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BUSINESSLABS originated from personal experience working remotely as a freelancer for many years and the desire to meet like-minded individuals and businesses. Set up to provide a fully functional workspace to freelancers and SMEs, as the name implies, BUSINESSLABS was always intended to mature into a business hub where entrepreneurs can mingle, share knowledge, and grow their network.

With this in mind, we organised regular seminars, monthly networking events, project presentation sessions, and other informal events attended by hundreds of people at different stages of their business or educational journey.

Our membership plans come inclusive of all office amenities and are structured to mirror the growth of many businesses, from the first steps flying solo to closing the first clients and the onboarding of the first employees by structuring entry co-working price plans, providing reasonably priced meeting spaces and all-inclusive serviced office space. We provide everything a business requires, guaranteeing a reasonable, fixed, and predictable cost month on month and taking care of all things to do with workspace management so that our client can focus on what they do best – their core business.

A Concept Built on Experience: Serviced Offices as Community, Innovation and Growth Facilitators

This customer focus has meant that we have seen an increased interest from young entrepreneurs throughout the past years to use our premises and avail themselves of our open support network. As part of our culture and belief, we provide our spaces and support free of charge to any educational organisation and the students themselves. We have significantly reduced rates for students intending to undertake a business venture, and we also offer support building towards that step.

We also provide companies with increased resilience in several respects: a resilient workspace infrastructure for companies to operate in, increased resilience in the face of adverse effects from negative impacts from unexpected externalities, and access to a resilient community that can increase their internal capacities and growth potential.

I feel that the industry in which BUSINESSLABS operates is still young in Malta. While we have seen many new and positive initiatives in the past couple of years, the public offering seems to fall short of what I feel such spaces should be, facilitators of growth and innovation. Today, it seems we compete with the real estate market, and undoubtedly many do not make the distinction; a latent need that still is to be fully discovered and put to the test.

We have long been advocates against silos in Malta and have taken every opportunity to build bridges with all stakeholders in the private sector, government, academia, and social enterprises. A well-balanced and collaborative ecosystem should allow all stakeholders to contribute and create win-win-win scenarios for all; however, Malta still seems to lag in terms of the right ecosystem for start-up companies. Instead of collaborating with others who have built and are growing an interesting concept, we seem to venture out to implement the same concept ourselves. For our part, we have always striven to be market innovators, rather than imitators.

At some stage, we also need to address that foreign companies are often given certain advantages simply because they are foreign; and in certain circumstances, authorities adopt a short-term outlook towards supporting local start-ups. There are possibly more attempts today to create this ecosystem than ever before, and it seems that the importance is steadily being understood, however, I think we are falling short in terms of execution. BUSINESSLABS has been active to be part of the change process, and we certainly look forward to continuing to be involved even further through collaborative efforts with other stakeholders across the board.

Hybrid Workspace Arrangements and The Future of Work

We witnessed a global shift towards remote work even before the Pandemic, and preliminary results from a local study we are conducting show that several businesses have been considering hybrid work arrangements for some time. Whether it is from home or anywhere else, the traditional office setup has long been challenged, with some local companies adopting hot-desking arrangements, flexible work, or fully remote arrangements with varying levels of success. Results also show that foreign companies in Malta are also more inclined to offer remote-working opportunities than their local counterparts. The consideration seems to stem from a concern with employee wellbeing and prospective cost-saving.

COVID-19 has accelerated the process, where businesses were forced to consider other alternative work arrangements. Employers who thought that they would not manage to adapt were forced to, and as often happens, began adopting measures that have long found uptake in other similarly developed and well-connected countries. Again, Malta seems to be early concept adopters but often lag behind the broader implementation.
Moreover, we know that Malta offers a significant advantage to these companies from a foreign enterprise perspective. While cost is possibly not much of a consideration for such companies, we noticed that a number are also embracing a hybrid approach to work. Enhanced regulatory compliance requirements in specific sectors also have a substantial effect on market changes and therefore one can start to understand the adoption of risk mitigating measures in those companies where one would have thought would be last to be phased by the COVID-19 repercussions.

The Pandemic has also uncovered other hidden areas of focus. Mental health, for instance, is a topic that has gained more traction throughout this period. Understanding how mental health impacts employees, mental health coverage in health care plans, employee assistance programmes, reducing stigma and increasing access to mental health resources are drivers towards promoting enhanced employee wellbeing. This allowed us to create opportunities for employees to build connections through social events, affinity groups, and offsite events. With a hybrid approach, workspaces such as BUSINESSLABS are an attractive tool for any business.

I do not think we can answer whether the local businesses are ready to abandon the more traditional workspace and office environment. We are getting mixed feedback from the industry, especially from large Maltese companies where real estate is an integral part of the conventional asset portfolio of the business. We are now in the process of the more prominent companies recalling back their employees, some facing resistance while others with great enthusiasm. Time will tell, but we are confident that the lessons learnt from this Pandemic will benefit flexible workspaces like BUSINESSLABS, which certainly demand more attention today than they did a year and a half ago.

The COVID Shock: An Unexpected Proof of Concept

Most of us vividly recall the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, it was considered by many economists to have been the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression, sparking a global recession and ultimately contributed to the Eurozone crisis. COVID-19 has taken the ‘most severe financial crisis’ position, having redefined the world of work. The scale we built at BUSINESSLABS in the first three years of operation was brought to a sudden halt by COVID-19, and we faced common challenges that are part and parcel of every small business and start-up, which are significant given a typical environment, let alone in a pandemic.

Throughout this period, we kept a close eye on market developments. We assessed how more prominent players reacted and how the government responded regarding implementing remote working initiatives. We scrutinised the incentives that were made available, incentivised our community with reduced fees and better payment terms, and kept ourselves alive whilst finding ways to reduce costs and keep most of our business partners satisfied.

With significant pressures from banks, landlords, and suppliers daily, we most certainly considered all options. It was frustrating not being eligible for any incentives, possibly being one of those businesses that ‘fell between the cracks’ and were ‘weakly represented’, as we were often told. This contrasted sharply with the incentives being attained by other business segments who have more clout and reach. In the interim, we have also observed how influential groups managed to undermine other people’s businesses and established businesses have muscled smaller companies, also into a submissive and reluctant acquisition. Banks undertaking a significant restructuring process of their operations began burdening legitimate clients with new and discriminatory conditions on EU funded loans and a sudden U-turn on risk appetite.

OPTIMIZED - Boardroom (2)

BUSINESSLABS Flexible Workspace Meeting Space Area

The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought about a period of uncertainty for landlords and tenants alike – particularly in the context of commercial leases – as the effect that the virus could have on lease arrangements was and remained unknown. A negotiation ensued, reading each word of the contracts, with the awareness that a long-winded dispute in the Maltese courts and respective costs were the last things needed during the already damaging situation. Institutions also failed to regulate, bringing in an unequal playing field dependent on timeliness and access to resources; a shift of focus away from the core business and revenue-generating activities in a time when the focus should be at its height given the extraordinary circumstances faced by companies that did not have the comfort of relying on years of operation and diversification.

One must not think too deeply to understand the impact that COVID-19 had on any such businesses, considering that the smaller companies constitute 99.7% of the local industry in number. We know that many fell in between the cracks and did not have their voice heard. Few speak about this today, but if the Pandemic taught us anything, the law of the jungle does rule at certain levels.

We tackled specific challenges immediately, but there was no way to avoid others, especially in an environment of total uncertainty. To some extent, it felt that I was back to the infinite space of the unknown that came with my plunge into freelance work. From an operation point of view, we had to halt all social, educational, and networking events. We now understand how to get back to this dynamic and adapt to the new reality of work. There was undoubtedly much time for some soul searching, and we went back to a clear realisation of what BUSINESSLABS was set up to do and where we needed to go. We also took this opportunity to pave the way for this retransformation.

One thing that is certain, however, is that we found that some of the core values of flexible workspace rang true when our members needed them to: those whose industry was obliterated triggered short-term termination notices to practically instantly reduce costs and minimise exposure, those who were uncertain about what the affect would be scaled down their operations through a blended coworking and serviced office arrangement, and others paused their contracts indefinitely. Outside of this, we provided reduced rates to everyone across the board to help ease the pressures. Our clients were therefore provided with more flexibility to address the mounting challenges and as a result built their resilience threshold.

Cautious Optimism and Moving into a Brighter Future

The Pandemic is not over, but the situation has improved significantly. Nonetheless, we need to see whether the country will be disciplined enough to control new variants. With another variable added in the mix, we will also have to see how fast Malta will be able to reverse the FATF greylist vote and what further implications this will have on the local economy.

Businesses have now experienced significant cost saving in maximising their spaces through a hybrid approach, and employees seem more productive. On the other hand, employees are reluctant to return to pre-lockdown arrangements, instead favouring a better work-life balance and fewer risks, although it is also evident by the many repercussions such as mental health, family pressures and lack of an escape valve, that employees need some form of interaction with others. Many have been advocating a hybrid approach to work, where more than ever, a decentralised system is no longer a wish but a must.

Indeed, things are not going to return to the way things were — nor should they. Technology has proven that much of our work can be done efficiently away from the workplace. Businesses are questioning the need for travel at former levels and the rent expense of returning to centralised workplaces. These considerations, and more, are among those that present opportunities within a recovery.

As companies exit the COVID-19 mode, they can choose to create exceptional work arrangements — unique cultures boasting a clear and a shared sense of purpose and skilled people whose talents are celebrated and fully enabled. This can be achieved by adopting a digital mindset and culture that maintains a sharp focus on people and values in the face of emerging technology. Just as those that were furthest in their digital journey adjusted the fastest in response to COVID-19, those who continue with digital transformation and achieve organisational agility can position their companies to best face the next event.

A ‘hybrid’ approach (a catchphrase for many today) also means that, more than ever, the validity of a shared workspace and co-working spaces that nurture mingling and collaboration. The basis of any co-working space is building a community of like-minded individuals, which is why they inspire members to move around the premises. At BUSINESSLABS, the lounge and shared areas give people the chance to meet new individuals from a plethora of backgrounds. In the span of five minutes, you can network with a finance whiz, an artist and a software developer; if you add in the many events, the opportunities to knit a community increase even further.

But we also need an equal playing field for all to thrive. We need to work as one and look at the bigger picture. Fragmentation on our small islands is what keeps us small. We cannot have authorities that, on the one hand, are promoting the Maltese business and the other incentivising foreign competition and providing more incentive opportunities than they are for the local entrepreneurs. If we are to punch above our weight, collaboration is vital.

Finally, a business that does not plan to attract new clients is a dying business. We are therefore reaching out in ways we did not do before. We will continue to offer value and flexibility. We will continue seeking ongoing collaborative initiatives from those that share our same vision; by being innovators, by being ourselves and strong to our values, by ensuring safety, by continuing our effort to widen our community and to provide more growth opportunities to those that work with us, and by our mantra to invest in relationships, not return. We will continue to solidify our differentiator from simply an office space solution to being a catalyst of change. We will continue to offer a flexible workspace, providing the industry with a place they can call home, where small businesses can find the support they need to have significant impacts, a place where there is always space for growth.

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