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Pandemic brings short-term pain, long-term gain for co-working and flexible office space

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People work on their laptops in a co-working environment.

Co-working spaces offer the kind of flexibility remote workers may need. Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

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A lot has happened since WeWork’s last attempt to go public: the small matter of a global pandemic, with millions of people working from home. All that would seem to throw the whole idea of co-working space as a business into question, but the pandemic could be a boon to flexible office space in the longer term.

When the pandemic hit, the idea of co-anything was not appealing. Those big, long tables and communal kombucha taps of co-working spaces were suddenly risky.

“It was a lot of fear at first,” said Craig McAnsh, who owns Mojo Coworking in Asheville, North Carolina. The space all but shut down last spring but is slowly coming back to life. 

Whether the clients are parents escaping kids, travelers enjoying their new freedom to work wherever they want or companies holding brainstorming sessions, “when you see it in person, when people are actually benefiting from being in a space together, it’s not going to go away,” McAnsh said.

The pandemic could increase demand for flexible office spaces like these, said Ben Munn with JLL, an international commercial real estate services firm.

“The recent past has been very, very difficult,” he said. “But the future is looking very different.”

JLL projects almost a third of office space will be flexible by 2030, and Munn said two-thirds of their biggest occupants plan to offer more flexibility to employees in where they work and use more short-term office space.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the post-pandemic workplace will look like, and companies might want to experiment, said Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of Flex+Strategy Group.

“A corporate lease is a marriage,” she said. “With co-working you can date, not get married.”

The fact that workers will be given more choice about where they work also means offices will need to offer a more appealing destination than the old, gray cubicles and elevator Muzak, said Dror Poleg, author of “Rethinking Real Estate: A Roadmap to Technology’s Impact on the World’s Largest Asset Class.”

“In order to attract them back, it will have to become attractive, just like any other product is attractive,” he said. “Which means to think about the aesthetics, to think about the values and the things that they care about and that they identify with.”

Co-working spaces like WeWork, he said, have already perfected those kinds of social media-ready spaces and amenities.

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