Not long ago, shared workspaces provided collaborative environments for travelers, entrepreneurs and people who need a place to meet or work as they conduct business around the world. The coronavirus pandemic left such sites empty for several months, and projects for new similar sites were put on hold. But companies are now embracing ways these versatile workspaces could serve working people now and in the future.
Future shared workspaces may look different than the original model. Existing shared workspaces generally provide collaborative work for innovators, freelancers and travelers—often in a younger demographic—with such amenities as open kitchens and pool tables. Since the onset of COVID-19, companies that were in the process of building such sites are, in many cases, resuming their efforts by making accommodations for the pandemic.
“What’s interesting is that those in the planning before COVID are still in planning,” said Chris Cooley, Evelo Agency’s co-founder and chief innovation officer. The Rochester, N.Y., consulting company works with clients to create a roadmap for collaborative workspaces.
Workers in 2020 aren’t traveling as much, but working from home isn’t always an option for individuals whose offices have closed. Many still require a workspace outside of the home. And, Cooley pointed out, business still relies on human interaction.
“Networking and relationship-building is still happening, and that value has to be experienced in person,” he said.
Evelo clients are interested in coworking spaces beyond 2020. Some companies, for instance, may be downsizing their facilities, but the employees need to go to a physical space. Renting a desk or conference room makes more economic sense. While companies are allowing more people to work from home, that may create a new demand for temporary or shared office space.
“That will be a really great thing for flexible workspaces to cater to that,” he said.
Companies are reassessing what a new coworking space might look like, however, and how it will differ from those used before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Traditionally, we think of entrepreneurs and innovators” using the spaces, he said, but the reality maybe more 9-to-5 employees of a local company, coming on-site for work and meetings. These workers don’t want a ping pong table or bar next to the desk, Cooley pointed out.
“We are looking at very different models now,” he said.
Many of the developers and business owners building the coworking spaces are now smaller companies attempting to create working communities through virtual networks. As real estate markets stabilize, they are buying property at lower costs.
“The pandemic, in a way, has leveled the playing field” for those who were not overleveraged on real estate, Cooley said.
So companies starting up when the quarantines began can now be planning for the future of what the work environment might look like.
The coworking spaces of a pandemic era will require modifications, as will most offices, to accommodate transmission prevention. Some changes are likely to be sound, such as doubling the cleaning staff. However, Cooley pointed out that thinking long-term means not building a site to permanently accommodate a pandemic that will eventually be under control.
“Developers I’m hearing from are asking ‘Why would we design for COVID-19 and spend millions of dollars on spacing?’” he said, when workers eventually may not need or want spacing from others. With that in mind, he recommends a facility with flexibility.
One option is deploying automation technology for location awareness now, without requiring extra space that may not be needed later. Many companies offer technology-based solutions for contact tracing and social distancing, which may provide benefits to coworking spaces in the long term.
One company catering to this audience is PassiveLogic, Holladay, Utah, a building automation technology company that has dozens of pilots installed with an Alpha version of its Autonomous Building Platform. Later this year, more projects will include coworking or shared office spaces.
Clients originally came to the company to upgrade their coworking and shared office spaces and capture more data about their facilities and optimally control building conditions on a zone-by-zone basis, said Mitch Kasyon, PassiveLogic’s business development and sales engineer.
“This includes spaces where a building automation system is already in place but is incapable of meeting individual zone requirements and energy-efficiency needs,” he said.
The company now specifies retrofit projects that would supplement current systems with artificial intelligence-enabled Hive Controllers and network of sensors known as Swarm Mini Sensors. The solutions, Kayson said, aim to reduce energy costs, boost comfort and provide autonomous control.
Sensors can track a variety of environmental conditions that are relevant to building owners and occupants. This need for an organizing intelligence becomes even greater during the pandemic, as more systems, such as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation and body temperature scanners, are added, the company pointed out.
“We see several trends unfolding as people return to work” in any office space, Kasyon said. Strategies involve a phased approach to bringing workers to the site, required contact tracing for employees, body temperature scanners at entrances for detecting fevers, and touchless appliances.
Additionally, HVAC systems are being upgraded. While replacing the ductwork in existing buildings to improve ventilation is often not possible, retrofit solutions can help prevent spreading disease throughout shared office and coworking spaces.
Examples include UV germicidal irradiation systems, upgraded air filtration and ozone flushing when spaces are unoccupied.
Kasyon added that better managing a building for disease prevention will require more data about these spaces.
“We are learning more about how different environmental conditions, such as relative humidity, affect the ability of airborne diseases to transmit in shared spaces,” he said.
In ASHRAE’s 2020 Position Document on Infection Aerosols, it reported that for coronaviruses, 40–60% humidity is ideal for minimizing transmission. So while buildings right now don’t measure or adjust for this metric, they may in the future.
“We expect a greater need for sensing technology that can track multiple environmental variables, and actively and independently coordinate the control of systems,” Kasyon said.
In addition, organizing this data on the interaction of building systems and reporting to building operators could help serve those reopening or launching shared workspaces.
Additionally, BehrTech, a Toronto company, has rolled out smart building connectivity to enable multiple internet of things (IoT) solutions in commercial buildings, such as shared workspaces, said CEO and founder Albert Behr. The technology has been deployed by global real estate firm QuadReal Property Group.
The BehrTech solution uses smart building technology from Toronto-based Andorix to enable multiple IoT solutions in commercial buildings managed by QuadReal. These smart buildings will feature occupancy detection, indoor environmental monitoring and leak-detection applications.
Telemetry has traditionally been used in the industrial environment, Behr said, for data capture of what is taking place—from environmental data to occupancy.
“We’ve always had an eye toward smart buildings,” he said.
Smart building systems can then provide situational awareness across sites remotely, benefiting facility owners, occupants and electrical contractors that work on such systems.