Now that your members are working from home, scaling back their time in the space, or working apart from one another, how do you maintain community?
We asked four workspace operators to share a glimpse into their experience, how they’re creating virtual offerings, and what advice they’d give to other coworking owners and managers.
Susan Dorsch is co-founder of Office Nomads in Seattle, WA. Office Nomads has 103 members, zero private offices, and 10-15 events per month. Jamie Orr is co-founder of Cowork Tahoe in South Lake Tahoe, CA. and co-founder of Jellyswitch. Cowork Tahoe has 150 members, 32 offices and 8-12 events per month. Felicity Maxwell is co-founder and COO of Fibercove in Austin, TX. Fibercove has 100 members, 4 offices and 5-10 events per month. Maya Delano is the community manager at Nextspace Coworking Santa Cruz who runs the space with community coordinator Jennifer Hamilton. NextSpace Santa Cruz has 241 members, 26 offices, and hosts about 14 internal/public events per month. Here’s what they had to say:
[?] Cat Johnson: How are things in your space and community? What precautions have you taken around COVID-19?
Susan Dorsch: Things in Seattle are definitely tense as our region is one of the centers of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the space and within our community, I’d say the general feeling is subdued. It’s hard in Seattle right now. But there’s also a solid undercurrent of humor and good-naturedness that is so reassuring. This outbreak and the onslaught of news about it has been hard on everyone, but I hear lots of words of encouragement between our members. While it’s a crappy thing to connect over, our members are connecting well and finding ways to at least cheer each other along in the struggle.
The precautions Office Nomads has taken thus far are:
- Daily sanitizing of most surfaces in the space (countertops, door handles, coffee pots, our iPad for check-in, etc.)
- Temporarily switching over to disposable towels in the bathrooms and kitchens (normally we use regular towels because we love the environment).
- Having hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies out at the ready for members to use.
- Temporarily putting a pause on our food-related gatherings in the space (though we joked around about having a snack be individually wrapped cheese sticks placed at 6-foot intervals around the table.)
- Maintaining a strong channel of communication with our members so they know all the things.
Jamie Orr: This week, we really saw things start to change in response to COVID-19. It’s quiet here. We still have people coming in, but the energy is completely different. On Monday, we established our response protocol as a team:
- Suspended all drop-in day passes
- Canceled and suspended any meeting room bookings from outside groups, and any events in the space
- Placed signs everywhere reminding people of good hygiene protocols. Most of those signs are fun and encourage singing while hand washing
- Increased our cleaning, disinfecting primary shared surfaces like handles, buttons, etc. multiple times throughout the day
- Sent and posted notices about CDC guidelines, our procedures, etc. to all members
Felicity Maxwell: Cleaning stations, extra hand soap, spot cleaning of common surfaces.
NextSpace SC: Things are getting weird, not going to lie! Initially, we started disinfecting every AM and put out hygiene signage with additional “sanitation stations” and even added floral arrangements to the stations to bring a little beauty (and engage members) to use the sanitizers.
But now we have closed the space to abide by our county’s shelter in place order.
- We are only open 2 hours each day for the purpose of managing mail to keep our members’ businesses running smooth
- Members have started an online “Coffee Time” to hang out virtually each morning. It’s so cute!
- We plan to have a virtual happy hour
In what ways has COVID-19 affected the day-to-day in your space?
SD: Things are definitely more quiet in the space, and the majority of our conversations are outbreak-related. So that’s different for sure. Literally someone just said, “Nice to social distance with y’all!” as they left the lunch table.
JO: Everyone is on edge, especially as this past week has progressed. The typical water cooler talk is all about the pandemic, what is going to happen, what people are doing to prepare. Many members are preparing by taking home monitors in anticipation of school closures.
At the same time, everyone is being incredibly supportive of one another and trying to stay in good spirits. The community is strong. Our team has been working really hard on overcommunicating with members: asking how they are doing, what they need, talking with them about what we are doing, what our thought process is, how we intend on supporting everyone. That has gone really far.
FM: Totally Normal / Totally Not! We have plenty of community members that are attempting to work as usual, but also have a number who have been impacted. Specifically:
- SXSW cancelled: One of the startups here has their entire remote team flying in, they were scheduled to be featured at SXSW Innovation Showcase. All of that was cancelled. No team meeting, no SXSW parties, no chance to win or gain the exposure and connections offered by SXSW
- Projects cancelled: Several members have already mentioned work projects being cancelled. One works with the airline industry and they had an entire RFP revoked. Likewise, another member who supports large tech conferences had six months worth of work put on hold. Their contacts are now asking them to create a system for virtual conferences, since it is unclear when these types of gatherings will be coming back.
- Meetings cancelled or low attendance: We have had several bookings cancel due to attendee travel concerns about COVID. One client has zero attendees at a sales meeting that normally has 10-15.
- We’ve made the decision to go to a members only/limited staffing model for the next few weeks. That should allow our members who need space to use it, but encourage everyone else to stay home and safe.
NextSpace SC: Our space started to fill with children and friends for a bit (we are thinking it had to do with school closures before the shelter-in-place order). Although NextSpace is closed to the public, we still allow access to members that absolutely need the space to conduct business.
- We offer mailbox services and are staffed for two hours a day so members can access their mail via pick-up, but we have encouraged scanning or forwarding to their home address.
- We have also directed members to ship packages (Amazon, UPS, etc.) to their home.
- Staff are mostly working from home and trying to keep our community informed and find ways to keep everyone connected. We’re going as virtual as possible and testing the waters of online events and messaging platforms.
[?] Do you have ways for your community to connect virtually? If so, what is working well?
SD: We sure do! We have a member mailing list as well as an active Slack. Both of those channels are proving to be really valuable for our members to touch base with each other. We just launched our first-ever virtual membership (which is free in March) to encourage those who might be newly experiencing the challenges of remote work to have another touch point.
Already there’s been an increase in the use of Slack. We’re planning virtual work sprints, have a “daily debate” channel, and are checking in on weekly goals. It’s lovely.
JO: Next week, we’ll be rolling out scheduled times to virtually cowork with each other. I’m looking at a few options:
- Work sprints with video on
- Happy hour or “after kids are asleep” hour
- Water cooler check-ins in the morning and towards mid-afternoon when members would typically be taking coffee breaks
FM: We primarily use Slack for member communication and have seen an uptick in engagement. We’re planning to use Zoom for virtual coworking this week.
NextSpace SC: We are lucky to have amazing members who started a Facebook group to host virtual morning coffee sessions each day. Our company will be using Zoom and Facebook Live to host virtual happy hours on Friday’s at 3:58pm and daily coworking sessions with our members. We’re also using our mailing list to communicate with members. Our internal team will be logging in together each day to connect, support and share experiences and challenges.
[?] How would you advise other space operators working to find ways to support, maintain and strengthen their community through the outbreak?
SD: Don’t be silent. Reach out, be proactive, and find ways that you can be helpful. It’s not as hard or scary as you might think.
JO: Now more than ever it’s imperative to model good communication, and over-communication. Even I have taken for granted the ease at which we connect with one another when in the same physical space. There is extra effort required to get used to doing that virtually. As coworking space operators, we can help our members do that by showing them how.
FM: Give your community ways to connect that are not related to physical space. Encourage everyone to stay connected via Zoom, Slack etc., and remind them that this is temporary.
NextSpace SC: There are so many resources! Check out Women Who Cowork who have dedicated an entire training session and created an online manual to support us during these crazy times. Joining virtual discussions such as Coworking Convos is also a great way to stay connected with other space operators that are in the same boat!
Lastly, even if your space is not closed yet, start putting strategies in place and communicate to members what your processes will be “in case of a closure.” Get your mail, communications and resources in order. If you do this ahead of time, you will have more time to be present and available to your members when you do have to transition to virtual coworking.
Cat Johnson is a writer and storyteller for the coworking movement. Cat is founder of Coworking Convos – a virtual monthly group discussion with other space operators on topics relevant to the coworking industry. Sign-up for the next free Coworking Convo and join the discussion!