When software engineer Joe Buck started his new job in September at Seattle-based remittance company Remitly, his desk was wedged between the family minivan and kids toys. Like so many tech workers this year, Buck had to improvise amid the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his case, the office was an uninsulated garage in the family’s West Seattle home.
Buck made do in the spring with the impromptu office as a Seattle employee of San Francisco-based Okera. But after a summer of parental leave to welcome his second child, he didn’t last long in another round of working from the garage. October mornings quickly became too chilly and an infant on top of a 3½-year-old led to frequent interruptions.
“I definitely was feeling the grind of having work and home intertwined,” Buck said.
That frustration led Buck last month to sign up for a desk at West Seattle Coworking. Even just a few days in, the difference was palpable. “I can already feel myself getting a bit more of a rhythm in my day,” he said.
Coworking surged in Seattle pre-pandemic, but Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s nine-week Stay Home, Stay Healthy order took the wind out of the industry’s sails under the combined impact of mandatory work-from-home policies and social distancing rules.
A number of Seattle coworking spaces closed their brick and mortar locations, from homegrown women-focused startup The Riveter to national social entrepreneurship-oriented Impact Hall. Local independent spaces including Capitol Hill’s Office Nomads and Chinatown/International District’s Hing Hay Coworks remain in a state of limbo.
Slowly, however, the Seattle-area coworking scene is crawling out from the wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic. As WFH burnout settles in, a small but growing number of people are dipping their toes back into working outside the home now that rigorous safety protocols like masking in common areas, physical distancing, reduced capacity, and regular cleaning are now in place.
Even as coronavirus cases spike again in Washington and Inslee hints at new restrictions, there are no immediate signs that coworking spaces will be forced to close. Many did not close even during the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order as they provided workspace to essential businesses.
“People are afraid to come to a coworking space because they think we are as busy as a European train station with people coming and going,” said West Seattle Coworking owner Rosario Bevilacqua. “The truth is that we have the same 10 or so people working here every day.”
Coworking and flexible space operators are bullish that if they can weather the pandemic, they are poised for long-term success with changing work patterns.
“Inquiries started to pick up after Labor Day, presumably as kids started distance-learning and people returned home from their COVID getaways,” said Chris Hoyt, founder and COO of The Pioneer Collective, which will open a Belltown location in January to complement its Pioneer Square and Tacoma locations. “Companies are punting any spending decisions to 2021, but employees who are tired of everyday WFH are striking out on their own to secure workspace.”
Some companies including Microsoft are rolling out hybrid workplace models that mix remote work with an actual office, a strategy that could benefit co-working operators.
In Buck’s case, Remitly provided him with a one-time payment to help cover his coworking costs. While the company maintains its downtown location, the office has very limited capacity. Buck plans to stay at West Seattle Coworking at least through the end of the year. He will head back into the office on a more full-time basis when the opportunity arises.
Chase Richards, who runs engineering and technical operations at Marketly, a brand protection company, recently negotiated his company’s acquisition by global brand risk management firm Corsearch — all from Capitol Hill coworking space The Cloud Room. Even though the transaction was handled virtually, having dedicated meeting space at The Cloud Room for sensitive steps such as tech due diligence and meeting the C-suite was critical.
“Going through this acquisition would have been difficult to deal with at home and to juggle the number of meetings and connections I had to make without some office space,” he said.
Richard made sure that his group could hold onto five desks at The Cloud Room as part of the acquisition deal. It was a comparatively light lift for a global company such as Corsearch that is figuring out the future of its 14 offices spread across the world.
While Richards’ team continues to conduct all-team meetings using remote platforms, he relishes the easy-flowing nature of in-person collaboration.
“It doesn’t take long when you have those in-person interactions to remind yourself how valuable they can be,” he said. “Topics that you wouldn’t ever schedule a meeting to have a discussion on just come up conveniently because you’re sitting nearby or engaged in casual conversation.”
For example, Richards recalled how he helped a colleague tease out the best algorithm to solve an issue with the team’s social media crawling due to a chance encounter in the hallway. He also appreciates the ability to point directly at the screen when working with colleagues on front-end UI issues.
“I don’t have to take a screen video, pop it into a shared document, and hope that they are able to see how I produce it,” he said.
Peter Chee, founder and CEO of Thinkspace, with locations in Redmond and Seattle, sees a future in servicing small startups and teams at larger companies who are downsizing from big office spaces. “We are in the process of converting our open space into private offices with 6-to-12 month leases instead of month to month,” he said. “We stopped doing the traditional coworking desk concept because that’s not a viable product for us right now.”
Chee noted a similar uptick in inquiries after Labor Day as school restarted. He has found his Redmond location catering to Microsoft employees tired of working from home and his Seattle location hosted an all-day collaborative meeting for local employees of identity management company Okta.
Other longtime Seattle coworking spaces, like Pioneer Square’s Collective Chemistry, have adapted by carving out new features like a dedicated livestream studio.
The future is less clear for global coworking chains with locations around Seattle. IWG plc owns the Regus and Spaces brands. The Regus website lists 11 locations, 84 coworking desks, and 923 private offices in Seattle, while Spaces landed in Seattle last year in three brand-new commercial buildings across Pioneer Square, Belltown, and downtown. An IWG plc representative declined to comment on the company’s Seattle market presence.
WeWork, which expanded aggressively in the Seattle area over the last several years despite a failed IPO, has stabilized renewal rates while member retention rates are improving from March, Reuters reported.
“As of October we had more than 2.5 times more broker engagements (meetings, long negotiation calls, etc.) in Seattle than in 2019 as the commercial real estate industry realizes the importance of flex space post-pandemic,” WeWork’s Northwest Area Director Robin Cardoso said in an email.
With more enterprise clients supplanting the individual remote worker, WeWork saw the average length of leases in the Pacific Northwest grow more than 20% in 2020, Cardoso said. The company plans to open a new Bellevue location this year.
This reporter nevertheless found just a handful of workers sprinkled across three floors at WeWork’s Capitol Hill location during two days in November. The community manager on-site calling the renovated Kelly-Springfield Building, which opened in January, one of the company’s busier Seattle locations.
Even as the industry goes through unprecedented upheaval, longtime coworking advocates are confident that the model will survive into the post-pandemic future. “Coworking is not on its deathbed. The reason spaces are closing is that it’s a hard business to manage, but it’s going to come back in force,” said Marnee Chua of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance. “People like to have someone to go to lunch with.”