workspace' to include work-from-home as well as work-near-home. Rather than demanding of their employees to relocate to offices in select cities, companies are partnering with co-working spaces in both metros and smaller cities to recruit talent from a country-wide pool.

Delhi-headquartered ABL Workspaces is one such startup that offers well-furnished and affordable co-working spaces, thereby enabling corporate India to take work to where its employees are.

"I started this company in December 2017 with my husband and now head it single-handedly. We had a small vacant property of 3000 square feet in Green Park, which I was looking to monetise. That's when I started reading about WeWork, Greendesk, etc, and stumbled upon the shared-economy concept," said Akshita Gupta, CEO, ABL Workspaces.

Within three to four months of commencing her business, Gupta was able to fully book her Green Park property without even running any advertisements. That's when she saw potential in this business model and managed to open two more centres in Connaught Place and Okhla within a year's time. After that, there was no looking back. Centres of ABL Workspaces quickly sprung up in Gurgaon, Noida and other cities in Delhi-NCR.

"Then Covid hit us, leaving the sector clueless about how to proceed," said Gupta while recounting her first major roadblock. "It was a new situation that nobody initially knew how to deal with. In this business of co-working, we lease properties from landlords and make it available to our clients in exchange for money. When Covid struck us, the clients stopped paying us but the landlords did not stop asking for rents. We were in a fix."

Gupta soon arrived at a compromise with the landlords: they would offer ABL Workspaces rebate for the lockdown period, which would be passed on to the clients so that the latter do not leave, and post the uplifting of the lockdown, the rental agreement would be re-negotiated, possibly shifting to a revenue-share model. "Most landlords were supportive, with 80 per cent of them accepting our mutually-beneficial proposal."

Two years later, in 2022, the business is going well, having survived the pandemic. "Currently our seating base is 3000 seats, which we plan to double by this year. We need funds for that and are already talking to existing investors and approaching new ones," shared Gupta.

Ask her what the secret to making money in such a business is and she will tell you that this business model is extremely capital-intensive. "You must structure the right deals while scouting properties. That is the key to success."

And so is selecting the right location, Gupta later added. In order to turn mere properties into lucrative office spaces, one needs to be mindful of various factors affecting their location: safety quotient of the neighbourhood; proximity to public transport, especially metro stations; hygienic environment. How does ABL Workspaces ensure these?

"Our centres are completely safe for girls as they are located within 800 metres of the closest metro stations. Further, they are built on the main road in well-lit and guarded areas. If any female employees stay late at our centres, we make sure someone from our company stays back as well."

Despite these efforts, the going often gets tough. Electricity cuts are one of the main challenges. "We always have gen set backup but in some areas, Noida for instance, cuts are so long that additional quantities of diesel are required on short notice, which we make available one way or another." Sometimes, there are disruptions of other kinds: clashes among clients, for one. "We deal with people from all walks of life, and playing the arbitrator at times is just part of the job."

Another challenge is competitors. 91springboards, Co-OFFIZ, Un-boxed and many other co-working offices promise common offerings: safety, comfort, technology, and community. According to Gupta, what gives her company an edge over rival players is that extra bit of dedicated support which empowers clients in running their operations smoothly. At ABL Workspaces, additional services, such as a concierge desk, and flexibility in policy matters make all the difference to young startups struggling with legal issues like company registration, GST, TDS, etc.

Gupta explained, "Say, the client doesn't have an HR department. All they have to do is fill out a four-line form and send it to our concierge desk, where the software automatically raises that particular requirement. Vacancies are filled without even calling a single person to the office. If there's trouble with the AC in an area, the client simply raises ticket at the desk and our team fixes the issue before raising another ticket to report the resolution. There's a feedback form too."

This support to clients and their employees goes beyond mere facilities and addresses their emotional needs too, such as the universal desire for acceptance and understanding in the workplace without any judgement. "Inclusivity is a big concern and we provide all our staff with DnI (diversity and inclusion) training. We are very pro LGBTQIA+ and want to engage with the queer community with a lot of sensitivity. We are not there yet, but we are making efforts in that direction. Building inclusive washrooms, for instance, is one area we are working on," said Gupta. "The need for unisex restrooms struck me after someone reached out to me regarding the matter on LinkedIn," recounted the thoughtful entrepreneur before signing off.

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