Adding plants. Declaring no handshake zones. Banning visitors. These are some of the ways local coworking spaces are adapting to a coronavirus crisis that has made working from home the “new normal” for many people.
Inside Business spoke with several local coworking hubs to see how they — and their members — are coping with the national health crisis and resulting state mandates.
Bobby Wright, president of Percolator in downtown Norfolk, said attendance has been down significantly. Percolator has three campuses — Grandy and Monticello (both office and coworking) and Ford (currently offering restaurant takeout).
“They’re checking in, periodically coming by to get their mail and say hi,” Wright said. “We’re all relationship beings, and we miss being around (each other), especially in a community like Percolator which is so driven by collaboration.”
While the heartbeat of the community has slowed dramatically, Wright said his staff is using the time wisely.
“We’ve been actively disinfecting, cleaning and doing a lot of detail work that way,” Wright said. “We’re painting, decorating and adding to our audio-visuals.”
They also added 25 air-cleaning plants to beautify their campuses and help cleanse the air.
Members have been responsive to polls inquiring about topics for collaborative meetings on the horizon.
“We’re trying to prevent layoffs,” Wright said of the community managers on staff. “And holding on to hope that this crisis settles out more quickly than what some people are saying.”
Marko Frigelj opened IncuHub, a month-to-month membership-based coworking entrepreneurship center, in Portsmouth last June.
“Everything is more or less status quo in the sense of membership,” Frigelj said. “We’ve had a few members drop, but we had a wait list for offices, which we were able to fall back on and back fill those offices.”
But, Frigelj said, people are coming in less or not at all.
“We have maybe five people a day that come by,” he said. “We all practice responsible social distancing, and we’ve put restrictions and notices in place.”
Beth Hester, managing creative at The Beth Hester Media Group, became a member at IncuHub in September because she craved a community.
And it is that camaraderie – spontaneous hilarity; concentrated group work ethic; diversity; and contagious community spirit – that she now misses most of all.
Hester went in almost daily to use her dedicated desk and work space — until late February. Since the spread of COVID-19 — and various orders from Gov. Ralph Northam — she has chosen to work from home.
“I go to the IncuHub when I need to use certain equipment, when I have conference calls or when I need a space totally free of distractions,” she said.
Because of the configuration of the two-story building, Hester said it’s easy for members to keep a safe distance from one another.
“There’s a lot of sanitizing going on, and members are thoughtful of one another,” Hester said. But, she noted, there is no hand-shaking or lunches together. “I look forward to being able to meet clients face-to-face. I look forward to the day when we can get back to some semblance of normalcy.”
James Crenshaw has been a managing partner for Gather since it opened six years ago in Richmond. Last year it expanded to the Hampton Roads market with spaces in Norfolk and Newport News, and a third is scheduled to open in Virginia Beach this summer.
“We’ve been hosting a lot of events, and they’ve been very active spaces since we opened up,” Crenshaw said. “But, since COVID has come along, priorities have shifted and people’s lives have changed … and we’re not experiencing the same interest we were during our normal months.”
Crenshaw said that while coworking, per se, is non-essential, many businesses within Gather are deemed essential, including ones in the medical, laboratory, banking and construction sectors.
“Many of them have said that if we weren’t open they wouldn’t be able to do their work,” he said.
Other businesses — such as an event planner who no longer has events to plan — have been so crippled by the outbreak that Crenshaw is having individual discussions to work with them through their hardships.
Gather staffers are onsite to monitor spaces and make sure all rules are respected.
At full capacity, Gather can hold several hundred people, but since that’s not possible now the space is using virtual workshops and virtual happy hours.
And societal greetings of a human nature have been deemed off limits.
“We have declared Gather to be a no hug, no handshake zone,” Crenshaw said.
Caroline Beasley, a CPA with Saltmarsh, Cleaveland & Gund, spent six months working remotely from home before she found the work environment she needed at Gather in November.
“Coming into the office — which is what I call it now — makes me feel like I’m actually contributing more to everything,” Beasley said.
After two weeks of isolating at home due to the coronavirus, Beasley has returned to her dedicated work space at Gather.
“Everyone’s taking the precautions they need to take for government guidelines, and we’re doing what we need to do to keep the economy going,” she said.
At Work/Place @ Oyster Point in Newport News, community manager Ilima Saenz said entry, for now, is limited to members only.
“No guests, visitors or customers,” Saenz said.
Saenz said that about 20% of the 35 members are still coming into their offices.
“Most of them have chosen on their own to temporarily shut down their businesses just because of their clients – they don’t want to put anybody at risk,” she said. “The people who are still coming in obviously still need to work.”
Saenz said the coworking staff and its members are even more fervently supportive of one another.
“I think everyone’s just trying to find a new normal,” she said.
The owners of these coworking spaces agree that there could be a silver lining to this dark cloud.
“I think as a result of this crisis people will have discovered that this remote thing actually works,” Frigelj said. “The world is moving in that direction anyway.”
Crenshaw said many companies may now be more comfortable with people working away from central offices.
“In some ways,” Wright said, “we feel that this virus, once we can get back together, is going to contribute to a boom growth in what we’re doing. Our people found us because a lot folks were looking for a desk or a mailbox or an office, but it’s not the reason they stay.”
The community and relationships are ultimately the driving engines of coworking spaces, and Wright said they are expecting good times to return and are busy preparing for it.
Sandra J. Pennecke, 757-222-5356, firstname.lastname@example.org
StartWheel’s mission is to centralize and mobilize efforts that foster the growth of entrepreneurism in our regional innovation economy. We aim to support and cultivate an entrepreneurial network in HRVA where talent, resources, information and leadership come together.