Business

Coworking riding the Covid wave

By Uwin Lugoda

The current pandemic has forced many companies to change the way they work, with most opting to allow their employees to work remotely until the end of the year. This has now led to an uptick in the interest towards co-working/flexible workspaces. Most co-working spaces/flexible working space providers around Colombo reported an increase in interest in their services, following the lifting of the lockdown. Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, they stated that they have been getting inquiries from companies and industries that previously had traditional workspaces.

Hatch

Hatch Co-founder Brindha Selvadurai-Gnanam stated that they have seen a rise in companies looking for alternatives to permanent office spaces, and seen traditional businesses now opting to use their customised packages to allow their teams to work from Hatch once or twice a week; managements of businesses conducting bi-weekly team and strategy meetings; as well as teams working together on project sprints. She explained that their flexible packages which enable remote workers to come in and utilise the meeting rooms and desks whenever they need it, has by far been their most popular package post lockdown.

“We have spent time listening to our clients and designed something that we know meets three primary demands – cost efficiencies through reduced overheads, scalability through pay as you grow, and moving beyond cost efficiencies; it helps build team synergy,” she noted. Hatch has become a hub for startups in Colombo, and gives its members access to a members’ lounge, meeting rooms, auditorium, and various other amenities. Hatch also fosters a connection between its members and a global network of accelerators, incubators, and venture capital firms.

“Community is at the core of our space and even through these unprecedented times, this has remained unchanged. While physical distancing will be part of our new normal, collaboration and human connection remain more important than ever and having a safe space to do this is essential. That is why we have adapted our space to protect the wellbeing of our community,” said Selvadurai-Gnanam. She stated that the Hatch team has stepped up its sanitisation, conducts routine clean-ups in high-traffic areas, and frequently deep cleans meeting rooms and offices, in order to keep their community safe. She went on to state that based on the new standard they have revised their auditing framework and increased the frequency of manager oversight and review, and that with the help of engineers, they have taken immediate steps to deliver more fresh, clean air into their space; filtration will also be closely monitored. Furthermore, Selvadurai-Gnanam explained that they are prioritising personal space, creating comfortable buffer zones in meeting rooms and lounges to maintain a safe six-foot distance. This is followed by sanitiser dispensers integrated in shared spaces such as the entrance, common areas, meeting rooms, and workspaces; quick ways to maintain personal hygiene and the cleanliness of spaces.

“All of these changes are reinforced with strategically placed signage and wayfinding, friendly reminders to members and guests that the well-being of our community depends on all of us. As we look ahead, we are committed to making sure that all our members can come back to the workspace with peace of mind to focus on their work,” she said. According to Selvadurai-Gnanam, they have been careful to ensure that they followed all instructions issued by the Ministry of Health (MoH) and World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that they took all the necessary steps. She stated that they have been transparent with their members throughout the lockdown and post-lockdown periods, and amended their guest policies to ensure traceability and capacity management.

Speaking on whether co-working spaces will increase in popularity post-Covid, she stated that employers and employees find the flexibility of co-working more productive and cost effective, and entrepreneurs, business owners, and workers will see that they need social networks and local connections more than ever to regain their footing.

Colombo Co-operative

According to Colombo Co-operative Community Manager Aisha Wahab, they have seen a surge in demand for flexible workspaces from people who are looking to downsize their current offices and want to move into smaller private office spaces. She stated that at the same time, they are also seeing companies which are currently occupying their space, cut down their teams into smaller, more flexible teams that can adapt to co-working spaces better. She explained that they have also started to get inquiries from startups that launched during the lockdown period, looking to expand and wanting a space for their backend employees. She stated that this was also due to the support they give startups by giving them business services, such as helping them incorporate and finding partnership agreements.

“So we already have a lot of inquiries coming in from people who have just started businesses recently and want an office space in a central location like ours, where they can conduct business and meet their clients,” she noted.

Located in Kollupitiya, the co-working space provides a variety of services for those who are looking to move away from traditional office spaces. Its office space services include flexible desks which allow people to pick any desk they want during business hours, dedicated desks which are desks of their own that they can use during all hours, private offices, enclosed spaces for people to work in, and meeting/board rooms that can host up to eight to 10 people.

“The main thing about Colombo Co-operative is that this is not a commitment; they can choose whether to come back instead of signing up for a whole year, and can pay on a monthly basis,” said Wahab.

She stated that currently their network, in terms of capacity of individuals, is at about a 100, but this number does not translate into how many physically come into the space at a given time. She explained that while they have not put any restrictions on the number of members that can come in, the members who are a part of teams come in on a roster basis. Wahab stated that due to Covid, the co-working space has had to adopt some new policies, the first of which has been to cut down the amount of people allowed in the boardrooms by 50%, and not allowing any external parties to use their spaces until the situation is more stable. She explained that this was for the safety of their members; they wanted to prioritise member safety.

“Right now we have restricted our space to our members and their network, so if someone is not a member, they will not be able physically come into our space,” she reiterated.

As for the space itself, she stated that they disinfect the whole space every morning through their cleaning service, and have also assigned disinfectants to every work station for the members to wipe down the station when they come in or when they leave, as an added precaution. She went on to state that members are also given gloves, masks, and sanitisers at the space.

According to Wahab, they have established regulations on members; to wash their hands and sanitise before entering the building and get their temperature checked at the entrance. The space has also provided their members with another sanitiser at the reception and have informed them to wear their masks and maintain distance when in the reception area. However, she stated that while in the co-working space, these members do not have to wear their mask as long as they are practising social distancing.

She stated that one of the tricky challenges they are currently facing is allowing members to bring in their networks. However, she stated that the current members have been understanding and have not brought anyone in since the space opened after the lockdown. She added: “Limiting the number of outsiders coming into the space will definitely be a challenge when we need to grow our membership and bring in people from outside.”

Despite these challenges, Wahab stated that she is hopeful for the idea of flex work places post Covid, because they require little to no commitments, which most companies will be looking for. She stated that they witnessed this when they used to rent out their private offices and ask for a minimum commitment of six months, where a lot of the companies requested a reduced commitment period. “People are in a very unsure state and do not want a long commitment. I think that people who are currently remotely working want to bring in a work-life balance instead of just working from home. So it is going to be very positive for co-working spaces post Covid,” she noted.

HUB9

HUB9 Directors Charitha Rasaputra, Kamraan Bhaila, and Rishan Thambinayagam stated that they have experienced mixed responses post lockdown. They explained that many of their members and private offices are startups, and hence were some of the first to be hit in an economic downturn.  This has led startups to experience a complete loss of revenue generation/product development, but have shown resilience and found ways to survive until they can push ahead when conditions get better. This has also translated into HUB9’s survival and recovery as well.

Despite this, they stated that they have seen an increase in demand from another sector of the economy such as medium-sized companies that are looking to find alternative ways to work, given the era of effective streamlining and Zoom. According to the trio, these companies have found that working out of shared offices spaces like HUB9 fulfil a lot of these requirements.

“Ultimately while this won’t be the solution for all companies, we believe most organisations should shift to an outsourced, community-driven workspace where productivity, effectiveness, and creativity flourish, especially because it’s cheaper to do so while taking away the management of an office space,” the trio stated.

They also stated that due to many companies resizing their operations and moving out of their larger premises, they have seen a high demand for their private offices.

HUB9 currently has a total of over 150 members from over 25 companies, spread across three different locations. They provide a complete range of solutions for their members ranging from individual seating packages which consist of daily, weekly, and monthly rates, and private office spaces offered on a monthly basis. The space also offers a virtual office option where individuals/companies may use their premises as their business and mail correspondence addresses, as well as receive meeting room and desk space hours per month.

“If this current economic climate continues, more and more companies will look to cut cost and downsize and therefore the most suitable and flexible option for them will be shared offices,” they stated.

Furthermore, they explained that the shared model offers much higher efficiency and cost benefits to companies as opposed to operating their own offices, with access to amenities such as multiple meeting rooms, lounge/relaxation areas, and a vibrant startup community. According to the trio, the co-working space has taken the current pandemic and the ease of transmission of the virus very seriously, especially since it’s a workspace with many individuals coming in and out, sharing common areas. They stated that they set up measures to screen the temperature of every person that enters the buildings; made hand sanitisers available at the entrances and in common areas; and require any guest to wear a face mask and provide their contact information for contact tracing if necessary.

Other measures include all three locations being disinfected at regular intervals during the day and reducing the number of available desks, enabling their members to social distance effectively. “We have also reduced the maximum number of people allowed in the meeting rooms at a given time, and have stopped the use of shared plates, mugs, and other utensils within the spaces,” they noted. Speaking on whether the popularity of co-working spaces would increase post Covid, they stated as everything returns to normalcy, they are certain that the popularity of co-working spaces will also return to their upward growth trend seen pre-Covid-19, which was around 13-15% globally.

“As startups and freelancers grow, the demand for co-working spaces will also grow as it is the more efficient and beneficial method to maintain office spaces for companies of any size.”