For those in need of networking, connection, and a workspace, co-working has taken off over the last few years with the amount of space in the Twin Cities alone more than tripling since 2014. But now, as people are being urged to socially distance, these businesses built on being physical gathering spaces are divided in their response to coronavirus and trying to finding ways to keep their members engaged.
As of today, some of the national co-working companies, WeWork and Industrious, are keeping their Twin Cities locations open. Life Time Work has limited its hours. Last week, some locally owned co-working spots including The Coven, Fueled Collective, and ModernWell shut their doors after Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order shuttering bars and restaurants, even though their spaces weren’t specifically asked to close.
The two co-working spaces say they’re finding ways to make membership worthwhile. For instance, The Coven has launched a pay-what-you-can digital membership, said co-founder Alex Steinman.
“We pivoted our entire business to virtual. So, we have events where you can connect to community, all on Zoom,” she said. “Over the course of just a few weeks, we gained 125 new members in our digital community.”
People from all over the world have joined, and there are dozens of virtual events planned over the next few weeks. These include “Ask Me Anything” events with speakers like attorney Davis Senseman, Lemonada Media’s Jessica Cordova, and newsletter writer for The On Being Project Kristin Lin. Plus, a new series called Fix It Fridays helps founders solve a problem they’re facing.
“Much of our membership are solopreneurs, small business owners, startups, folks who are going to need some sort of economic relief. So a lot of our resources and conversations that we’re having right now are directed at those people to help them figure out how to fill out the SBA loan relief forms,” Steinman said.
Creating an active digital community is something The Coven has had its eye on since day one, but it got pushed to the backburner in favor of growing the physical space.
“Looking at the bright side here, we’ve gotten the opportunity to launch something brand new and do something that’s truly going to help people,” she said. “I think the only way to move forward is together, and the only way to be together right now is virtually.”
While it’s a tough time for small businesses, startups, and freelancers, Steinman is excited The Coven can partner with local organizations to create content that will help people.
In a similar vein, the Fueled Collective has stepped into a light support role now that it has closed its physical space, said CEO Kyle Coolbroth. This includes doing online activities, such as virtual happy hours, and providing things like office chairs for people who may not have an ideal work-at-home situation.
“Who would’ve thought that the creature comforts of the office would be so important at home?” he said.
Additionally, the Fueled Collective is making sure members aren’t paying for a space they can’t use.
“We made the commitment to our members that we would provide basically a daily credit for their membership,” Coolbroth said. “They’re not paying for when they can’t be in our spaces.”
The key right now, Coolbroth said, is to stay positive and not panic.
“The most creative and the brightest people in the world are working on this issue,” he said. “And now is the time for all of us to step up and do our part and do the right things for our businesses and the people around us.”
ModernWell’s physical space, meanwhile, is closed until it’s safe to open, but it’s also offering remote programming and connecting its members virtually through Facebook Live and Zoom, according to founder Julie Burton.
But some spaces, like WeWork, Industrious, and Life Time Work are remaining open while taking measures to bring their spaces into compliance with CDC guidelines.
The Industrious management team is working remotely, but the majority of its locations across the nation remain open, save for one in California and two in New York. The company has launched remote services called Continuous, which provides ways to be connected and receive things like tech support.
“For the members that are still electing to go into the office, I feel confident this setup will work. And for the majority of members now working from home, just know we've been working day and night to put in place a program to help make that a more productive and less isolating experience than it might otherwise be,” leaders from Industrious’ North Loop location said to members.
Industrious also announced weekly events like a virtual snack time and scavenger hunt.
Remaining open, WeWork has increased its onsite cleaning measures and has advised members to maintain a six-foot distance, per CDC guidelines.
“We work on complying closely with the CDC and the local health organizations for Minneapolis and all of the markets that we work in. Because we do have members in our spaces both in Minneapolis and across the globe that are deemed essential businesses,” a WeWork spokesperson said. Nationally, those essential businesses include health care companies, financial services firms, and pharmaceutical companies.
Dori Graff, co-founder of online resale marketplace Kidizen, said her team stopped working at WeWork after March 11.
“It looks like most people are working from home and not going into WeWork, although they do have somebody there during limited hours,” she said.
Weekly standup meetings with all the other founders in the startup lab space of WeWork are still happening by Zoom, with many conversations centered on the crisis at hand.
“My guess is that a lot of people will get used to working from home and continue with it, so I’m a little bit worried that people won’t return to WeWork. We are planning to once the coast is clear,” Graff said.
Right now, Life Time Work remains open as well, although with limited service and staffing for protection, according to spokesperson Natalie Bushaw.
“We certainly know that a lot of our residents who have spaces at Life Time Work are still going. It still is their place of work, and their work, like our work, has not stopped,” she said.
For those choosing to stay home, the company is also providing support via a Work From Home Toolkit, which gives members best practices on how to be productive in a remote work setting. It also established location-based LinkedIn groups for members to connect with a community while working remotely.
“Social distancing does not have to mean feeling disconnected or isolated through these trying times,” said Life Time Work president James O’Reilly in a statement.
Life Time, which has co-working spaces in St. Louis Park and Edina, had announced plans to build a third Twin Cities location downtown Minneapolis just days before the national emergency was declared. Construction is now on hold.
"We know our members want and love staying connected to Life Time," Bushaw said. "Life Time Work members chose to be with us, we are keeping them connected and engaged and we are optimistic they’ll return."
But as the stay-at-home orders continue, some industry watchers wonder if co-working will come back as strong.
As the New York Times noted in an article this week, "The coronavirus pandemic is depressing demand for shared work space, and the looming recession could prompt many freelancers and small businesses, which make up much of WeWork’s customer base, to save money by working from home."
Real estate expert Brent Erickson, senior managing director of Newmark Knight Frank in Minneapolis said it's too soon to predict the longterm impact coronavirus wil have on co-working.
"All businesses and industry sectors, including co-working, will have to evaluate how their business is being impacted in both the short and long-term," Erickson said. "Real estate perspectives are speculative and will continue to evolve as we navigate the coming months.