Zip Office: Making the business center mobile

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

From the outside, the new Zip Office Business Center in Southpointe Town Center looks like most places a person could go to ship a package, make copies or pick up some office supplies.

But once inside, a visitor learns that there is much more than meets the eye.

Zip Office, the creation of Michael Swisher and his son, Charlie Swisher, 25, which opens Jan. 19, gives a big nod to the millennial generation and its work habits, which can happen anytime, anywhere.

With a membership at Zip Office, freelancers, road warriors, educators and their millennial counterparts can access temporary office space in several configurations and conference rooms, and depending upon the level of membership, can use the workspace anytime of the day or night.

The combination of mail, shipping and office supplies as well as a variety of temporary, but comfortable working spaces for those who are always on the go, comes after 18 months researching the mail and business center sector.

What the Swishers found was that the landscape is filled with many “mom and pop” franchise operations that provide shipping services and mailbox rentals for businesses, but don’t have a focus on those whose work is increasingly mobile.

The project began with the simple fact that Southpointe didn’t have a shipping center, despite its formidable size as a business park.

“There are 15,000 people working here, 5,000 who live nearby, plus thousands of visitors in the park,” said Michael Swisher, who designed the original Southpointe, and in his current position as a principal with Horizon Properties with Horizon founder and President Rod Piatt, helped to build out Southpointe II. Swisher and Piatt also created Southpointe Town Center, whose Main Street includes several restaurants, gift shops and grooming services aimed at those who work in or visit the business park.

“The problem is that there’s nowhere for people to ship in the park,” Michael said, explaining that the closest place to send a parcel is in McMurray.

Zip Office’s retail area will be open to the public and will include shipping services from the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and DHL. In addition to open seating for plugging in laptops at the front of the store, there will be mailboxes for rent, copying machines and office supplies for sale. Members can also arrange to receive packages at the site, and the center’s virtual mail service can accept members’ mail and send pictures of it to the recipient, who can tell the center to forward it to them, discard it or hold it for them to pick up later.

Along the way, the Swishers found what has until now been the missing link at mail and shipping centers – a place that serves the mobile worker.

“What I saw was the way the office is changing,” Michael said. “Millennials work differently; they don’t need to be tied to an office. They can work on a park bench, in their car, in a Starbucks or a Panera.”

And as someone who has built many offices, Swisher is well aware of the shrinking dimensions of conventional office space for workers.

“Corporate America figured out that it doesn’t need a 12x15 office for someone anymore,” he said, noting that the square footage for a person’s workspace in a traditional office setting has fallen in recent years from 270 square feet down to less than 150 square feet. The shrinkage doesn’t have anything to do with downsizing, he said, adding that the new philosophy in many companies is that employees should be out meeting the people with whom they do business.

With the advent of laptops and smartphones now in use by virtually anyone in the work world, what many people need is a place to plug in, log on and if possible, have a place to meet with clients and prospective customers for everything from a consultation to closing a deal.

The trend isn’t limited to traveling salespeople and freelancers, Michael added. There are executives like him who often start their day by heading to a coffee shop to do an hour or two of work on their laptops before going to their office. Add to that people who are staying in one of Southpointe’s hotels and may need to make a presentation, make copies or ship an item.

“And they want to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Swisher said, adding that while most coffee shops serve great coffee, they don’t always provide optimum wi-fi service or a place to work quietly.

At Zip Office, members swipe a key fob at a glass wall just behind the retail area to enter a lounge with soft furniture and a small kitchen. A hallway leads to several private offices of different sizes as well as a small conference room with a flat-screen television that can screen presentations from a smartphone.

Michael acknowledged that there are office buildings that specialize in temporary rental space for individuals, work teams and start-up companies, but for now, none combine the office space with access to shipping or other mailing services, or a place to buy a pen or notebook.

The Swishers knew they were on to something when they presented their concept for Zip Office before the Association of Mail and Business Centers in Las Vegas recently.

“They were blown away,” Michael said.

For now, the Swishers plan to open on Jan. 19. Michael said that if the concept works at Southpointe, it could be franchised, especially in smaller cities like Pittsburgh and Raleigh, N.C.

The Southpointe Zip Office has memberships available for 64 people and the 2,500 square-foot space can accommodate up to 32 members at any given time.

Members use a smartphone app to schedule time for workspace at the center.

The team at Zip Office is composed of both millennials and baby boomers. In addition to Charlie Swisher, 25, Julia O’Neal, 27, will run the office suite, while Doug Garman, with 20 years of experience in client services and retail will manage the retail operation. Clem Uram, who worked in industrial shipping all of his life, came out of retirement to manage the shipping area.

The Zip Office, with its joining of a business center with temporary office space for mobile workers represents a new destination for work that the Swishers believe is unparalleled in the region.

“We think Washington County is ahead of Pittsburgh with this concept,” Michael said.

Zip Office Business Center, 1900 Main St., Suite 107, Southpointe Town Center, opens Jan. 19.