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Post-COVID, a Move from Co-working to Pro-working

Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been as much debate about whether we’ll return to offices—let alone what that return will look like when we do return. But it’s shortsighted to think that work from home will be a permanent situation for most people. Humans have gathered in communal spaces to work for thousands of years. In a post-pandemic world where people are once again able to travel, visit friends, go to bars, and doctor’s appointments, they will also go back to the office. Still, this work-from-home experiment that has been forced upon us has taught the world that there are tangible benefits for employers and employees alike, to the tune of as much as $11,000 per year for employers for every employee who’s home part time (and $2,500 to $4,000 per year for every employee staying home full time).

The solution may be one that offers the best of both worlds: part-time office space with a professional atmosphere, where employees can work when they need it while clocking in from home when they don’t. At our organization we call this the “pro-working” model. It has wide potential appeal for a variety of business types, from the early-stage companies that favored traditional co-working spaces to Fortune 500 behemoths.

Pro-working: Work, Not Perks

One way to think of this model is “work, not perks.” The professional co-working spaces of the future will be designed to provide business professionals with the optimal environment to get work done. While they’ll offer perks like cold brew on tap and evening happy hours, they’ll demonstrate their value in the security, privacy, and heads-down environment they offer serious professionals.

As Nicholas Troxel, managing partner of law firm Troxel Fitch, LLC, and tenant of such a space put it, “You don’t need to buy a printer or scanner, you don’t need to worry about your daily Starbucks [they have awesome cold brew on tap], you can have happy hour meetings with a great view [they have beer on tap as well], and you don’t have to be tied down to a long-term lease. You get to come in and know that you will have a safe and comfortable space to maximize your focus and therefore your earnings.”

The most obvious market for pro-working spaces—shared workspaces that offer less communal space, better safety and sanitation, and more private areas delineated by walls—is the early-stage companies that favored co-working hubs before the pandemic. The main changes they’ll likely see are an end to “hot desking” arrangements, fewer community-wide activities, and lower population density. 

That last change, of course, could mean higher membership rates that might push the smallest coworking customers to coffee shops or home offices. Then again, it could also lead to new innovations, like a variation on phone booth pods for example, to accommodate more affordable ways of creating privacy (and maintaining social distance) in shared spaces.

More intriguing, though, is how larger organizations might embrace the new pro-working model.

Hybrid Models for Small Businesses

Small businesses (those with between three and 200 employees, approximately) will find a lot to love in the new pro-working setup. These organizations were, pre-COVID, in private office spaces, whether in a generic commercial building or on a dedicated floor of a co-working space. Since the pandemic, they’ve dispersed to full-time remote work and they may be feeling the pinch of paying rent on a space they’re not using.

This can be painful whether they’re seeing increases in productivity (as about one-third of managers are right now) or decreases (which is the reality for another 23 percent). If your team is more productive at home, office space feels like a needless expense. If your team is less productive, that extra expense can hurt all the more.

Coming out of the pandemic, a pro-working space offers small organizations flexibility. Those who are more productive in an office setting can use the space to enjoy privacy, focus, and security. Teams can have meetings with each other and clients. Those who prefer to work at home can stay home.

And because pro-working spaces will be less dense than co-working spaces, they’ll allow small business employees to enjoy a professional atmosphere similar to what they had in their dedicated spaces, meaning they won’t have to grapple with the distractions that may have kept them out of traditional co-working spaces.

Marc Smookler, founder and CEO of market research platform IdealSpot, put it this way: “I felt like the hybrid office environment was more conducive to what would help me be more productive, and also came off as more professional for in-person client meetings.”

Big business embraces pro-working as well

This environment also has compelling applications for much larger companies. In May, Nationwide Insurance announced that its COVID-related work from home setup was so successful it would permanently shut five of its major offices around the country. Twitter made waves when it announced that employees who wanted to could permanently work from home moving forward. And Facebook has projected that as much as half its staff will operate from home offices in the post-pandemic world.

While this structure may work for many organizations much of the time, there will always be work that requires in-person interaction. Board meetings, for example, and executive strategy sessions. Sensitive conversations with HR are best handled face to face. And building relationships with clients just isn’t the same over Zoom.

Larger organizations that want to give employees the option to work remotely while empowering executives and others with in-person meeting needs to gather physically will find that pro-working offers exactly what they require. One potential model: leasing a small space that serves as headquarters where executives come in every day (or most days), along with enough private offices and meeting rooms to accommodate those who need occasional in-office work space. 

Organizations whose workforces face longer commutes (whether because of big-city congestion or exurban drive times) could supplement a central HQ with additional hubs to accommodate employees located less centrally.

Like smaller businesses, larger firms would enjoy savings on real estate costs from the distributed hubs model that they could pass along to customers (as Nationwide has said it’s doing) and shareholders. As Smookler noted, pro-working spaces “offer more flexibility, which is greatly needed in an uncertain market/future.”

In the short term, the traditional co-working space, with its hot desks and bustling common areas, won’t have a place in American office life post-COVID.

But rather than disappearing entirely, shared working spaces will evolve to serve our changing needs: more dedicated spaces to accommodate flexible work arrangements, more focus on privacy and productivity, and more variety in available atmospheres, so that everyone from scrappy startups to serious Fortune 500 companies can see value in the new, more professional co-working models.

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