Wotso's flexible working space at Bondi Junction

Office fit-out costs have risen by an estimated 15 per cent in the past 12 months. With increasing office vacancy rates and workers demanding increasingly premium amenities to return to the office, that’s a serious additional burden for tenants to take on.

But does your office really need an entirely new fit-out?

Jessie Glew, one of the founders and managing director of real estate company BlackWall and flex space providers Wotso, is part of a team that rescues abandoned office fit-outs to use in its flex-space business.

“We started nine years ago as real estate owners that had a lot of vacancies,” Glew tells The Fifth Estate, in a recent interview. 

 “So, we asked how we can make the best of this space without ripping everything out and starting again, and that’s where it started.

“It’s now part of our brand identity to try and repurpose and recycle fit-out because it’s part of who we are, but it also helps create unique spaces, and not every space is the same.”

Wotso also buys vacant real estate and repositions the asset in a variety of ways, including painting murals on buildings and repurposing the interior.

The company has 25 locations across Australia, with half owned by Wotso and the other half leased off third-party landlords.

Glew says the new branding and direction of the business was motivated by frustration with the wasteful property industry.

“You have tenants that go in for a five-year term, and they get a new fit-out with everything – and then when a new tenant comes in, the landlord strips that whole fit-out and put the new tenants in with a whole new fit-out,” Glew says.

“So, if someone is looking at an office, we turn up with our containers and fill it and take it away because, for us, there’s value in it, and it’s so frustrating to see brand new chairs getting binned.”

Landlords and tenants could be making good savings through reusing furniture, she says.

Landlords could say, “I’m happy to take a discount on my rent, so we don’t need to spend all this money on a new fit-out on these tenants, and we are not producing a whole heap of new stuff we don’t need to.”

Wotso and Blackwall COO Jessie Glew

How it all works

The company’s concept closely follows that of equipment hire company Kennards. In this case, clients can rent flexible workspaces on a day-by-day or month-by-month basis and have “everything you need other than your laptop to be able to work.”

While half of the properties are owner-occupied, the other half are  

An example was Chermside Shopping Centre, where the company leases 1000 square metres of space from Westfield.

WOTSO at Chermside Shopping Centre

“Generally speaking, the landlords we partner with are great because they get behind everything you say when we tell them not to throw out their fit-outs.

“What we provide is a mix of stuff we make ourselves and stuff we’ve bought – there’s been a bit of a pushback on the things we make ourselves, so we’ve been trying to find better ways of making things that are a bit more ‘for purpose’.”

Glew says that the rescued fit-outs relied on the contributions of builders and tradies, who call up the company when they see fit-outs being thrown out.

“There’s no real marketplace for it,” Glew says.

“Sometimes people online put a whole heap of stuff up when there’s a big office strip out, and our guys also scroll through Gumtree and Facebook.”

According to Glew, finding vacant assets also allows the company to purchase the property at a discount and taking over and reusing empty buildings reduces the carbon emissions that would otherwise be emitted through demolition.

However, innovative recycling isn’t without its challenges

Glew added that while the team has worked out a process in which cabinet paper and offcuts from cabinetry can be repurposed for wall cladding, the company has been constantly at odds with fire engineers and certifiers.

“There are no [building] standards for recycled or repurposed materials, so unless you can find the original fire rating of the material, you are stuck because you can’t certify the materials you use are not flammable – even though we know it was a recycled kitchen or recycled desk.

Glew argues that the inflexibility and lack of recognition for recycled materials by certifiers limit the company’s sustainable capacity.

“I understand why there is rule and regulations, and I appreciate it, but it limits our capacity from a sustainable perspective.

“From a town planning perspective, the council doesn’t allow for a fast track when you are repurposing an asset or reusing a fit-out, which should be set out.

“Businesses might go, ‘I want to buy something that fits a certain criterion,’ that’s where they might have issues because there’s no box, they could pick something from because it hasn’t been done before.”

The sustainability of recycling and upcycling

According to Glew, the company focuses on a practical approach to sustainability, which includes efforts such as LED lighting, solar panels, equipment upgrades, and bicycle racks.

“There’s a lot of focus on NABERS grading and carbon neutrality, which is good and has its place, but on the opposite side – the practical things we do on the ground aren’t recognised as part of it.

“Why can’t we accept a fit-out that’s already been there? Why do companies need a brand-new fit-out? Why can’t we reuse what was there? And I’ve never understood why people need brand new every time.”

“While we initially started with the sustainability of repurposed and upcycled materials, we are now moving on to upgrade the equipment over the next five to ten years.”

The company’s recent sustainability effort also involved minimising transportation costs and environmental footprint across various sites.

The flex space industry is facing big challenges ahead

While similar in concept, Glew says that the key difference between flex space giant WeWork and Wotso was that she had hoped Wotso could generate profits.

Meanwhile, Glew says that their business was not at risk (as some other flex space companies might be) due to a more suburban and regional approach, intending to create a closer-to-home office solution, which would reduce commute times and improve employee work-life balance.

But what about the rising rate of office vacancy?

“We haven’t felt the impact of office vacancies as much as probably the CBD offices and everyone learnt how good it was to work from home but also the limitation of working from home – that you start to feel isolated,” Glew says.

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