How COVID-19 will impact the future of coworking spaces?

Till about six months ago, coworking was a growing trend in India. These shared office spaces, with their coffee machines, fast broadband internet, conference rooms for hire by the hour and plug-and-play model, were perfect for startups, freelancers and small enterprises, who preferred to avoid the overheads of their own office. Even corporates were beginning to expand into coworking offices.

According to a Cushman & Wakefield Report, shared offices accounted for 13% of total leased office space in 2019, occupying 8 mn sq ft of commercial space. This was up from 3% in 2017 and 5% in 2018.

But the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. As governments’ called for a stringent lockdown, companies across the world rose to the occasion, encouraging their employees to work from home to prevent the spread of the virus.

The lockdown has thrown a spanner in the works of the coworking industry. With lakhs of people working from home, coworking spaces saw a sharp drop in footfalls and revenue.

As the lockdown eases, the question on people’s mind is: what will be the long-term impact of COVID-19 on coworking spaces?

The jury is still out on this.

WFH is not a long-term solution

Industry watchers believe the setback to coworking is temporary, and while smaller players may find it difficult to sustain, larger coworking companies will be able to reinvent themselves and survive the pandemic.

One of the reasons for this is that WFH is not a long-term solution for most businesses. Already, we are seeing reports of WFH fatigue and burnout. An office space offers great potential for collaboration and teamwork. Face-to-face interaction improves productivity and connectedness. It fosters better interpersonal relationship and builds bonds between employees. Industry insiders are hopeful that as the lockdown eases, people will be eager to return to physical offices.

Safety is the key

However, experts believe that to succeed, coworking spaces will need to adapt to the new normal. One of the key things coworking spaces will have to do is sell themselves as responsible and healthy workspaces. Individual workers will need greater space than before. Safety protocols will have to be meticulously maintained. They will have to invest in contactless technology.

Even before the lockdown was announced in India, several coworking spaces had already incorporated temperature scanning and contact tracing to reassure their clients that they are safe spots to work.

Coworking or leased?

Despite the reassurances and protocols, will people be willing to risk working in a shared space? While freelancers and smaller agencies may choose to prolong WFH rather than rush into a shared space, larger enterprises may prefer the greater control that a leased office offers. In leased offices, especially in world-class commercial complexes, they would be able to maintain their own standards and protocols to ensure the safety of their employees.

One trend that may benefit the coworking industry is that many corporates may look at a hybrid model, using a mix of leased and shared offices. A leased office offers greater control, a shared office greater flexibility. Companies, who already have leased offices, may choose shared offices to accommodate near-term expansions as they offer easy, plug-and-play setup. What’s more, given the social distancing norms, companies may need greater space to seat their current teams, and they may choose to temporarily seat them in shared spaces.

What is clear is this: in the longer run, work from home is not a viable solution for most companies, large or small. People will resume working from offices, be it from coworking spaces or leased. Companies will choose office spaces that use innovation and technology to ensure the safety and health of people who work there. Coworking spaces that manage to do that will survive.