You grab your computer and get up from your desk. While you're walking down the hall to the kitchen, you absentmindedly scratch an itch on your right cheek. In the kitchen, you reach into the cupboard and grab a coffee mug. Along the way, you brush a couple of other mugs with the fingers on your right hand. Then, you use that same hand to pour some coffee in the cup. Once you get it perfect, you see a just-vacated desk and sit down, planning to do some work outside of your cubicle. Unfortunately, someone just sneezed, and left an invisible mist on the desk surface, which you're about to touch. Before you itch your eye.
Pop quiz. Did we just describe:
The opening shot of a new horror movie called "COVID Zombies?"
A typical day at a coworking space
Knowing how Hollywood works, if you answered 3, you're probably right. Coworking spaces aren't just ways to pack a lot of people into a little bit of flexible space along with free coffee, beer or both. Much like any physically dense environment, they're also breeding grounds for microbiological nasties, like coronavirus.
The innate benefits of coworking spaces create their challenges. The efficiency and constant collaboration that are hallmarks of coworking create higher densities of people. More people means more opportunity for diseases like COVID or the flu to spread. When you cough and the room's empty, no one else gets sick, but the story changes when you're surrounded by people. Shared surfaces -- like work bars, phone booths, and hot-desked workspaces mean that more different people touch more surfaces -- and more microscopic "leave-behinds" -- than someone with a defined private workplace.
This situation creates two challenges:
How to deal with an active outbreak
How to deal with coworking in a microbiologically complicated world
Coworking and the Coronavirus Pandemic
The simple answer is that businesses should do what is safe for their employees and recommended by public health authorities like local Health Departments and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Practically, this could mean moving towards some form of social distancing or isolation. If it's hard to isolate in a private office (since you still have to walk through the halls, share a restroom and the like), it's even harder to isolate in a coworking space where even private spaces are shared. This could mean that businesses in coworking spaces will need to move to work-at-home type arrangements sooner than those with more space, and they may choose to continue this arrangement longer than those in traditional, less-dense space.
The Future for Coworking
Any type of office space involves tradeoffs. Closed floor plan space usually has expensive build-out costs, low employee density which leads to higher occupancy costs, and limited opportunities for collaboration. Any traditionally leased space has the drawback of inflexibility since you're generally stuck there for the length of your lease.
Coworking spaces have significant benefits, and they have significant drawbacks. For some companies, they're the best option, and for others, they aren't. None of those factors have changed. The one difference is that the microbiological risks that have always been a part of being in a coworking space are front of mind now. A dense, shared space has always been a great place to catch a cold. Or a stomach bug. Or the flu. Now, it's also a place where you could be more likely to catch COVID-19. But it's also still a place that is flexible, has a unique culture, fosters collaboration, allows you to pack a lot of people into a little bit of space, and has free coffee. If those benefits still outweigh the drawbacks, coworking's still right for you. Even if you have to stay home this week.
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