For everyone whose job has been so far spared by the coronavirus’ effect on the U.S. economy, working from home went from a nice perk of employment to the new reality of doing business. But what about those workers who have been renting virtual offices of their own in spaces with dozens of others, if not hundreds?
Coworking spaces are indeed going through unique challenges and changes because of COVID-19. With so many uncertainties about how the coronavirus spreads, and the current debate between whether it’s time to reopen certain businesses or to continue voluntarily keeping social distance from others, the idea of being in an enclosed space with multiple people for hours is still ongoing, to say the least.
That hasn’t stopped Ryan Wilson, co-founder and CEO of The Gathering Spot in Atlanta. “All in all, I’m optimistic,” he says. “I do think we’re moving in a direction that feels like a new normal for the foreseeable future, but it’s a normal that will still allow for many businesses, including ours, to continue on and even grow.”
That direction did not include reopening The Gathering spot as of yet. On April 21, Wilson recorded a video explaining his decision to remain closed until further notice.
The Gathering Spot, which officially opened January 2016, has become a popular private membership club for professionals in Atlanta’s thriving startup scene, particularly with African-Americans. Since the pandemic struck, Wilson says the company’s members-only platform, TGS Connect, has published 100+ pieces of new content, including interviews with public figures like NFL quarterback Cam Newton, film director Will Packer and political strategist Symone Sanders.
Most of TGS Connect’s streaming video and audio content, available exclusively to paid members, is recorded conversations The Gathering Spot would normally host in front of a physical audience at its westside Atlanta location. They’ve also teamed with vodka brand Grey Goose to hire a DJ to select and play music specifically for the platform.
All of this has helped keep the TGS community engaged. “It’s all about still trying to drive value by building community, which is where the business has always been rooted,” Wilson says, adding that people shouldn’t look at The Gathering Spot as a traditional coworking space.
“We’re not in that business. We’ve never offered a workspace solution as the primary driver,” he says. “I think one of the primary misconceptions about The Gathering Spot is that it’s a good work space. We’re far more interested in the programming that connects people, and have been. This isn’t a new pivot for us.”
Located on Auburn Avenue in the historic Sweet Auburn district, Constellations is described on its website as a “culturally based workspace,” with private workspaces “designed with happiness and health as a core focus.” And when visited on Friday, April 24, the space wasn’t just clean; it was pristine.
Kansas says he’s continued to use the same cleaning service to keep the space safe and sanitized, even though most members have stayed home since shelter-in-place orders were announced for Atlanta residents. He says he’s used the time to make other adjustments to make sure members would be comfortable upon returning.
“For us, we immediately began adapting to the new world, and how health and well-being are addressed in the landscape of commercial real estate. As a primary example, we hired Matt Finn with Cognitive Design, an architect who focuses on “Healthy Design”, and instituted recommendations into our workspace. Some improvements are small, like air-purifying plants, sensor-based faucets and touchless soap dispensers. Some are visible, like repainting and repairing for a fresh and bright look. Some are about mental and physical health, like creating 30-minute walking routes that feature historic spaces and places along the way. And some are more system-level, like HVAC updates and implementation of purification technology.
“The healthier we make our space, the happier our members and tenants are, and that’s a great combo for all,” Kansas says.
A commercial real estate developer who’s been active in Atlanta for dozens of years, Kansas says it’s going to take more than a pandemic to shake his confidence in his own shared working space.
“I’m calling coronavirus my “fifth rodeo,” he says. The others being: The Dotcom Bust, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and The Great Recession. Having been an entrepreneur for 25 years, and in business for some really remarkable economic downturns, I’ve learned more than a few valuable lessons.
“For me, this one is different because I’m in a greater position of leadership. The challenge this time is one of greater pressure and responsibility: of not only running a business from an operational standpoint, but also the emotional and bandwidth challenge of being there on a personal level for clients, collaborators, contractors, for our leadership team, and for all those who count on them. It’s a wonderful challenge really, because it has reinforced the value of connecting on a human level, and the satisfaction I’m finding is both rewarding and inspiring.”
Kansas’ civic-minded approach to Constellations is personal. He’s a history buff who was recognized nationally for preserving and retrofitting the nextdoor Atlanta Daily World building, home of America’s first black daily newspaper. And he sees Constellations as not only a place that brings together the “stars” of the city, but also inspires other such establishments and meeting places.
“As cultural developers, we strongly believe in engaging in, and leading, cultural conversation. Inherent to that is being engaged in, and supportive of, culture itself,” he says.
“There’s the culture we’re bringing to the built environment, like creating murals and leading historic preservation projects, and then there is the culture of care in community. In all cases, investing in relationships will benefit us the most. It seems obvious: Take care of those who take care of you. But this ideal is really being positively reinforced at this time, and it’s helping build stronger relationships and friendships along the way.”
“I understand “Zoom Fatigue” is a real thing,” says Joey Womack, who is the startup labs manager at the downtown Atlanta location of WeWork Labs.
While Womack says video conferencing could never replace in-person interaction, he says he believes remote meetings will be more widely accepted in the brave new (hopefully) post-coronavirus world. He says this will be the case both for people in the same cities or further apart.
“This begins to level the playing field for many startups — especially the ones with diverse founders. Additionally, it cuts out commute time and could lead to more productive days.”
That doesn’t mean it’s all good, even if it was just a couple weeks ago. In an emailed statement, Womack sounded measured and realistic about the difficulties that may lie ahead. “Six weeks for a startup is like six months for everyone else, and our startups are in a crucial phase of their company lifecycle,” he says.
“In a sense, we are giving ourselves the same advice we give startups that are part of the WeWork Labs program. It has and will continue to force us to take a hard look at our value proposition. In the short term, some may not survive. In the long term, this will cause a shift to activities that truly create value for startups,” he says.
WeWork has been the dominating brand of the coworking space craze, although the company has been publicly dealing with several challenges, some of which predate the pandemic. Still, a WeWork spokesperson says they’re not quitting.
“WeWork is home to many members whose companies are critical businesses to our society — whether they be in healthcare, insurance, cleaning product supplies or others — that are relying on us in order to continue operating. For that reason, WeWork locations in Atlanta have remained open and accessible to members. As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we are committed to supporting our members and will continuously evolve our plans.”
That evolution includes new policies that range from enhanced cleaning protocols to behavioral signage to encourage social distancing, and personal protective equipment, or PPE, for members and teams. Womack hopes this will cause everyone to feel safe, even as he acknowledges that the timeline is fluid.
“For startup incubators, I think we’ll see some people start to ‘dip their toes in the water’ in May, and more people joining them in June. By then, folks will start adjusting to the new normal — perhaps there will be grocery-store-like policies… Maybe offices will be closed on Fridays. Once we get into July and August, people will be used to it.”
He says that because WeWork Labs is a global network of 85 entrepreneur support programs, the shift from physical to virtual workshops, group coaching sessions, webinars, and mentor sessions has been good for the community of clients he serves. “This allows startups in Atlanta to get connected to global people and resources with one click. I truly feel for the millions of people around the world that have been impacted by COVID-19, but the move to virtual has increased opportunities for our startups.”
These are not the only spaces in Atlanta where small businesses and bootstrapping startups were renting office and work areas before COVID-19 hit. In Buckhead there’s the upscale No. 18; closer in toward the middle of the city there’s the all-women’s community The Lola.
Eileen Lee and Martine Resnick co-founded The Lola in 2018. They say the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and public health advisories urging for quarantine and self-isolation has disrupted the community’s business model of being a distraction free environment.
“The Lola is a community — a space for female professionals, solopreneurs and freelancers in search of a space to work uninterrupted, in an environment with all the bells and whistles to make women feel empowered,” Lee and Resnick said in a exclusive joint statement.
“The crisis has shoved work and home lives under the same roof for many families and households like ours, and the struggle to manage it all is now visible to peers and bosses. As people postulate how the country may be forever changed by the pandemic, we can hope that one major shift will be a move away from the harmful assumption that a 24/7 work culture is working well for anyone.”
They pointed to recent stories in Politico and Harvard Business Review that cover the new paradigm of work, and how expectations haven’t fully decreased, even as distractions clearly have. And like The Gathering Spot, they’ve also revved up digital engagement capabilities.
“We have always considered ourselves a community-first social and networking club for womxn, moreso than a coworking space. With that said, we are a membership-based community, and a substantial number of our members work out of our space,” they said. “Because we’ve all been forced to figure out how to operate virtually, many coworking spaces may continue to support virtual as well as in person clients. We plan to incorporate both in our Membership and continue to host events and programming virtually and in person as well.”
For The Lola, that means professional development sessions, discussions of COVID-19’s impacts on members’ careers and lives, meditation and wellness sessions, virtual happy hours and “coffee connections.” But Lee and Resnick also want to be understanding and supportive of the difficulties individual women are facing and maybe not sharing with others.
“The reality is, everyone’s situation and schedule is different and many of our members are juggling work and childcare, and may not be able to participate right now. Many members have been significantly impacted by the pandemic and we have a ‘come as you are’ session for those in need of a space to just be. We’ll continue to listen and adapt to best serve our community.”
That said, they also believe that membership and coworking spaces are in position to do better when social distancing policies are eased, rather than worse. “We believe the desire to have a flexible space to work and see clients may increase, as many companies look to decrease their office size and footprint, and create more flexibility,” they say. “We have the opportunity to emerge from this crisis with both healthier employees and better performing organizations.”
That could mean shortening workdays and taking other steps to encourage and foster realistic expectations of productivity. “There have been many calls for restructuring how work is done, including making more room for our families and questioning the real value of the eight-hour (or more) workday. Now is a time for companies to step back and reexamine which traditional ways of working exist because of convention, not necessity.”
Intended as affordable alternatives to traditional office buildings, and perhaps a bit more professional than the home office, coworking and membership-based communities seemed to be just at the brink of being accepted as a new normal of their own.
Now, regardless of where a startup entrepreneur launches her or his company, there’s a concern for safety that didn’t previously exist. Not only that, now that people have had little alternative than to learn how to work from home, it might take more convincing to get people to pay again for memberships.
“We’re about to see lots of changes and innovation in the layout and design of spaces: office, event, restaurant, retail, sport, festival,” Kansas predicts. “Specific to coworking spaces and other business-oriented space, office layouts will offer greater options for privacy, more seamless ‘access’ technology, and much-better-produced teleconferencing capabilities.”
That sounds like a place where you can be more fast, focused and efficient. But speaking for The Gathering Spot, Wilson doesn’t sound like he’s ready to go back to the way things were before March.
“I don’t think we’re in an era where space is going to be available,” Wilson says. “There’s a public health crisis. I do think with testing it’ll be better, but we’re just not at that place right now.”
He also admits this wasn’t his original vision for The Gathering Spot’s business model. “We hosted 2,400 events last year. We operate a full restaurant and bar. We’re a space that’s available to members. Not having those components has been a little bit difficult.”
Womack says the one-on-one interaction with founders, as well as his coworkers at WeWork Labs, is something he misses. “Being around their positivity made my day better, and I commend them for their continued commitment to serving our essential members during this unprecedented time.”
All three men heavily praise their teams, who they say have gone above and beyond to continue to support the business. Kansas even finds analogous inspiration from Navy SEALs.
“Years ago, a good friend introduced me to the Special Forces mantra: “Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.” It’s a perfect mindset for this time. Our team has shifted into fast-forward by being diligent and deliberate,” he says.
“Panic and rash decisions are bad for business. Challenges have a unique galvanizing effect and an ability to focus the mind, so the majority of our calls and Zooms over the first few weeks of this crisis were solely about planning and implementing more flexible operations. Not only have our efforts helped in business, but doing it together has reinforced the team bond.”
For now, it sounds like these venues and their leaders will keep going, organizing virtual community engagement strategies, making sure their teams are safe and equipped to do their jobs as well as possible, and pushing others to see beyond the struggles of 2020.
“Control what you can control,” Womack advises. “A founder’s job is to make sure their company is prepared for situations like these. And it’s the job of entrepreneur support program operators like WeWork Labs to make sure the founders are doing this.”
“Keep a long-term perspective,” say The Lola’s co-founders. “We’ve cut costs and work actively to ensure we can weather the storm until we can safely reopen. We continue to prioritize the safety of our members and team. Focus on what value you can bring to your members virtually, listen to their needs and actively respond.”
And Wilson agrees, saying concentration on priorities will ensure businesses like The Gathering Spot get past the coronavirus and get back to being what they were intended to be: places where innovative entrepreneurs feel they belong.
“Focus on the community that’s there more than anything else,” Wilson says. “That’ll never go out of style. Community is key.”