The Future of Coworking: How the Pandemic Brought Non-Traditional Offices to the Forefront
Why creative, community-based work spaces will survive COVID-19 and beyond
Before 2020, the concept of working from somewhere other than an office was largely seen as either a luxury or a niche product. Coworking spaces were full of independent contractors or creatives with no real office to visit. But after six months of a pandemic, attitudes toward these spaces are changing as the world revisits its ideas of productivity, office space and community. At Akron’s Bounce Hub, coworking space is a relatively recent addition to their offerings. The spaces, however, have become an important refuge for those who need a break from their couch, dining room table or cramped home office.
“We believe that the pandemic will result in a variety of new and interesting work arrangements, including remote workers, remote teams and more flexibility in the workplace,” said Rose Saborse, director of community and partnerships. “Anecdotally, some employers realize that remote work isn’t as scary as they thought and that, in some cases, employees are just as productive or even more productive than being in the office five days a week.”
For Matt Davis, CEO of COhatch, which has spaces across Ohio and into Indiana, the pandemic merely revealed the holes in more traditional coworking spaces. In fact, he doesn’t like calling COhatch a coworking space and describes their locations as “work and social spaces.” COhatch locations are built to be community-oriented, providing more than just a physical space to work and instead focusing on building networks, collaboration and even friendships. To him, the idea of simply offering a working space is outdated and unnecessary. That’s why COhatch’s plan to survive and thrive is to create a social setting, a community and gathering space, in addition to coworking.
“Across the country, some companies have shut down because they were nothing more than re-renting in an expensive office building with short-term leases that were over-extended — that’s not us at all,” he said. “We’ve been adamant from the beginning that we’re very community-focused with locations in the heart of different towns close to where people live and work. When the pandemic hit, we knew that the best thing to do was serve other people in any way we could. We set up meal delivery to vulnerable people, scholarships for our members and community investment programs.”
Bounce Hub follows a similar mindset with the facility’s coworking options. Rather than offering only square footage, meeting rooms and the traditional amenities, Bounce Hub sees its coworking spaces as an extension of the organization’s other entrepreneur-centric programs.
“The co-working space is the perfect complement to our entrepreneurial programs,” she said. “It adds several new options to those looking for space to work and/or meet. Before the co-working space, our incubator and accelerator clients who wanted space at Bounce had to choose from larger office or lab spaces on one of our other eight floors. Now, if they don’t need that much space or don’t want to sign a longer-term lease, they can opt to use the co-working space as part of their participation in the program. It can be a stepping stone. It also provides a gathering spot, meeting space and work space if they need it. It’s designed to bring people together and is the perfect vehicle for solidifying our programs.”
At Dayton’s Nucleus CoShare, the beginning of the pandemic was a challenge. The facility shut down during April and May, and lost some business. But as the state has reopened and sanitation, distancing and other rules have been put in place, business has rebounded. Now, Nucleus is seeing a different type of customer — one who may not have realized their need for coworking space until they spent six months away from their offices.
“I think the way people view work has completely changed,” said Bonnie Kling, collaboration coordinator. “Larger corporations are allowing people to work from home and many more people are now working flexible schedules. Some of our people have younger children in elementary school and they’re working while kids are in Zoom meetings, taking afternoons off for gym class or homework and then continuing work in the evening. We want to support them with whatever they need. Being able to work from home has definitely made us all view space in a different way.”
None of these leaders see the pandemic-related changes going away any time soon. Even when employees are no longer required to work from home or unable to go to the office, Davis said he thinks mindsets and working habits have changed so much that many of the attitude shifts will be permanent. However, he said, people still need to interact and feel a sense of community, and that’s where non-traditional coworking spaces will have an edge.
“Companies’ needs and wants are changing — I call it downshifting,” he said. “Small businesses are downshifting from offices to coworking because it’s more economical. Large companies are downshifting to work from home, flexible, hybrid options and smaller offices. We built COhatch to serve all those needs. Companies are starting to realize that they have all this office space and were surprised at how productive employees were remotely. But then reality sets in — people need to build teamwork, develop leadership, and get away from distractions at home. And people need to talk to each other. The water cooler part of collaboration and innovation is very important. So I think what you’ll see in the future is the hybrid model.”
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