StartWell’s Qasim Virjee on designing office space for the future of work


Toronto’s burgeoning tech and innovation sector is facing a crisis — not because of the availability of investor dollars, lack of talent available, or government will to make us globally attractive — our elephant in the room is physical space.

At StartWell, not only is it our mission to create solutions to this massive problem, it’s also to provide Torontonians with a scalable space platform that gives them happier, more productive work days.

No one chooses to be crammed into a small office or cubicle by themselves to endlessly work in a silo away from other people, on fake ‘teams’ pretending to be productive on 500-person conference calls. As organizational hierarchies collapse and ideas are instantly born into industry-disrupting software, the need for taking a deeper look at how we use space at work is urgent.

In downtown Toronto, our commercial vacancy rate is now two percent, and some experts think that number is more like one percent. As Canada moves away from our manufacturing, agriculture, and energy-reliant past towards a robust knowledge sector, we’ll require more flexible downtown real estate. As it stands, demand for space far outpaces the availability of it, and yet tech companies can’t hire fast enough — we don’t have enough people to fill the seats we can’t even find to rent.

Add to this local demand the desire from global firms to move here now that politics in the United States has become caustic to the general population’s well-being, and the knob turns further towards danger mode.

The majority of Toronto’s urban office space is locked up in long-term leases by companies who are operating with legacy furniture systems that waste space.

The majority of Toronto’s urban office space is locked up in long-term leases by companies who are operating with legacy furniture systems that waste space. Many of those companies want change, yet don’t have the cultural agility or budgeted resources to reconfigure. Those who do space planning experiments may not be informed by the type of experience coworking companies enjoy, and suffer inefficiencies and the need to redesign later on. An example of this is ‘hotelling,’ where, for example, five people may share one desk and are allowed to use it each for one day per week. While the coworking industry is well-aware of the failure of this model, other companies may not be.

Large multinational corporations like Regus and WeWork are capitalizing on the local need for space by employing ‘space efficiency maximization’ techniques — creating sanitized coworking experiences that lack authentic Toronto culture.

From our experience at StartWell, a lot of happiness at work comes from interaction and inspiration. Our spaces are designed to be shared – right from large format call booths that let two people work together, to our massive use of common spaces. At StartWell’s King Street location, for example, all types of members use and meet in our 8,000+ square feet of cafe, lounges, meeting rooms, and hot desks. These spaces collectively make up nearly half of the entire location, and accessing them isn’t limited to our members. Similar to a service like Breather, anyone can visit our website to instantly book a StartWell Space by the hour, day, or longer.

StartWell’s King St. space in Toronto.

And space isn’t everything; to truly make interactions inspiring and reflective of Toronto’s diversity, we’ve created a ‘Club Membership’ tier. Members who join the club get 24-hour access (starting at $150 a month) to the wealth of common space we offer. We want to use the club to make membership at StartWell as accessible as possible — removing cost from the list of constraints people face when trying to launch a new venture, or find a quiet space to focus for the day away from cafes and home, or meet clients sporadically in a professional yet funky space.

Of course, as our membership increases, the collaborative potential of our community will only get more exciting – a large, diverse club will benefit all members as a place to find inspiration and learn from each other, as well as work together. Breathing uniquely Torontonian life into the StartWell experience, we feel it’s important to forge partnerships with health and wellness practitioners, plus artistic organizations. With the help of organizations like Artery (which pairs hosts and artists on their digital platform) and Toronto-based music technologist and percussion maestro Gurpreet Chana (as Artist-in-Residence), programmed music performances and theatre are becoming a regular occurrence within our walls.

Scale can happen in any direction for early-stage companies, and physical space should never limit the potential a company has to keep evolving. Our members can change their plan at any point, and in addition to offering private offices, dedicated desks, and the club membership, we also provide local companies ‘Growth Spaces.’ For teams of 30+ that don’t want to hire an office manager or worry about infrastructure, StartWell Growth Spaces come pre-loaded with all of our coworking amenities – including high speed WiFi, beer on tap, printing, scanning, and copying, and our digital platform for managing meeting rooms.

Though these may be peppered across downtown, any StartWell member can work out of our growing network of locations in the city and partners overseas (including boutique hotels, lounges, and social clubs) and we hope that this greater work freedom not limited by physical constraints will enable entrepreneurs to succeed at whatever they set their sights on.

Startwell is a studio space partner for BetaKit’s Facebook Live


Qasim Virjee

As an entrepreneur with experiences running businesses between Canada, East Africa and India, Qasim applies a unique lens on how people work. He previously founded Design Guru (a creative studio whose portfolio of clients included cause-based organizations like the Stephen Lewis Foundation to large multinationals like the Coca Cola Corporation), the BBC-partnered global music brand Indian Electronica, GetFilmi (a digital distributor of Indian cinema) and other software startups. He has a passion for enabling tech startups – something which has led to creating the Founder Deck playing card game, WeTeachStartup ideation bootcamps, Startup Safaris global pitch sessions as well as running IBM’s Global Entrepreneur Program across Canada. Qasim lives in Toronto’s Hillcrest Village neighbourhood – a factor that led to opening the first StartWell down the street from his house.

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