Are co-working spaces going to benefit from the ‘attack’ on offices?

27 Aug 2020769 Views

Image: The Tara Building

With many still working from home, we take a look at the role co-working spaces could play when businesses begin bringing employees back together.

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We are now several months into a major global health crisis and nobody can say for sure when a return to traditional office spaces will be possible. While the exodus from offices occurred suddenly and without warning, it’s likely that the return to the workplace will happen much more gradually and with some ‘pandemic-proofing’ changes.

Some companies, such as Facebook, have chosen to bring back essential on-site staff whose jobs are more difficult to perform remotely, while allowing the rest of the workforce to continue working from home until at least next year. Others, like Fujitsu, are planning to drastically reduce the number of employees that work in offices in the long-term, opting for a hot-desking situation instead of the traditional workplace set-up.

For now, it looks as though a hybrid working arrangement could become the norm, having a small set of employees in the workplace while others remain home, or allowing different employees to visit the office on certain days of the week. Both options present a clear opportunity for co-working space providers.

While the sustainability of the co-working model may have been brought into question last year during the entire WeWork saga, the sector wasn’t helped by the pandemic. A report in June said that the global co-working spaces market is expected to decline from $9.27bn in 2019 to $8.24bn in 2020, due to the economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 and the measures to contain its spread.

But now, as economies reopen and businesses begin to think about the future, could co-working spaces be the answer for individuals or companies?

A demand for hybrid working

Many people have adapted well to remote working, saving time on long commutes and having more time to spend with family. In April, IBM conducted a survey of 25,000 adults in the US about how Covid-19 has impacted their perspectives on a number of issues, including the return to work. More than half (54pc) said that they would prefer to primarily work remotely if business returns to what we once considered normal, however the rest would still like to return to something resembling the old set-up.

Companies that have begun planning a fully remote future may be alienating this significant cohort of people. The home can be a very stressful place for many if they have to deal with family members or housemates, or have a lack of space for a home office set-up. For that reason, flexible co-working spaces may be the middle ground that some companies need to keep their employees engaged and happy.

‘In many ways our hubs are now seen as the place you go to get a break from the living room’
– ANDREW LYNCH

Apple Jing Shen, general manager at Dublin co-working space the Tara Building, said that there has been a shift in attitudes towards hybrid working as a result of Covid-19.

“We have had a lot of new enquiries and many of our existing members are looking for more flexible options during the pandemic,” she told Siliconrepublic.com. “In response to that, we have introduced new part-time membership plans, which includes a three-day per week part-time membership plan.

“Since we reopened our doors from the end of June, we have been prepared and expecting more people to choose our facilities as an alternative option to their remote offices over the upcoming months, whilst we continue to support and maintain our existing creative community.”

A large, colourful building.

The Tara Building in Dublin city. Image: The Tara Building

Andrew Lynch, co-founder of co-working space provider Huckletree, which has a base on Dublin’s Pearse St, agreed that these type of spaces could be a new alternative for many businesses.

“What I think we’re seeing more and more of is the traditional office headquarters coming under attack,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.

“Traditional office set-ups are notorious for making you feel big and small at the same time. Even though you’re surrounded by thousands of people, there’s the false sense of mobility and you end up sticking to your own cubicle with minimal social contact with others.

“We believe, as we have from the start, that smaller curated ecosystems are the sweet spot, because you have the freedom to think, the ability to make meaningful connections and the environments to collaborate productively.”

New health and safety measures

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By the nature of the business, co-working spaces see a lot of footfall from a wide variety of people who share the space. To assuage concerns about health and safety, the Tara Building has made some significant changes since it reopened.

Management has reconfigured all of the co-working and breakout spaces to ensure physical distancing is possible at all times and perspex desk dividers have been installed to prevent the spread of infection.

“Each of our members have been gifted a reusable cloth face mask provided by Dublin Craft Collective, a collective of indie artisans and craft-makers located in Dublin. This is to help on their commutes and in communal areas,” Jing Shen said.

A long table with partitions along it and seats spread out at a two metre distance.

Some of the new distancing measures put in place in the Tara Building. Image: The Tara Building

Temperature tests are taken daily and regular sanitisation is carried out by staff in the co-working space. At the moment, visitors are not permitted and the building remains a strictly member-only space. It also recently began offering Covid-19 antibody testing to each of its on-site members.

At Huckletree, the new health and safety measures include behavioural rules that were designed with the intention of keeping the “soul of the community” intact while members have to maintain their distance. The business is also taking steps to promote the start-ups on its premises.

“We turned our social channels into directories of member businesses, interviews with founders on how they’re navigating and sharing positive news about what our member companies are achieving,” Lynch said.

“We made a point to speak to our members every week, and our senior team donated their time and expertise to help members with challenges, from commercial strategies to brand.”

‘A total reinvention’

Lynch said that with the current pandemic and future uncertainty, nobody wants to be tied to anything in the long term.

“Right now, flexibility is the only currency that matters,” he added. “We’re seeing a new type of demand from more enterprise businesses that are looking to find a short-term solution for their workforce who have varying needs and levels of risk.”

Lynch also said that there’s a growing number of scale-ups and established brands turning to spaces like Huckletree to lower overheads. He noted that no two companies have the same needs, with some looking for a new home and others looking for part-time office space. But he believes co-working spaces can give employees some semblance of normality, especially for early-stage companies that value work identity and rituals.

“Working from home isn’t the enemy or the competitor here. Far from it!” Lynch said. “In many ways our hubs are now seen as the place you go to get a break from the living room and to get your head back in the game. We’re seeing more requests come through for collaboration sessions, company town halls or all-hands meetings.”

A man in a grey sweatshirt sits on steps outside of a building.

Andrew Lynch. Image: Huckletree

He admitted that the co-working sector has come under pressure regarding whether it will survive or not in the long term, but doesn’t believe this industry is going to collapse any time soon.

“We think it’s having a total reinvention. Success no longer means acquiring more and more square feet or opening a new hub every week on every street in London. That’s not what the world needs right now. We feel the bigger mission ahead of us is rebuilding for productivity.”

Lynch said that no matter how much employees love the novelty of working from home, company culture is not going to be built via Zoom.

“Shared communal spaces have now become a giant paradox; people are highly anxious about entering them, and at the same time people are crying out for spaces to come together in order to feel social and ‘human’ again,” he said.

“I think the co-working industry needed to be disrupted and Covid-19 just accelerated it. Now there’s a chance for every operator to go back to the whiteboard and rethink how they can deliver value to member businesses.”

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com