x&why might look like a trendy co-working space. There are plants everywhere. An honesty bar. Posh coffee, oat milk and plenty of dogs.
But there’s a lot more going on at the growing number of x&why locations, which now include three in London, Chiswick and a future space in Birmingham.
Wework this isn’t.
x&why are fuelling systems change, supporting social enterprises and encouraging business leaders of all sizes to think differently.
B-Corp certified, they’re thinking about the planet and the people who work for their members, combining planet positive spaces with social impact programmes, fostering collaboration and building in a reduction in waste and giving back.
We talk to Phil Niven, co-founder of x&why, about the future of office spaces, his nemesis – the unrecyclable office chair and how purpose lead businesses are changing the dynamics of work.
“I’ve always been in real estate in some way shape or form – whether that’s in design and build or development. But the other hat that I’ve worn is a charitable one.
I founded and I chair the board for Big Change Charitable Trust, which is an education focused kids focused charity. I adore it and they are doing amazing things at the moment.
I always wondered how I could marry social impact and real estate which I also love,” he explains.
“It took me a long time actually to figure out how to marry those two things and actually that’s kind of where the seed of x&why came from. I’ve kind of, by osmosis, learned from the charitable way of doing things.
So, the moment we set up x&why, we thought in terms of a theory of change. And I think that’s been really great for us to try and keep us on mission. Particularly as we expand this year.
What was the big vision for x&why?
PN: A bit like pebble, we really feel like we’re not alone in this journey, which is awesome.
There are a lot of people, with a lot of positive energy and doing some incredible things.
Our strapline is very lofty.
It’s our moonshot.
To change the way the world works for good
Obviously there is a double meaning on good: it’s forever and for better.
And we’re not completely potty, so like I said, we know we’re part of the system and we’re just playing our small part in that.
“You never build a perfect building, so you could always do one better”
One of our impact areas are innovating workplaces.
It’s one of the fun things about building actually. You never build a perfect building, so you could always do one better. So, equally we’re trying to make sure that each one is, you know we’re pushing ourselves each time.
The People’s Mission building in Whitechapel for instance has got green roofs, it has got habitat panels, it’s got water restrictors, it’s got furniture that was made in London and from a vetted supply chain.
But it’s not perfect, it could have been better.
Our other focus is shifting mindsets.
Yes, there are some brilliant people like yourself doing brilliant things with our sector, pushing the conversation forwards.
But it is also still scary how few people know about, for instance B-Corp.
There’s loads of people within business and the public just don’t know what that is, and that’s bad. We need to change that and the first step of changing that is inspiring them.
The third impact area that we aim for is actually changing behaviour.
You need to really make sure that you’re not only inspiring, but giving people tools to actually change the way that they are approaching their business, or social enterprise, or charity.
So, that’s kind of how we think on a personal level.
Has the future of office work changed forever? How do you approach what employees and SMEs will need out of a shared office space?
PN: It’s you know strange for an office provider to be saying, you know we promote work from home, but we do because you know five days a week, traipsing in and doing a long commute. We don’t need to do that anymore. And actually it’s going to be a lot greener not to.
But the office is not irrelevant.
We’ve realised we need human interaction but the physical spaces have to change to have more of a focus on the social side of a business.
They need to be places to have fun, right? So, the lines are all blurring a lot more between office and leisure. Bar, restaurant, office and we’ve got some really exciting concepts coming up.
We’ve got plenty of people who work in our Chiswick space, who’ve actually got an office in central London. But they don’t go there more than twice a week, and so this is their work near home equivalent.
How have people’s weeks and working patterns changed in 2022?
PN: We’ve seen a real shift to hotdesking for all co-working.
People want to move, they want to meet people, they want that water cooler moment. To actually interact, which I think is key and it is very exciting.
It’s a really fun time to be in our world because it’s changing and it’s reacting to the positive side to the changes that have taken place. I think it is going to take some time for the right habits to form.
I think that you know the hybrid meeting is interesting and is difficult, and I think we’ve got to look to tech actually, to help us sort that out.
And I think that there’s going to be a lot of experimentation.
I mean at the moment, what we’re finding quite predictably is that Tuesdays, Wednesdays Thursdays are the busiest times.
Mondays are also quite busy actually because people like to get out. Friday it obviously goes down.
Thursday night is definitely the New Friday that was coming with pre-pandemic anyway.
What sort of businesses and founders find their home at x&why?
PN: The ideal mix for us is for profit businesses, start ups, social enterprises and charities.
So we would never want a building just with people at the beginning of their journey, or just with people who already have everything sorted, because it’s about creating a sense of movement forwards.
With new buildings we quite often seed the building with some tenants who are particularly impact driven or B Corp certified. And then beyond that the ideal tenant can be anywhere on their sustainability journey, right?
There’s a misconception that you’ve got to be a charity or social enterprise to come into an x&why.
We actually prefer a mix because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help 1000 flowers bloom.
You’re expanding outside of London. What makes a location right for you?
PN: The building needs to be right for us in terms of size, but also in terms of how it’s been constructed if I’m honest.
So, in Chiswick, we inherited a BREEAM rated building which is very important to us.
And we will also look hugely at our partner landlord and who they are and what their values are. Because our models are slightly different to the traditional property model. We partner with landlords and rather than take leases.
So during the worst of the pandemic obviously when the shi hit the fan, we were able to be more compassionate because of that model, which would be really important to our member base, right?
But then there’s also the location.
We’ve got some x&why’s in inner city London, and Chiswick, which is a bit more suburban and that kind of supports this work near home shift.
But actually beyond those four we’re looking out of London.
It’s something that we’ve been trying to get going for a long time in this country, decentralising from London, and we’re really keen to support that.
We want to create big, green destination hubs in gateway cities and larger towns across the UK.
The stats on sustainably-driven businesses in the South versus the North, or the number of B Corps in the South versus the North, it’s skewed.
The whole country is skewed and we want to be a part of a period that helps sort that out.
“We want to create big, green destination hubs in gateway cities and larger towns across the UK”
How do you reduce the impact of opening a new building if you’re not building from new?
PN: We’ve all got to become experts at refurbishing buildings as well.
There’s some really interesting stats out there.
80% of the buildings that the world is going to occupy in 2050 already exists.
I walk around the rework we’re doing in Birmingham and it makes me a bit sad because I know that a lot of the stuff that is in there is from China and didn’t need to come from China. It was about them squeezing margins.
But I’m not going to throw it away, right?
You need to surgically intervene and improve the quality of space and reuse where you possibly can.
There’s one whole part of the challenge to the real estate sector, which is about really improving how we are refurbishing buildings and being quite ambitious about that.
Office furniture! That whole supply chain must be very wasteful. Think of the number of abandoned offices over the last couple of years. How do you manage that?
PN: The office fitout sector is a very throwaway culture and part of the problem is time.
You just never seem to have that much time in in office land and that’s because underlying and behind that, there is a financial model that doesn’t like to time to tick too much.
So how do we create solutions that are pre-designed and quick?
For instance, I was in meetings with my furniture supplier this week and we’ve come up with a product whereby actually your x&why experience starts before you even get to x&why.
So we’re selling in a removal product whereby if you want to get rid of any of your old furniture from your old office, because you’re moving into an x&why’s as a new space, we will help you upcycle that and will even help you refurbish some of that.
If it is a bit knackered and it needs a new wheel or whatever we’ll fix it, and then it can be truly used by someone else now – which we’re really chuffed with.
Because my nemesis is the office chair.
There is no recyclable office chair in this world.
It’s the same as baby seats, right? Because they have so many components to them the only way you could possibly recycle it is to take it apart bit by bit, which is cost prohibitive.
So we need to create facilities that can fix, upcycle, gift, whatever – that would be my big dream to be able to offer that at scale, alongside x&why.
Phil’s got big dreams and x&why wants to help more people reach theirs. What’s yours?
We spoke to some existing x&why members to hear what they find refreshing about working in a purpose lead co-working space.
Tom Tapper, Nice & Serious
What made you join x&why over other shared office spaces?
From a culture perspective, we wanted to find a space for the team to come together and create, but we needed more flexibility. But the team unanimously agreed that we should choose x&why because of their sustainability credentials, and their intentions to become a B Corp like us.
As a business we want to work with other businesses who share our values and vision for the world we want to create, it’s as simple as that.
Why is it so important that sustainable brands grow and collaborate together?
More often than not sustainable brands face an uphill battle – they’re usually smaller and lack the funding of unsustainable incumbents in their industry.
So for sustainable brands to grow and compete, it’s essential that we share ideas and connections.
But it’s not just about the network, it also creates a huge amount of energy and momentum being surrounded by likeminded companies who are working towards a shared vision.
Digby Vollrath, Feast It
Why did you choose x&why?
When looking for an office space, it was important to us to find somewhere that not only ticked all the functional boxes but also shared the same ethos as us.
x&why’s commitment to making meaningful, purposeful changes to the way companies work really spoke to us and their eco-friendly innovations such as using green, sustainable furniture and energy, their zero-landfill policy and the strict vetting of any suppliers to the building, made it an easy choice.
How does it help you improve?
To be surrounded by like-minded companies is inspiring. It makes us stop and look at how we do things and wonder what we could be doing better – we can learn so much from other businesses in the building. Through collaboration, we can accelerate better practices and go above and beyond to do our bit to look after our planet.
Check out XandWhy for their locations and membership options.