The Covid-19 crisis temporarily slowed interest in shared office space, but six months into the pandemic, demand is picking up.
Operators of two flexible workspace sites in downtown St. Petersburg, Station House and WorkLodge, have addressed the health concerns posed by the virus through extensive cleaning and sanitation protocols. Now, the economic issues raised by the pandemic are in their favor, as companies look for alternative real estate options.
Coworking “has come back strong” at Station House, said owner Steve Gianfilippo. WorkLodge is finding interest among small and mid-size companies that need space on a short term basis while they figure out their futures, said Dan McLean, the local franchise owner
Although their business models are different, both Gianfilippo and McLean are optimistic about the future of their companies and of shared workspace. Here’s how each of them see their “new normal.”
Opportunity to be flexible
WorkLodge offers private offices, coworking space, conference rooms and other common areas, and occupies about 28,000 square feet on the second and third floors of the building at 136 4th St. N.
WorkLodge opened in June, in the midst of the pandemic, so there hasn’t been a chance to experience a “normal” normal, McLean said.
“The upside is because we didn’t have a ‘normal’ normal we had this opportunity to flex and make changes to meet the new demand,” he said. “We’ve embraced short-term contracts and are absolutely open to businesses wanting to take it month by month because they don’t’ know what the economy will hold.”
The bulk of WorkLodge’s space is aimed at small to mid-size companies and is designed to accomodate teams of five to 15 people, and in some cases up to 20 people. McLean is now seeing a lot of interest from companies that need room for two to four people, so he’s looking at breaking down some of the larger spaces to make room for those smaller firms.
The company moved some desks out of spaces designed to hold 10 or 12 people, so now eight or nine can be in the room and still maintain a six-foot distance between desks.
WorkLodge deprioritized its coworking memberships. It is using what was designated coworking space as places where private office members can take a break or hold a conversation away from the rest of the team.
“Although we’ve moved away from coworking, we’ve started to put an emphasis on work from home solutions,” McLean said.
For instance, an employee who works from home but has children who are not in school and a significant other also not going into the office might need a private space for a Zoom meeting. WorkLodge will provide that for a day or a few times a week.
There are a few larger companies that have found working from home is not a great solution for them and they are using WorkLodge as a temporary office while they figure out their new normal, he said. For instance, one company with about 30 workers has taken space intended for eight people and is rotating who comes into the office at WorkLodge.
“For years, we’ve talked about how working from home creates a great lifestyle for certain industries and certain types of workers, but there’s been a hesitation to go all out and try it. Now, it’s great to see businesses giving their employees the opportunity and providing the technology to work from home. But at the same time we are starting to realize, now that we are six months into this, that the work from home honeymoon is coming to an end, and that it’s not the end-all solution. There are advantages to working from home, but there are also advantages to having some sort of space for teams to collaborate in,” McLean said.
Steady level of demand
Both Station House and Gianfilippo’s Tampa property, Hyde House, have seen some ups and downs during the pandemic.
“Coworking definitely took a hit at the start, but it has come back strong,” Gianfilippo said. Memberships are up and the company is re-leasing many of its units. “We’re not out of the pandemic yet, but people are definitely getting back to work and getting out of the house. We are seeing a lot more activity at both locations. We are seeing a steady level of demand for co-work.”
There’s a big events component to both Station House and Hyde House and that took the biggest blow, as many people postponed weddings and other get-togethers to 2021. That’s made cash tight, Gianfilippo said, but he’s confident he’ll get through it.
One way shared workspaces can stay full is assuring members they will be safe while on site.
WorkLodge is following “the St. Pete way” for doing business, requiring masks in common areas and providing plenty of hand sanitizer. The staff cleans every two hours, and a professional cleaning crew comes in nightly, McLean said.
In addition to cleaning, there are signs reminding people to practice social distancing, and masks are required in the common areas at Station House, Hyde House and another co-working space Gianfilippo owns, the Green-Richman Arcade at 689 Central. He’s put bars on the bottom of doors, so they can be opened with a foot instead of a hand, and left open some doors that would normally be closed because they are high-touch traffic points.
The pandemic has turned out to be “a good practice run for us to start having more respect for other people,” Gianfilippo said.
Safety also requires flexibility on the part of employers, especially in a shared workspace.
“If someone is feeling sick or has anything that could be contagious, just stay home. It’s better to have just one person out of the office than to come to the office and infect four or five people,” Gianfilippo said. “The hardest part is when you have hourly employees or they are college students and have to have the extra money and they want to show up for work because they need the hours. You have to say no, we know you need the money but don’t come to the office. We’ll still pay you and just do your job from home until you get better. So there are definitely some good things that have come from this.”