When Pennsylvania shut down in response to coronavirus, many businesses didn’t know if they were essential or not. This was especially true for the coworking industry, where flexible office space is shared by all kinds of companies, including life-sustaining businesses required to stay up and running.
Ashlee Christensen is business operations manager for Alloy 26, a coworking company on Pittsburgh’s North Side. She has gone into work once a week to sort mail and to walk through the space to ensure people who were still coming in adhered to current public health guidance.
Alloy 26 “suggested to everyone they stay home unless they absolutely needed to come in,” she said.
But they’ve started to field questions from members about a return to more normal operations, and what that will look like.
Alloy 26 is working to install a series of hand-sanitizing stations and will change their space’s layout so people remain six feet apart; everyone will be asked to wear a mask. While the company had previously transitioned to reusable supplies—ceramic mugs instead of paper cups, metal utensils instead of plastic—Christensen said they plan to return to disposable items for a little while.
Changes in physical layout and sanitation are important, but behavior change is fundamental to providing a safe working environment, said Anna Squires Levine, general manager of North America for Industrious, which runs nearly 100 locations across the U.S. Levine said the company is crafting a community safety pledge they will ask all of their members to read and adopt.
“So that we all have a mutual understanding of what we’re signing up to to keep each other safe,” she said.
Industrious is part of a new group called the Workspace Operators Readiness Council. The consortium of large coworking companies aims to create a series of best practices to guide disinfecting, social distancing, and airflow in shared office spaces.
The fear and uncertainty created by coronavirus has already crippled public transportation, restaurants, and ride hailing companies, all services that rely on shared space. But everyone interviewed for this story expected coworking to not just survive a post-pandemic economy, but grow as a result.
Flexible office space has increased 600 percent — that is not a typo — since 2010. Many people credit the Great Recession for the ascendance of coworking, which paralleled the rise of gig work. The economic fallout from coronavirus may create even greater demand for flexible, shared space, said Christine Lomago, business development manager for Alloy 26.
“Even if people are downsizing or their companies are laying people off, there might be more freelancers, there might be more people looking for cheaper options in space,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Many more people will work from home in the future, said Levine, but she expects that to actually increase the need for thoughtful, collaborative spaces.
“Because when you do need to have a meeting, when you need to bring your clients together or meet with your team from across the country, it’s all the more important that you’re able to do that in an environment that makes you productive.”
But coworking is about far more than just space, said Rabih Helou, chief operating officer of Beauty Shoppe, a Pittsburgh-based company with numerous locations.
“Business is inherently social,” he said. “That which is social is anti-fragile, and will adapt, and will get stronger.”
Many coworking spaces deferred payment for members, decreased costs or created individual repayment plans. However, some people opted to continue to pay their fee to ensure the survival of the coworking businesses themselves.
“Most of our members continued to support us in the shutdown,” said Ed Batson, co-owner of Looking For Group, a coworking and gaming space in Pittsburgh’s Brookline neighborhood.
Batson and his fellow owners decided to close their doors in mid-March, and expect to re-open in a new building nearby, as soon as they can finish renovations. Batson said even if he opened the doors tomorrow, he’s not sure people would be ready to be in such close proximity.