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Can Co-Work Spaces Survive COVID-19?

June 24, 2020

social distancing in co sharing office with sign for safety distance

Down but not out, could they be what the “new normal” needs?

It wasn’t all that long ago that co-work spaces were the darlings of CRE. As recently as September 2019, there was a 70% increase in flexible workspaces, despite the massive difficulties encountered by industry leader WeWork.

Short-term leases, affordable rents, communal creativity and networking, and shared common spaces were celebrated, notably by small businesses and start-ups looking for a cost-saving operational alternative. Just last year, the concept was becoming even more specialized with niche co-work spaces—shared offices geared to very specific ideas, such as construction, women, LGBTQ, and musicians, to name but a few.

Then, COVID-19 happened. At least for the time being, shared spaces in a time of social distancing don’t make a ton of sense.

While larger companies with office space were able to adapt through employees working remotely, many shared space tenants, operators, and landlords floundered. Adapting to remote work has added strain on smaller businesses. The economic shutdown has forced many of them to close for good, opt not to renew short-term leases, or walk away with months of unpaid rent.

Shared workspaces may be down, but perhaps not out

The combination of a lingering lockdown and expectations for yet another mass redesign of offices—this one with a nod toward social distancing—caused many experts to ponder the viability of shared workspaces. For many, the concept was on life-support.

Other analysts, however, say, “Not so fast.” They note that the sector hasn’t been around long enough to weather an economic downturn. In a sense, it must find its footing to prove its mettle and survive. And in their view, shared workspaces may be what a post-pandemic world needs, offering small businesses without fixed office space a necessary outlet for workers.  

At the start of the lockdown, when businesses across the country were forced to adapt, remote work seemed like a novel, short-term measure required to stem the virus’s spread. For workers long accustomed to daily commutes, the effort in those early days was approached with a sense of humor as they fumbled with technology and did their best to avoid interruptions. But what was hoped to be a temporary glitch has dragged on, even as the country re-opens.

As new cases continue around the country, corporate offices weigh keeping employees at home and maintaining permanent office space. In turn, what was once a novelty is now taking its toll on creativity, productivity, and mental health. Shared workspaces—with appropriate precautions—may wind up being an antidote to isolation as corporate offices remain unused or are downsized.

Shared workspaces also have the potential to provide a support structure for small businesses that operate on the edge of local economies. By coming together under one roof, there is a greater possibility for networking, sharing ideas, and gaining access to resources.

Co-working in the coronavirus era

Shared workspaces will need to adapt to COVID-19. The high-density model will likely have to change in favor of a more socially distant property. This may include the addition of freestanding dividers and privacy areas, as well as regulating the number of people allowed in a conference room. 

It will also be imperative for co-work space managers to adhere to health measures outlined by the CDC and other leading state and local agencies. This effort may include taking temperatures, increasing air exchange, sending sick workers home immediately, increasing the frequency of cleaning common areas, and maintaining transparency with other members should an individual become ill.

CRE can design a new normal

With re-opening and constant reminders of a “new normal,” perhaps it’s time to regain a sense of control by having a say in exactly what that will be. For co-work spaces, it means gaining a better understanding of members’ circumstances, concerns, and fears—and working to address them. It could involve examining flexible hours so members can work at off-peak times, providing discounts for longer lease agreements, and updating cancellation policies to meet new demands.

It also means taking a different look at communications and marketing material. Post-pandemic adaptations, such as a new floor plan and health-conscious policies, should be highlighted. And enhanced cleaning policies should be completed and communicated.

Morris Southeast Group continues to monitor CRE trends and possibilities as the economy weathers COVID-19. To learn more about what we can do for you, call us at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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