Interview with Ansgar Oberholz

In 2005, Ansgar Oberholz and Koulla Louca opened St. Oberholz: by now an internationally renowned creative hub in Berlin-Mitte, which is considered a milestone in the history of coworking. Since 2019, Ansgar Oberholz has also been running the coworking space at B-Part Am Gleisdreieck. As an expert on topics such as digital transformation and new work, we want to know how he deals with the current situation and how COVID-19 is changing the world of work.

Dear Ansgar, the spread of COVID-19 impacts us all, in our private and working lives. How does the current situation affect your business and also B-Part Am Gleisdreieck?

Our business is shaped by the idea that people meet by chance or planned and create something together. This is the core of all our business areas – and since this is not possible at the moment, we are affected in all areas.

New regulations were sometimes issued in 48-hour cycles, we had to rebuild and adapt everything over and over again. At some point, we had to make a decision: To move from reacting to acting and to protect the team and our customers, we decided to close B-Part temporarily and stopped the daily coworking business at our St. Oberholz Cafés. We made this decision to face the crisis with a clear mind. Members can continue to use the premises, as office use is not affected by the current regulations.

Many employers try to keep their business running. How do you face the current challenge?

Some companies are now being forced to do a fasting cure. Anyone who has done this before knows that it is really, really hard in the first few days. But after that you get a very clear mind and are able to make decisions again. Many companies will feel this way – including us. The first shock is followed by the chance to question everything and focus on what is relevant.

The good thing is that we are in a close and familiar dialogue with our members and try to intercept worries immediately. With individual agreements, discounts and deferred membership fees, we get the best out of it for everyone. In essence, this shows what community is all about and where the difference to a normal office lies! The situation brings us closer together, there is a very high level of solidarity among the members, our team and the overall company – that is simply magical to see.

What advice do you give companies and start-ups in the current time?

This crisis may destroy what three weeks ago was considered to be a smart business model or a great product. At the same time, it creates an incredible opportunity to take this dent in the economy and the momentum upwards. New needs will arise, which in turn will create new business models and products in demand.

It would be a big mistake to believe that after Easter, everything will be halfway “normal” again. It will reverberate for a long time! Radical decisions have to be made now, even if it makes you unpopular. Young founders can grow strongly in it and everyone who has already gone through a crisis is more experienced afterwards. Crisis is booty!

Companies are currently using their online presence to call for help or donations. You have also shared a video with your community in mid-March. What made you do so?

Many people think that St. Oberholz is so *incredibly* successful. In a way it is, but we are still a café and our business model is not designed to maximize profit but to focus on community. That’s why it was important for us to send this video out into the world to make it clear to everyone: We also need support. For many people, St. Oberholz is a favorite spot, a kind of Berlin primary rock, and that’s why an incredible number of positive things came back and we cannot be more grateful. It’s just important to stay in touch with the community, and it’s a great way to connect different communities like café visitors and coworking members.

You’ve already said it yourself: coworking also lives from physical exchange. What does digital work mean for the coworking industry?

Online community management is gaining enormously in importance. For example, we are leading work sprints in which members take turns at different tasks. You make an appointment, exchange ideas, set a goal and everyone works on it for 25 minutes. Afterwards, everyone exchanges ideas for five minutes, like a short conversation next to the coffee machine, then the sequence is repeated. To transfer this “Tomato-Technique” into digital and bring unknown people together is a great chance. We will certainly experience more of this.

Our good fortune is that we are already quite a digital company. Still, we are also learning more and more about how to emphasize this digital layer even more. Bringing members virtually together is still a challenge for the coworking industry and offers potential. On the other hand, despite all the decentralization: the human encounter in real space is becoming more important than ever. Anyone who has been working from home alone for two weeks is longing for physical exchange. I think the last time I had to make as many phone calls as I do now was in the early 90s…

What is your assessment of the current work situation for companies and what are the consequences for the coworking industry?

Many companies have been able to send their people to home office because they are well positioned. Suddenly you see that a lot of things are also working in a decentralized and remote way, which until recently was claimed to be impossible to implement. At the same time, it also becomes clear that 100% of home office is not the solution. Coworking will turn out to be a third-place complementary to the office and home office and will experience an upswing. Those who have so far failed to develop and implement new forms of work, e.g. who are not able to offer their employees to work remotely, are now experiencing painful failures. These companies will look in the future differently.

Which of the changes are justified beyond Corona?

I believe that people will no longer fly from Berlin to Frankfurt for a two-hour meeting, because we have learned that during the crisis things could very well be done differently. The world of work will be characterized by making up for the omissions of digitization and bringing more freedom and self-determination to work. So, more freedom in the choice of work place and working hours would be a great learning from this situation.

Many also talk about the fact that the current crisis will change our entire society. What opportunities and lessons can be drawn from this?

The word “transience” comes to my mind first. I believe and hope that everyone has become aware of how transient and little self-evident everything is. To understand that safety can also be gone so quickly – this feeling will move many people in the post-Corona period to work differently or even less. In many industries, risk management will also have to be redefined. I believe that all of us, companies and individuals, will completely rethink our actions and focus more on what really matters – what needs to be protected and what only seems important. And if the current crisis also contributes to the fact that you can pay even more cashless in the future, I am not sad about it either. (laughs)

In conclusion: What do you wish for from your community in this time?

I can only say that our St. Oberholz Community has already given us a lot. By this I mean our guests, members, as well as our team. I can only wish that it continues like this. The solidarity, the commitment and also the matter of course to be there in this crisis, to go along with decisions and not to bury one’s head in the sand, that is simply great. I hope that this energy will be carried on.

Many thanks for this interview!