While COVID-19 forced the annual GWA conference to move from an in-person setting to a virtual one, it did not affect the wealth of knowledge shared. As a return GWA sponsor, Yardi Kube hosted a discussion among industry leaders about the effects of advancing technology on the immediate future of coworking post-pandemic.
Dale Hersowitz, Yardi Kube vice president, moderated the discussion which featured Scott Chambers, COO, Pacific Workplaces; Meagan Slavin, managing director, 25N Coworking; and Jeff Adler, vice president of Yardi Matrix.
Setting the stage
Adler opened the panel by presenting his current analysis of the commercial real estate market. He stated that one of the most important factors to come out of this pandemic will be how companies rethink space utilization. Coworking operators have seen direct hits to cash flow and vacancy, given the short-term nature of memberships and the effect of desk sharing in a world that is now hyper-focused on cleanliness.
The pandemic is also going to drive companies to change how offices work and look. It may no longer be a requirement to house entire staffs in one centrally located downtown office. Companies are already exploring satellite offices to give employees options that avoid public transit. The emergence of successful work from home policies could make some office space unnecessary if positions can become long-term remote.
Adler explained that there are two main models in coworking: one in which an operator secures a long-term lease with a landlord and provides short-term memberships for users of the space. A newer trending model is a partnership between the building owner and the operator in which the owner, typically not involved in the coworking industry, pays the operator to run the space independently and receives income from members instead of a fixed rate from a lease. But Yardi Matrix research proposes a third model to be added soon, in which virtual offices become more prevalent due to the pandemic, and “urbanized” suburbs see a rise in coworking spaces.
Focusing on health & safety
One of the prevailing themes of the conference and Yardi Kube panel was the importance of member health and safety in order to feel confident coming back to the office. Some tech solutions that will aid in this effort include keyless door access, digital guest sign-in and occupancy tracking. Chambers explained that his company has created Zoom rooms in their large boardrooms using large TV monitors and an enhanced connection to make Zoom calls feel as in-person as possible.
“A member portal is now such a big deal,” Slavin said. “Even though we pride ourselves on white glove service, members who aren’t here don’t need that now.” The member portal provides users the ability to communicate consistently, plan events and give updates for those who still don’t feel comfortable physically coming into the space. Pacific Workplaces has created a new webpage on their site to detail an extensive list of health and safety measures for members and guests.
“Operators are going to need more and newer tech but revenues have declined. So how do you actually do that?” Chambers asked. One of the answers lies in Adler’s presentation: the fact that corporate America will embrace coworking even more so than pre-pandemic, if virtual coworking and suburban coworking become as widespread as expected.
For 25N, what replaces event income? “How do we pivot? We can’t hold events, which are 20% of our bottom line,” Slavin said. “Can we do virtual events with the great success of virtual members?” Without a doubt, coworking businesses relying on event spaces for a large portion of revenue will have to be creative while health and safety prevent large gatherings. There is potential for membership add-ons that include admission to virtual instruction by an industry expert, or discounted long-term rates to improve member retention.
Searching for positives
Adler predicts a working model where up to a third of business is conducted from home, another third in satellite offices and the last third in the main location. Tech must help make each of these working experiences feel identical, or people will opt for a preferred alternative.
Research cited by the panel shows that employees are now working longer hours due in part to no commute time and constantly having laptops or phones available beyond work hours. Employers are realizing that productivity, for the most part, has not declined since work from home policies were put into place. This aligns with the proven success of the coworking industry, where every member is either not working from a main office, or an independent worker that does not require traditional office space. Coworking office hours often reflect the increased productivity outside traditional 8:00-5:00 times.
Slavin indicated that 25N has implemented multiple tiers of dedicated desk memberships, with pricing levels rising based on storage space and more secluded or private areas.
A rise in awareness is a positive. “People did not know they needed flexible workspace like they do now,” Chambers said. While a good percentage may feel comfortable at home, the need for human interaction is clear given the rise in video conferencing. Coworking should be able to capitalize on this newfound urge to get back to a more traditional work environment.
The creativity and resolve of operators will be tested. Operators and landlords are going to consistently use technology to improve member experience, enhance health and safety measures and potentially emerge from this crisis as an industry with more value than ever.