Is Co-Working Dead?

J.Q. Louise

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Although cities are reopening, many are reluctant to return to their old routines. With so many companies allowing employees to continue to work from home, the lingering question is “will people ever return to the office?”.

Benefits to working in an office

There are many benefits to working alongside team members. Camaraderie, accountability and efficiency are just a few of the benefits many experts attribute to working in an office setting. That’s not to mention the separation from ‘home’ and ‘work’ that has so glaringly been missing during the COVID-related lockdowns. But with new public health guidelines for people returning to their daily lives, the concept of the ‘office’ is sure to change as well.

The new ‘normal’

A Boston based co-working brand, Workbar, has always been dedicated to in-office wellness and their concept is more relevant now than ever. The CEO of Workbar recently wrote that “Bostonians need spaces to work that are neither home, nor the ‘office’, but places that are as safe as the former and as productive as the latter.” Starbucks may have pioneered the idea of a ‘third place’, but with public health protocols discouraging lingering indoors for extended periods of time, the days of work-from-home’ers shaking things up by shooting off a few emails from their corner coffee shop may be over and yet that need to get out of the house remains.

“The ‘third place’ that people will work must be coworking spaces, but they must be coworking spaces that prioritize the health of their members.” Says Workbar CEO, Sarah Travers. Workbar was the first co-working space to be ‘Well Building Standard Certified’, which takes things like air quality, seating arrangements, access to natural light and the types of snacks in the kitchen into account. Essentially, this certification is only awarded to spaces in which provide the optimal conditions for overall physical and mental health. So, if anyone is qualified to figure out the “returning to work” question Travers and her team are.

“The work-from-home honeymoon is officially over.”

“The work-from-home honeymoon is officially over.” Says Travers. “There is an urge to get back to our normal lives and coworking spaces will provide individuals with a remote work solution that resembles the workday we all left back in March but in a safe and controlled environment.” In Boston alone, there are 54 large companies that have already announced that the work-from-home mandate will be continued indefinitely, which affects at least 150,000 workers in Massachusetts. Co-working spaces now have the opportunity to attract employees mandated to work remotely, who are looking for a dedicated workspace outside of the home.

Post-COVID reopening strategy

“Our post-COVID reopening strategy is separated into two categories: physical modifications and behavior management.” Says Travers. The Workbar team has been implementing physical modifications, such as thermo-scanners for members to self-check their temperature upon arrival, hand sanitizer stations, dividers between desks and social distancing signage, as well as a new feature on their members-app that tracks the number of people in their locations. This will give members the ability to see how many people are in a certain location, allowing them to make informed decisions on whether or not to work there that day in real time.

“Behavior management will be an ongoing process. We kicked it off with a mandatory Zoom reorientation training [for members]. The purpose of the training is to create awareness around the fact that the Workbar our members left in March is not the same Workbar our members are returning to in June.” Says Travers. “We need our members to be just as committed as we are to the health and safety of the entire community.”

Another pillar of the Workbar philosophy is to ‘be where our members are.’ As many other popular co-working brands have made their mark in major cities, Workbar looks at entire metro areas. “In 2018, we opened our largest location in an unproven suburban market and in the first year we exceeded every benchmark we set. That led us to commit to our ‘hub and spoke model’ and we set out to open a Workbar within 20 minutes of where people both [currently] worked and lived.” Says Travers. This concept is relevant in the post-COVID world because in reality, once people begin to work outside of the home again, the risks associated with that ‘workday’ begin the moment they leave their home. This means that shortening someone’s commute can have significant health benefits by cutting down the number of interactions with transportation methods needed.

ROI of investing in health and ‘wellness’

“It did not take a pandemic for us to see the value in prioritizing workplace wellness. The most impactful elements to protect our health are also quite expensive. And until now, the cost greatly outweighed the benefits in the eyes of our competitors.” says Travers. Investing in health and wellness several years ago is paying dividends for this regional brand, which is seeing a “significant jump” in demand for their spaces, just as other co-working giants, like WeWork, face major hurdles in rebounding from the pandemic. People want to get back to ‘work’ and out of the house, they just may not be returning to the same ‘office.’

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