“Why does an office have to be so dull and boring?” asks Grant Horsfield, founder of naked Hub co-working spaces, with locations across Shanghai, Beijing, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and now, Hong Kong.
Following last year’s highly anticipated opening of WeWork at Causeway Bay’s Tower 535, and the spate of boutique co-working spaces that have popped up across Hong Kong in recent years, the city is about to welcome one of the largest premium co-working office brands established in Asia.
Slated to open this September is Hong Kong’s first naked Hub on Bonham Strand: a 16-storey, flexible designer office space concept. Started in Shanghai two years ago, it’s the brainchild of Grant Horsfield and Delphine Yip-Horsfield, founders of resort brand naked Group, which already has three separate resort hospitality concepts under its belt. These include naked Stables in the sweeping hills of Moganshan, just two hours out of Shanghai; naked Castle, a refurbished castle in the area; and naked Sail, a yacht for charter in the Andaman Sea from Phuket.
We recently spoke with the two founders on the rapidly growing trend of co-working in Hong Kong and why naked Hub’s ambitious growth in the city will eventually mean higher quality work (and play) for everybody.
naked Hub, 7/F, 40 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, +852 8191 2900; Prices start at HK$2,500 per month for a hot desk
Why the name ‘naked’? What was the philosophy behind the name?
Delphine Yip-Horsfield: It’s a memorable name, and it’s important for a brand to be memorable. But a deeper meaning is the attitude to live a simple, sustainable life, stripping away the excess and getting back to basics. The naked Hub is not about having fancy chandeliers, it’s about bringing people together, creating a community, and making people feel comfortable in a space. However, just because ‘naked’ is ‘simple’ doesn’t mean it’s not high quality. Some people say, “The resorts are so rustic, why are they so expensive?” Our response is that sometimes fresh air and quiet is the greatest luxury in life. We do position ourselves as a premium product, much like our resorts. For us, naked Hub is so much more than just space. Space is of course important, but we think that service and hospitality is equally important.
Grant Horsfield: I like to use the analogy that you can walk into someone’s house that’s beautifully designed but just doesn’t work. It’s not functional, it doesn’t create a good party. It’s not just design, though design’s a very important part of it; technology plays an important part to make something work more efficiently, whether it’s opening doors or booking something or connecting with somebody. Then there’s all the soft parts of hospitality, the way the community is managed and how it connects people. If you get all these little pieces right, you get a place that buzzes. When you walk into an office lobby, sometimes it’s just dead. We don’t want that. As a young entrepreneur, I know how lonely it can be, so having that energy around you really motivates you.
Naked Group has grown for 10 years across the mainland -- why bring naked Hub to Hong Kong and not a resort or hospitality concept instead?
GH: Hong Kong has similarities to New York and London in that there is very expensive commercial real estate. And funnily enough, we find that this model of sharing actually works with the most expensive real estate. 7% of commercial office space in London is shared — in a flexible environment — but in Hong Kong, it’s less than 1%.
DYH: Hong Kong lags behind New York and London by a long way in this category, but it’s something that is bound to move. Imagine, you can have your own office, or join a co-working environment such as naked Hub, where all of a sudden you have access to 41 offices at your disposal across six countries and nine cities. It just can’t compare.
GH: Two reasons are motivating the movement. The way we live has been changed by phones; we don’t need the stuff we used to have. You don’t actually need that desk to be yours anymore, you certainly don’t need it to be heated and cooled when you’re not actually at the office. Very soon all we need is just a device that I can use to connect to the cloud to get my stuff. The other reason is commercial. If it’s a better product and it’s cheaper, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
DYH: Aside from aggressively growing naked Hub, there are also a number of resorts planned in the pipeline, so we’ll also continue doing that.
GH: When we were building resorts, it bothered us that it took so long for it to finish. When we started building Hubs, it was like they were our little babies being born, and now we’re really procreating at a really quick speed. In other words, it’s like instant gratification.
What is the target demographic here at naked Hub?
GH: Our target demographic is everyone who works in a traditional office. Unfortunately, our biggest challenge is education. Sometimes the market and the media has helped to perpetuate the idea that co-working is for freelancers or a cheap place for startups to hang out. It’s not; it’s a place that even multinationals are moving into.
DYH: It’s not about startups anymore; but they will be part of it.
How do you position naked Hub as a premium space? Why would an office worker want to convert?
GH: In China, it’s a big challenge because some of the competitor co-working environments aren’t better than traditional offices, they’re just cheaper. For us, we use real materials, real oak floors; that’s not cheap. You will find little quiet nooks and buzzing areas. There’s little nooks to sleep in; if you wanted to work here between 4-6 in the morning, that’s fine with us. We try to make things feel and look better than you would have in your own office.
DYH: There is a diversity of space; you can choose whether you want to be quiet and concentrated, or in a social environment to help generate creativity. It’s very vibrant here, versus a traditional office that’s very grey and boring. If you go to a boring office does that make you concentrate better? It just makes you want to go home as soon as the clock hits 6pm. It’s a choice: if people want their staff to be bored, they can stick with what they have.
How will Hong Kong’s naked Hubs differ in culture and design to the locations in Shanghai or Beijing, or outside of China?
DYH: We have two common, public floors for people to have meetings. In the evenings, it can be converted into an events space, and host wellness events such as yoga and pilates. Upstairs will be hot desks and meeting rooms, and we also have nets that are like hammocks. On the office floors, you can get a space for 1-2 persons up to a full floor tenant. We have a full floor tenant now and their firm has up to 50 people.
In terms of the design elements we tried to draw inspiration from the local neighborhoods in Hong Kong, which is why we have the exterior mural, the dim sum basket lighting, and all these motifs you can find in the Hub. In Shanghai and Beijing it’s the same: there are some commonalities, but each Hub has its own unique visual language.
My favourite feature at the upcoming New Street venue is that we’ve got a podium area facing the street: During the day it can be hot desks, and at night it can be converted into an art gallery. Our team is working with local, up-and-coming artists to give them a space to exhibit their artwork. We’ve never done that before, so it should be very interesting.
Naked Group itself is headquartered inside a naked Hub. How have you noticed the way people's work has changed in the past couple of years?
GH: We’ve had naked Group for 10 years; we only started naked Hub two years ago. Ten years ago there was no thought about flexible work space. Now, yes, chairman and co-chairman do not have desks — we have flexible seating. Honestly, I don’t see it as radical at all. I now have hundreds of meeting rooms, and I don’t see any need to be at a desk ever again, other than writing a letter to my mother.
If we can do it for ourselves — purely on a design component — why can’t we do it for other people? What you see here today at naked Hub is not what you’ll see in two years’ time, because it’s changing very fast. The way in which we work is changing, so the way in which we design has to change. We realised we can be on the front edge of the change.
What changes can you anticipate in the working world in the near future?
GH: I think traditional commercial buildings will become flexible. Every building will have some sort of shared component with it, and there will be living rooms, bars, gyms and meeting spaces.
The second change I see is fewer and fewer actual offices. People are so mobile because of technology that we really just need lockers. We’re in a phase of making this change internally. When we first started we offered little lockers to put your belongings such as files, a safe, maybe a change of clothes: that would be your company’s stuff.
I think certainly the network of phones will disappear. Phone calls are already free — I actually phone on WeChat now, because the quality of a data connection is actually better than phoning on the line.
You’re going to see a lot more wellness in offices; we’re doing this a lot in China, where every space we build is to a certain degree multifunctional. A meeting room can turn into a yoga studio, or a free weights room. In Beijing we’re building hot desks inside a swimming pool. We’re building a pool with a bar and palm trees — it’s like Little Miami in Beijing.
Delphine, you’re participating in the International Design Furniture Fair as a speaker in August. What insights will you be sharing, especially in light of the two naked Hubs launching in Hong Kong soon?
DYH: It will be about how design affects people; it’s not just about pure aesthetics, but more about the psychology of space. How space has the power to influence human behaviour and happiness.
Grant always tells a story about one of our Hubbers — he used to work in a Grade A office building, Plaza 66 in Shanghai, and he goes to the office every day and takes the lift. There’s this girl he likes and wants to talk to, but he didn’t dare. That kind of corporate environment inhibits people from talking to each other. When he moved to our Nanjing Lu Hub, he was very grateful and overjoyed.
GH: His first day working here, he went to the coffee station and another girl was standing waiting to make coffee, and he said “Hi.” That “Hi” was an icebreaker that he was never able to do in the lift of the Grade A building. Traditional offices don’t create an environment where people are supposed to ‘touch’ each other — I don’t mean physically. We call this user to user interaction. This happens online via, for instance, Facebook where you Like each other’s posts or connect with each other. But it happens in a fixed space through the coffee station or water station, or even the common living room. It creates the opportunity to say “Hi.”
DYH: It’s these serendipitous encounters that are the most interesting. You can’t plan these things, it’s not through scheduled meetings. Through design of a space, it influences people’s behaviour and how comfortable they feel.
What’s the ultimate goal for naked Hub?
GH: We want to cement our place as number one in Asia. We genuinely believe that there can be a Hub on every street of every major city. As in, if you walk down every street, you’ll find an office that your card will let you in. It’s kind of a radical thought. We believe that the future of offices is that it will feel like it’s serviced. It’s going to be very different from the past, and we want to be part of that change.