Lockdown diary: Paul Keursten, Workshop17
With South Africa now in level four of the COVID-19 lockdown, ITWeb speaks with Workshop17 CEO Paul Keursten.
Established in 2012, Workshop17 designs, builds and manages co-working and event facilities. Its mission is to provide entrepreneurs and established enterprises with an inspiring place to work, collaborate and build businesses.
In 2017, the company partnered with JSE-listed Growthpoint Properties in a 50/50 joint venture, expanding the Workshop17 brand to seven sites across the Western Cape and Gauteng, with plans to double this in the next three years.
Keursten’s focus areas are entrepreneurship, design, innovation and learning through community building.
ITWeb: How have you organised your operations during the national lockdown?
Keursten: We are used to working remotely as that is one of the biggest draws of co-working spaces, so there was no big adjustment in that sense from our operations side. Our teams were still able to connect with members, organise future events in our spaces virtually, and keep the sense of community going. We have found different ways for our teams to stay in touch with their communities by offering online support and checking in bi-weekly with members to see how we can assist during this difficult time.
The biggest adjustment, of course, was that our spaces could only service members allowed to operate at level five, which were very few. This resulted in our locations not being as busy and our operational activity being limited.
ITWeb: What technical considerations did you have to get right? Laptops and connectivity for staff, improving your VPN, beefing up security?
Keursten: Fortunately, there were no technical adjustments for us. Our teams all have their own laptops with secure WiFi at home. We also use cloud-based tools for our collaboration, meeting documents, storage, etc. So it was simply a matter of connecting your WiFi to your laptop at home and we could continue with our daily tasks. Further, we have offered remote IT support to our members who run into issues with setting up their desktops and computers to work from home.
ITWeb: What HR issues did you have to consider? How many of your staff are now working from home? Have any staff been put on leave?
Keursten: We chose to take measures very quickly. Our goal is to get through this together, with our business afloat and all our jobs intact. With our spaces being closed, and our income reduced, some of our staff have not yet been able to return to work. We have applied for support for them and while this is still not confirmed, we are ensuring their livelihoods are protected during this crisis. We all took salary cuts as an act of solidarity. We keep in personal touch with all our staff on a weekly regular basis during this time.
We have recently been able to re-open our spaces again during level four restrictions and our community managers, business development and management teams are working to welcome back members permitted to work under level four. We have put a range of measures in place to keep our employees and clients safe on our premises. This includes training our teams to screen members and day-users for signs of COVID-19 when they sign into our premises.
ITWeb: Which platform are you using for virtual meetings?
Keursten: We have our own virtual meeting platform available for all staff and members, which forms part of our w17.world online platform. It is based on Jitsi, and it allows for unlimited calls and call time, and it is fully encrypted and secure as we host it on our own servers in South Africa. We do not keep data from the calls. Another great thing about this platform is that when you've downloaded the app on your phone, all related outgoing calls are noted on your phone call history for ease of reference.
ITWeb: What other tools are you using to keep track of projects/teams/monitor employees’ work?
Keursten:We don't use tools to monitor our employees’ work. We have continued our status meetings weekly as we usually do with our teams and we have bi-weekly management meetings and project updates.
We use Zulip as our internal collaboration platform, which works very well for us and allows us to work well together remotely.
ITWeb: How have your clients adapted to the new normal?
Keursten:The majority of our members were able to work from home which is a big relief. We found that one of the biggest things our members missed the most is the sense of community we provide in our co-working locations. Our members work across borders and have clients all over the world, so the concept of remote collaboration isn't unfamiliar.
Overall, the adaption has been smooth apart from the disconnect in the community which we noted as an opportunity. We were inspired by this issue and created an online platform for our community members and friends of Workshop17 to stay in touch.
ITWeb: What have you learned since the lockdown began? What has been a pleasant surprise, and what has been the biggest challenge to overcome?
Keursten:We've learned a lot from this pandemic. We have had an opportunity to reflect on new ways to support our member community in a changing world. And we have embarked on a journey of innovation, to be ready for the new normal after the pandemic. We are rapidly developing our W17.world, with the aim to provide similar services online as we do in our spaces. We see a future where physical and virtual (co-)working will be blended.
The most surprising thing we've noticed is the ability for people to adapt at lightning speed and share their newfound knowledge with others. Entrepreneurs and businesses had to adapt in a matter of days and the amount of support those businesses have received is mind-blowing. Small communities and start-ups are helping each other and no longer seeing another business as the competition but rather as partners on how to deal with these uncertain times. Businesses are coming together to overcome this pandemic, and this is inspiring.