Will Coworking Spaces Be Relevant Post-Pandemic?

AROUND THE NEK - The COVID-19 virus has forced Vermonters to find creative ways to work socially distanced or remote, and that has raised questions about how coworking spaces may function in the future.

Do North Coworking in Lyndonville was founded in 2018 on the idea that small businesses could more easily move to the Northeast Kingdom. Coworking spaces like Do North provide a managed office space; new and upcoming business owners can focus on growing their business rather than sweeping the floors, making coffee, or restocking toilet paper. Customers also have access to high-speed WiFi, printing, and a conference room.

Before the pandemic, Do North Coworking maintained upwards of 30 members in its downtown space. However, when the state shut down last spring, the coworking space lost one-third of its membership. Founder Evan Carlson said that members, though they could not access the physical space, frequented the parking lot to access the space's WiFi. Reopening the space brought back some members, numbers now fluctuating between 22 to 25. The physical space remains limited to 25% capacity due to state mandates.

The Space on Main in Bradford, also founded in 2018, has faced similar difficulties. As a nonprofit, founder Monique Priestley says the coworking space was heavily reliant on donations to get through the shutdown last spring. When the doors reopened in June, business was "really slow." It wasn't until September that members started renewing their membership to near-full capacity. People started to stop by the physical office space one to two days a week, but that's nothing compared to the three to four days they spent before COVID-19.

Despite the challenges the coworking industry has faced, Carlson believes that coworking spaces will continue to appeal. "We're kind of seeing a mix of different uses. Obviously... there's more people that are remote-working now; that's absolutely clear. But there's a difference of what people's needs are for working from home versus why they might want a coworking space," he said. Priestley concurs with this idea, stating that there has been an increase in employers searching for remote spaces for their employees to work. "[They're] reaching out to see what the options are for [their employees] to still have a professional space, where they are not at home and can lock their equipment in an office."

Carlson does not expect the industry to entirely shift its selling points, but he sees amenities being added to spaces. One idea he put forth was coworking spaces hosting annual retreats for largely remote businesses. Urban spaces would benefit more from this amenity than rural spaces, though it is on Do North Coworking's radar.

Regardless, Carlson and Priestley are confident that coworking spaces will survive the struggles of COVID-19. Priestley describes the pandemic as a silverlining for the insutry. "People are actually understanding what they are now and what the concept of remote work is. I'm hoping that means coworking spaces will be more heavily used and recognized, and that people will seek them out when they're moving here."