COVID-19 drowning or driving the growth on coworking?

This blog was first published in Dutch on Smart WP.

One major question around the COVID-19 pandemic is how it will impact the coworking market, which has experienced significant growth in recent years. There are two schools of thought as to how it might play out. On the one hand, the open, high-density setup in coworking spaces is not conducive to social distancing, and a slew of independent workers and startups have started working from home, never to return. On the other hand, companies are looking for much greater flexibility in the post-COVID era, so there is an opportunity for coworking spaces to offer highly tailored, on-demand solutions that offer the highest safety and hygiene standards, along with compellingly flexible terms.

Thomas Celen from zapfloor and Jeannine van der Linden from DeKamer.eu share their views on the impact of COVID-19 on coworking spaces. 

“At zapfloor,” says Thomas, “we have noticed that COVID-19 has had a major impact on coworking and shared spaces in the Netherlands, and that’s something that can’t be ignored.” Coworking spaces have had a lot of cancellations in the short term and memberships have been canceled due to an increasing number of people working from home. In the short term, the occupancy of coworking spaces has dropped significantly. Thomas believes, however, that COVID will have a very positive impact in the long term.  Businesses across the board, from the smaller entities to the larger corporates, are realizing that people do not want to go and work at company headquarters every day of the week. 

It is also clear to Thomas that certain individuals will want to carry on working from home – that trend is here to stay. Some will opt to work from business headquarters, at least some of the time, and others from satellite offices, again part-time.  Both headquarters and satellite offices will effectively become coworking spaces. In addition, for many people, working from home simply isn’t productive for one reason or another, and these individuals will increasingly look for a local coworking space that is nearby and convenient for them. 

Another important factor to consider is that in the current market, it is still all about surviving between the lockdowns.  Yet, the impact differs from country to country. Belgium, for example, is at the time of writing keeping its head above water, while the Netherlands is currently sliding downhill again. The UK too is going through major drama at the moment, things are really bad there, despite having had many citizens vaccinated. At the moment, the name of the game is survival. Coworking spaces are looking towards the long term, and we are noticing a significant growth in the demand for flexible workspaces. Zapfloor is also seeing large spaces accelerating their expansion to new locations because they want to be the first to reach these markets or to be the biggest spaces within these markets when the survival mode is over.

Thomas thinks it is important to note another trend that people generally are not taking account of 2021 is emerging as a year where people will come together and will be there for each other. Jeannine agrees, saying that “Throughout this crisis I have had coworkers actively contact me and ask if anyone needs help, which really speaks to the sense of community – we need to look after each other. Particularly within the coworking spaces, people have been coming together, and have been collaborating with one another. This has been very inspirational to witness.  And I believe this is what’s going to keep us together in the rough times, and will make us stronger together too.”

DeKamer.eu, has felt only a minor effect on revenue and has not felt any significant effect on memberships except for the companies that were destroyed by the existence of COVID. 

With the exception of the spaces in Amsterdam, Dekamer.eu is primarily in smaller cities and towns that are outside the larger cities, which has given the network a tremendous advantage, as people would rather work closer to home. In addition, the model of this network is joint venture, or a management contract for existing space, which Jeannine believes will be the way of coworking in the future.  There’s a very obvious logical connection between how we do officing in coworking, and how large and medium businesses need to be operating, which has been fast-tracked by COVID-19. Our spaces are made up of teachers, therapists, business people, all of whom needed to work during the lockdown, and all who for some reason or another, were not able to work from home.

We have a COVID policy in terms of cleaning procedures as well as ventilation and traffic, which discussed with all coworkers, to ensure that they were all comfortable with it, and what we’re doing and not doing, to make sure everyone understood the rules. And because we have a sharing model, where the coworkers rent the entire space on the basis of sharing it and give us permission to manage it, we were able to control how many people could operate in that space at any given time. De Kamer is about having a home for your business, and its absolute focus is to make deKamer spaces both physically and psychologically a safe place for people to come and work from.

Thomas and Jeannine agree that this requires a combination of automation and human contact and that neither can solve the problem without the other.  High-touch high-tech, implemented thoughtfully and with care, can mitigate the effects of even the current pandemic.  “We have to get through it together”, says Jeannine, as we are already in it together.  But it is important to realize that while we are all in the same storm we are in very different boats.  So throwing a standardized automation solution and a template cleaning procedure at it won’t get us there.  It’s all bespoke and personal to each space, each community, and sometimes each coworker.  Your tech needs to be flexible and your personal touch needs to be consistent. 

Another thing about which both Thomas and Jeannine agree is this: it is important to operate with the future in mind.  “We’re not going back,” says Jeannine, “and people should get that idea right out of their heads.  The only way to go forward is to the future. I understand this longing for the good old days but this is not my first viral pandemic: things change and there comes a new normal,”.  Thomas adds: “ and the trend we see is that the new normal involves people working together, coming together, to help each other and to create a new world which suits them”.  It’s what people do.  

 

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