Can the Bay Area’s coworking scene survive COVID-19?
My last memory from working at the Wing, back in February, is a meeting overheard a few tables away: a tearful bride hearing from her wedding planner that, due to something called COVID-19, her upcoming wedding would have to be postponed indefinitely. A week later, San Francisco members of the luxe women’s coworking space received an email about the office’s closure due to the novel coronavirus. While some outposts around the U.S. have since reopened, the location in San Francisco’s Financial District has yet to return.
Before the pandemic, San Francisco was arguably the coworking capital of the United States. In 2018, the city had more coworking spaces per capita than any other major U.S. city, and with its ecosystem of small tech startups, gig economy jobs, and solo entrepreneurship, coworking spaces have offered Bay Area residents networking opportunities, social connection, and access to amenities like meeting rooms and printers.
Since shelter-in-place orders closed nonessential offices and launched a new era of remote work that now stretches indefinitely into the future, coworking spaces have also gone dark. Their ethos of shared physical space and real-life interaction sounds fantastical juxtaposed with the pandemic’s rules and restrictions. But as museums in San Francisco, welcome visitors at a diminished capacity and residents can now dine at indoor restaurants and book appointments at indoor hair salons, only people who work for an essential business or perform an essential government function are permitted to use a coworking space, according to a statement from the city. The timeline for reopening offices for nonessential workers is obscure, as is the answer to a basic question: What will remain of the Bay Area’s vibrant shared office scene after COVID-19?
In the Mission District, the 2-year-old Assembly, the women’s coworking space and fitness studio set in an airy former church, announced the permanent closure of its physical location in August.
“The Assembly closed because we were unable to figure out a financially viable situation with our landlord, knowing that we’re looking ahead at a long time in partial capacity and that a little under half of our revenue came from large events,” said co-founder Molly Goodson.
Sphere, a coworking and wellness community in downtown Oakland, offered virtual coworking and online yoga before shuttering for good in July, unable to sustain the business without collecting membership dues. Eco-System, a tech-oriented coworking space in the FiDi, also suspended all operations until further notice.
But other spaces around the bay have reimagined coworking to stay afloat.
The Hivery, the Mill Valley space founded by entrepreneur and career coach Grace Kraaijvanger, was just five months into its second location at Fort Mason in San Francisco when COVID-19 shut it down.
Kraaijvanger didn’t hesitate: “The day that we closed, I announced we’d start virtual coworking,” she says. “I was nervous and didn’t even know what it’s going to be like. I was looking for ways to keep others engaged.”
Hivery members, whose monthly dues have been significantly reduced ($95 instead of up to $495 pre-pandemic) can join blocks of communal Zoom work sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays. Kraaijvanger keeps things interesting by alternating focused, quiet work time with coffee breaks, catch-ups, goal-setting, and more. That way, she says, “people can feel the connection they’re yearning for — that momentum of other members giving you energy and helping you feel productive.” According to Kraaijvanger, more than 40% of members have joined the virtual coworking program, and 10-20 members come to each session.
Over the last six months, Kraaijvanger says, she has tried to solidify why women join coworking spaces to begin with — for resources, mentorship, connection — and attempted to keep those offerings intact virtually. To keep the business financially viable, she has been renting the offices for photoshoots, video conferencing, and other purposes.
At the Ruby, a coworking space in the Mission for women and non-binary people, founder, and author Rachel Khong has preserved the communal glue through activities like virtual book and movie clubs. Similarly to the Hivery, Khong was able to hold on to her lease by temporarily renting out space to Something Labs, a local organization specializing in personal protective equipment. Recently, she’s been letting members, a few at a time, use the space with advanced reservations. Membership dues have been reduced and restructured to reflect the situation.
Khong is cautiously optimistic about the future. “People are obviously very eager to start socializing again, judging by Valencia Street,” she says, referencing the vibrant outdoor dining scene that has grown in the Mission. “We’ve always prioritized intimate events, so if and when things change and we can gather in a small way, that would be really nice.”
Even the Assembly, having put its enviable furniture in storage, is trying to maintain its community through a newsletter and Slack channel. Co-founder Goodson says in-person, small-group gatherings are something she’ll consider in the future.
“Our mission was to create a community in which people can explore how to take risks, build a life that’s purposeful, do things that make them feel good — and that need still remains,” she says.
When coworking spaces do reopen fully, not all members may rush to return. Temi Adamolekun, the founder of Pembroke PR, is a former member of the Canopy, a coworking space with locations in the FiDi, Pacific Heights, and Jackson Square neighborhoods. The Canopy is currently open, operating under social distancing guidelines, with masks required and air purifiers blasting. With many children attending school remotely, Adamolekun notes that some working mothers can’t leave home for the office, and even when in-person classes resume, she is apprehensive.
“Probably I won’t be back for a while,” Adamolekun says. “I’d like to limit exposure for myself and my family, so I will wait before I make any commitments to spending a lot of time indoors in a place that isn’t home.”
Entrepreneur Sasha Basso, who I’d often see at the Wing, is less hesitant. “I wouldn’t go back tomorrow, but if (the Wing) opened up next year, I would return,” she says. “I hated Zoom before COVID, and I hate Zoom now. At a coworking space, you get to meet people, it’s easier to form relationships. You can’t discount the human aspect, brainstorming over Zoom is definitely not the same.”
Canopy co-founder and president Steve Mohebi see flex workspace as the “office of the future,” with many employees balancing work from home and part-time office use.
Kraaijvanger is also optimistic. “My belief is that there will be such a craving for connection, that coworking will rebound very strongly,” she says. “Once we can get through this, there will be such appreciation and gratitude to the service that we provide.”