In our latest edition of How to Succeed, we speak to Jaelle Ang, co-founder and CEO of The Great Room.

While we often associate co-working spaces with utilitarian designs and budget-conscious start-ups who can’t afford their own offices, The Great Room — a brand that hails from Singapore and now has a 24,000-sq.ft. flagship at Hong Kong’s One Taikoo Place — would appear to the rebel in this arena, and a rather successful one too.

Launched only in 2016 with the concept of revolutionising the workplace, The Great Room bid farewell to the typical stale-looking carpet tiles and fluorescent lights of corporate working spaces, and instead brought in plush interiors, with functional spaces that look like they belong in luxury hotels and business clubs. It’s a space that not only offers people a place to work, but also meet and socialise, which, according to Ang, stimulates better work and productivity.

The Great Room Hong Kong

With rates higher than other co-working space operators — such as WeWork — The Great Room targets deep pocketed corporates and multinationals, which have higher margins and are more sensitive about value over price. Meanwhile, start-ups constitute to a smaller percentage of the pie, who eye for the golden opportunity to network with some of the best and the brightest.

Such business strategy and hospitality-led concept have proven to be a success. In just four years, The Great Room has rapidly expanded into having four Singapore-based locations and two outposts in Bangkok and Hong Kong — all in prime areas and thriving neighbourhoods.

In our latest edition of How to Succeed, we have invited visionary serial-entrepreneur Jaelle Ang (she’s also currently the youngest and only female Board of Director at listed company, Country Group Development PCL), to share with us her journey and core beliefs in co-founding The Great Room, views on future business prospects post-CoViD-19, and tips on maximising productivity. Scroll down to read the full interview.

Jaelle Ang

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was professionally trained as an architect, and have a few years of experience in the banking sector. I moved from Singapore to Bangkok in 2009 and was lured by a sweeping riverside plot of five hectares, complete with a fish market and hundreds of squatters. I then went on orchestrate it into what would become one of Bangkok’s largest mixed-use developments: Chao Phraya Estate. The development consists of the Four Seasons Hotel, Four Seasons Private Residences and the all-suites Capella Hotel.

How did your experience in developing hotels contribute to the concept of The Great Room, and what do you hope to achieve?

Watching how hotel branded design can transform spaces really laid the foundation and inspiration of creating The Great Room for me. We know that the high-value part of what we call ‘work’ no longer takes place behind computers. Work is about interacting with other like-minded or diverse individuals, having ‘casual collisions’ and pushing boundaries. Taking inspiration from the best offices, luxury hotels and business clubs, The Great Room offers such a space that aims to change the way you feel about going to work.

Tell us about a significant point where you truly began to feel the recognition; or that this business idea really worked?

When we started seeing competitors diss us in the public forum while making advances to acquire us. That’s when we thought we might have created something different from the rest, something truly special.

Can you share with us some of the key challenges along the way?

Whether as an architect, an entrepreneur or the transition in between, I find technical job performance easier to master, but mastery of oneself — self-improvement and self-control — much harder. If I am good at what I do, it would usually mean that my scope of responsibilities is constantly enlarging. My role tends to evolve at a fast pace while the stakes only ever go in one direction — higher. That’s the biggest challenge. Yet with all the additional faith, investment dollars and a larger team, it’s usually also a signal that you’re doing something right.

The Great Room Hong Kong
What was the most important thing you’ve learned throughout your career or as you were building your business?

Whether it’s creating a product or a space, cutting a deal or managing a team, it’s about how you make people feel through good times and bad times. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.

You’ve started The Great Room in Singapore and Thailand before Hong Kong. Why did you decide on this path?

Hong Kong is a very vibrant and exciting market. Many decision makers for the Asia-Pacific region reside here, so we consider the city as a very important springboard for our expansion strategy across Asia-Pacific. However, we will only launch when we feel all the factors come together: A like-minded landlord who is truly a partner in place-making and building a best-in-class amenity for our community; a great location supported by a high-performance building infrastructure; and the ability to grow within the landlord’s portfolio. It required more work and patience to get into the Hong Kong market.

What do you hope to achieve here?

Hong Kong is a very fast-paced and efficient market with regards to real estate. It is also a place where rents for commercial offices are very high compared to other cities. It is such a large part of companies’ business expenses that decision makers need to react faster to any ways that will optimise their real estate costs — such as understanding how flexible spaces work with their core space strategy. As such, I do believe Hong Kong will really embrace flexible working very quickly.

However, the culture in Hong Kong is also more conservative, and work and play is more segregated here as compared to Singapore. It is definitely changing and people are going to demand more and more from their life whether it is work or play and the blurring of boundaries. This is a great opportunity for an operator like The Great Room to lead the notion of ‘it’s all work, it’s all play’.

Hong Kong already had a few co-working spaces before The Great Room, what makes yours stand out from the rest?

While many co-working spaces focus on camping as many workstations per square foot as possible, The Great Room focuses on creating the perfect space that makes you feel good about coming in to work, which we believe leads to enhanced productivity.

We believe in the power of design, so we’ve reinvented the conventional image of co-working spaces through the interior. Fluorescent lights and stale-looking carpet tiles were out the window; instead, we drew inspirations from the luxury hospitality sector, incorporating everything from Instagram-worthy lighting to hand-dyed carpets and creative art pieces.

Hospitality is not just about a hotel, it also represents a way of taking care of people. The Great Room is as human-centred as it gets.

The Great Room Hong Kong
The Great Room Hong Kong
What does an average workday look like for you?

I have an athlete-like routine of taking care of myself, the family and my company. I schedule in 75 percent of my workday so it becomes habitual. I believe in systematic habits as it takes away the chances of feeling overwhelmed. I then insert slack time within the schedule for dealing with things that pop up or go wrong in the day as they inevitably do.

My time-blocks largely falls into four categories: Make decisions, communication with stakeholders, deep work and learning. As boring as it sounds, the more routine and automated things are, the more bandwidth I have for the creative or the unexpected.

Any personal tips on maximising productivity?

My morning rituals start me off well. I aim to work out for 30 minutes everyday, toggling between sun
salutations and swimming. I like this because I can do this even when I am travelling for work. My schedule
doesn’t allow for more than that. This unplugged time I have first thing in the morning, plus taking five minutes to write in my five-minute journal lets me focus on the important things: me, my thoughts and gratitude before I react to the day’s happenings.

I also carve out time blocks for ‘deep work’. Deep work requires you to fully immerse yourself in the work, away from any form of distractions. I am usually able to do that after the kids go to bed (8.30pm to 10.30 pm — I call it my second shift) or in larger chunks such as Sunday afternoons for four hours when I need to review designs and feasibilities, write strategy and op-eds, etcetera.

Another great time for deep work is flight time for me. When I am behind work, I fly low cost, sit on the front seats with no screens or food service, and I just get stuff done. The typical working weekday does not offer many opportunities for large chunks of deep work-designated time as they are often filled with meetings, emails and calls.

What do you think is the most important aspect, trait or criteria for someone to succeed?

To be relentlessly learning, unlearning and re-learning. Whether it’s learning to communicate with my loved ones or to start a venture I know nothing about, the ability to learn quicker, more accurately, and with the lowest cost required (whether money or time) will always determine the outcome.

Have there been any negative/positive impacts to the business due to the pandemic? As many businesses shift their strategies in the face of CoViD-19, what is your plan moving forward?

We have always been the rebel upstart from the beginning. When we started, people said we would not survive because the gargantuan WeWork is coming to Asia and we did not have the economies of scale. Now with a proven business model and better unit economics, people are still saying we will not survive because investors no longer believe in the disruption thesis of co-working. As if we needed a pandemic to bring on more naysayers.

Building a company in this context meant we always had to outwork, outwit and outperform the big guys in our industry, and that has served us well in this pandemic — it is in our DNA to get a lot done with very little and to be able to leverage the high-trust, deep relationships we’ve built with our members and partners.

The Great Room Hong Kong
The Great Room Hong Kong

When there is uncertainty in the market — whether due to the political, health and safety or business environment — we believe that businesses will allocate more of their real estate solutions to flexible rather than traditional offices. Agility is the only way to combat uncertainty and changes in the business environment. We are bullish on the longer term prospects of co-working in Hong Kong, but that is not to say the current climate makes it easy for businesses. We are very focused on building a great offering and community at One Taikoo Place, which is our current flagship in Hong Kong.

I believe that in sunny weather, one can overtake one car but in rainy weather, one can overtake seven cars. This is an opportunity. If we can articulate and deliver a stronger value proposition, we are able to build more brand equity and customer loyalty.

Are you confident about the co-working space concept post-CoVid-19? Social distancing concerns might have led people to realise that WFH works and may dismiss the idea of renting a co-working space all together.

Through the crisis, many companies have learned that working from home can be more effective than expected, but this is not the end of offices at all. We have all been able to cope with working from home with some resemblance of productivity because of the capital that we have accumulated before when we could meet face to face for the purpose of problem-solving, creating ideas, building trust or peer inspiration. We can draw from this reserve for one to two months, but it will erode over time and we will need to top up this capital — just hear the number of times we say “let’s meet properly once this is over”.

However, there will be changes as employees demand more flexible arrangements in the future. The future of work is about flexibility, freedom, and experience. It’s all about giving employees the freedom to choose where they work, when they work, and how they work best.

As companies incorporate more flexible work policies, overall traditional office footprints are likely to become smaller and more distributed. Shared office companies will benefit from the shift to more flexible arrangements, as they build valuable communities and provide access to a distributed network of workplaces designed for collaboration, productivity and deeper engagement.

Another narrative that is arising is that as companies are facing extreme uncertainty, they are turning to shared offices to minimise long-term commitments and major capital outlays. More than ever, with unpredictable growth, headcount and even geography, companies need to be early-footed and actively move to a real estate model that is more agile.

The co-working sector is estimated to take up 30 percent of total commercial real estate space by 2030. We are now at two to three percent. CoViD-19 is a catalyst to the acceleration of this rapid growth because companies are realising that agility is the counter to uncertainty and volatility.

What did you wish you knew at the start of your career that you know now? What words of advice would you want to give your younger self?

As a young entrepreneur when I was 21, I had a clear vision but always felt uncomfortable as a leader, often wondering if leaders are made or born, and if I have what it takes. Now I truly believe leaders are forged in the most trying of crisis. My big wake-up call is that if I’m a leader, I damn well do my job and lead. If I’m not good yet, get good. And get good fast.

Who is the one person who has been instrumental in your success?

My Shanghainese mother. She does everything she can and everything she can’t. She believed that I can be anything I want to be, but I have to be willing to work at, on and around it consistently.

What do you like to do when you’re not working? How does it help you or how does it make you feel?

I love learning and I believe that when a person is a keen learner, there is never a lack of field experts and teachers around. I am currently exploring new obsessions via Masterclass to learn interior design from Kelly Wearstler and wine appreciation from James Suckling. I also listen to podcasts by Craig Groeshel and Brené Brown, and experiment on a few bio hacks to sleep, work and play better. Learning things that expand my mind energises me, and creative pursuits nourish me.

Cindie Chan
Style Editor
Fashion blogger turned editor, Cindie has spent over seven years covering all things stylish in the digital world. When she’s not busy poring over the latest covetable releases or attending the most talked-about fashion events in town, you’ll find her enjoying some precious downtime with her newborn son and sweet dog Rosy.