This Year In Coworking: 2020 trends, shifts and opportunities.

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Insights were gathered from the thousands of conversations, calls and chat threads I've had with workspace operators this year.

This year has been challenging for coworking everyone.

In this post you’ll find some of 2020’s biggest shifts, trends and opportunities from across, around and adjacent to the coworking industry.

Insights were gathered from the thousands of conversations, calls and chat threads I’ve had with workspace operators this year. Trends were also checked and gathered from inspiring community leaders, and aggregated via both This Week In Coworking and 4 ProptechUpdate challenges.

I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible, but if you feel that I’ve overlooked a topic, trend or opportunity that you, your community or your business has done or seen this year, please do let me know via email here.

Grab a coffee, tea or something stronger and I hope you find it useful for your 2021 action-plans.

Wishing you and yours all the love, happiness, prosperity and good health in the world,

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👋 2020 quick overview.

2020 shook up entire industries, communities, countries and governments to their roots.

The entertainment, events, hospitality, real estate (both commercial and residential) and restaurant industries were amongst those hardest hit by lockdowns, physical distancing regulations and the subsequent economic shifts.

So it’s no surprise that the coworking industry, which often encompasses elements of all these ‘hurdled’ industries, faced its own challenges this year.

Faced with pretty unique and often unfair challenges, we continuously witnessed the inspiring ingenuity, empathy, collaboration and creativity of community leaders around the world. 

Leaders who took pretty daring steps to be able to hold space for their members, neighborhoods, schools, local businesses and wider communities.

This post highlights some of the biggest trends, changes and new opportunities that community leaders have forged out of the chaos that was 2020.

✅ Coworking became 'acceptable'.

Due to lockdowns, ‘work-from-home-forever’ and ‘work-from-anywhere’ policies coworking became increasingly popular to business planners who sought out safe, affordable and managed workspace in suburban (or tier-2 and tier-3 cities) locations.

Coworking spaces quickly became viable additional or supplemental workspaces for corporations, even earning a reputable place in business planning strategies through ‘hub-and-spoke‘ models celebrated and shared widely through consulting, advisory and conference circuits since early Q3 2020. 

Not only did decision-makers change (sometimes delegating the responsibility of finding workspace to team-leaders or to individuals directly), but so did how coworking access was paid for, reimbursed, tracked and/or approved by HQ.

The number of platforms, booking apps, centralized billing offerings, and brokers who’ve stepped up to bridge this demand to flex workspaces has rapidly increased throughout the year, even as demand through most of it dropped drastically.

Opportunity: There are millions of workers who previously always had workspace sourced, managed and provided for them – who may want or need approvable and reimbursable workspace access near their current or future homes.

🔎 Highlighting hyperlocal impact.

From as early as March many governments began providing some businesses with support, funding and other resources.

As coworking sat amongst, but not entirely inside, many kinds of industries, many space operators often found themselves in frustratingly ‘grey’ areas. This often limited access to (or the level of) support directly available.

However through rapid and often collaborative actions, many workspaces made it clear just how many member businesses, individuals and neighborhood businesses are directly supported by their spaces.

A few notable examples were the #SaveOurLocalCoworking campaign, numerous meetings with local councils & government representatives, funding prioritized for businesses in shared spaces, a nation-wide investigation into coworking in rural regions and successful (and matched) micro-loans to coworking communities. 

This continuous exposure and explanation of how coworking will be critical in rebuilding hyperlocal economies hasn’t gone unnoticed and we’re seeing more and more local and national decision-makers starting to understand the impact they can make through supporting communities like these.

Opportunity: being able to work more closely with local & regional governments. Leveraging the messaging, campaigns and insights shared by others the case can be made more efficiently for even more support from local businesses and organizations.

👨‍🏫 Parents, teachers and students.

One of the biggest (and for a long-time most ignored) fallouts of local and global lockdowns were the closing of kindergartens, schools, colleges and universities. 

Not only did this leave students and children with nowhere to learn, but often left parents with the added stress (and expense) of home-schooling, child-care and trying to balance everything against the backdrop of suddenly working from home for an unspecified period of time.

Across the coworking world, we quickly saw community leaders launch, host, tweak and experiment with multiple approaches to introducing or expanding offerings for ‘Coworking + Childcare‘, ‘Coworking for Educators’, ‘Coworking + Churches‘ and ‘student study spaces’.

Whilst coworking spaces offering childcare wasn’t born out of the madness that was 2020 (the first space to offer it launched back in 2008) it definitely grew in popularity this year with workspace operators investing heavily into research, experimentation and the setup of child-minding services.

The success of the campaigns varied greatly due to a number of different reasons, from time of the year (eg lower successes during summer holidays) to the confusion of lockdown rules within specific regions. 

Some spaces did report filling up their private offices with half-price memberships for students who were cramming for bar exams mid-lockdowns. 

Others saw a spike in demand for ‘household memberships’, allowing adults in a household to share a membership and ‘take turns’ going to work from the space. 

Workspaces within suburban areas or near colleges/universities also reported an increase in the number of teachers and lecturers taking up memberships to leverage better acoustics, internet connections and distraction-free workspace.

Opportunity: Some form of physical distancing will unfortunately be around for a little while still. Care givers, students and their educators will continue to need and seek out safe, quiet and well-equipped workspaces.

🧪 Pure 'rent arbitrage' got tested.

As coworking expanded across the globe, some chains paid insane premiums to gobble up space. 

This very quickly gave rise to the business model of ‘rent arbitrage’, or the taking-out of long-term leases, and then chopping up or subleasing pieces of that space on more flexible or shorter terms, usually at a premium.

Whilst most community leaders will tell you that coworking should always offer more than just desk space + wifi + coffee, 2020 put this to the real test.

With lockdowns, WFH-directives, and two waves of sky-rocketing infection rates, many businesses and individuals terminated or paused their flex workspace memberships. 

Many, but not all. 

Whilst the catastrophic decline or full-pause of income caused (and is still causing) aches in the hearts, heads and balance-sheets of coworking communities everywhere… it’s been truly inspiring to see members, alumni and non-member businesses supporting their local coworking spaces.

Some spaces dug in their heels and limited the ‘flexibility’ that flex workspaces traditionally marketed as a benefit. Others honestly explained that they understood the situation, and wanted to be around when members felt comfortable to return, but in order to do so their businesses would need to cover it’s own obligations that most-times were not as flexible. 

Often a large portion of members maintained their active memberships, knowing very well they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be using the physical workspace for months.

In other cases, landlords or other financial/family reasons lead to coworking communities forgoing their physical spaces, focussing purely on the other value, networking, events (see below) and support they could provide without a physical gathering space, for the time-being.

Opportunity: Whilst some coworking spaces faced being sued over membership inflexibility, others are still actively (and financially) being supported thanks to strategically creating compelling value propositions in addition to, or in lieu of,  wifi + coffee + deskspace.

💡 Events, reach and access.

Events were often a big part of coworking spaces’ business models and member value proposition.

Whilst we did see the decimation of event space rental, we also saw creative pivots into virtual event and educational programming. 

Not only did new content creators and curators launch and grow, but speakers who couldn’t usually travel to a physical workspaces could now deliver virtual lunch’n’learns or other virtual sessions to members.

This access also allowed members who couldn’t usually commute to a physical coworking space, to join their virtual community and benefit from their events, perks and other value-propositions. 

One of our favorite examples of a coworking space nailing this virtual events shift is Cohere who, every other month, send their members physical paper calendars of events, activity ideas, and member-designed illustrations and artwork to help decorate home-offices. 

We can’t mention events without also acknowledging the challenges that industry-wide conferences, unconferences, symposiums and meetups had to overcome. 

Understandably many went online-only, but some went further by launching new content series or reducing/waiving the cost for participation and in turn increasing access and reach to their educational content.

Opportunity: Even free online events aren’t free for all participants, with high internet costs in some regions and pay-per-MB in others, there’s an opportunity to create low-bandwidth events, content and communities for over 3 billion people.

💻 Coworking software evolved rapidly.

Lockdowns sent ripples of concern through the coworking software industry.

Not only did workspaces’ resources suddenly drop, but the definition of what a coworking space could look like, was changing rapidly across the global sector. The same went for how they could work, what they could offer, and how spaces could plan to rapidly respond to changing restrictions, rules and customer needs.

This kept the coworking software companies busy, as they adapted, evolved, refactored and upgraded their technology to better empower the workspaces who relied on them.

If you catch up with the updates from Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4, you’ll be able see shifts towards more robust integrations, contactless reception apps, member portal upgrades and better member messaging and notifications.

In the ProptechUpdates I’m also joined some really friendly humans who are part of teams building software day-and-night to support coworking spaces and their members.

There was also a surge in developments, changes and integrations to enable workspaces to offer and manage ‘virtual offices’ and handling mail or other hybrid services.

However behind the scenes, almost all the management platforms, membership portals, booking apps and aggregators invested heavily into being able to support workspaces as we head into a new world of fully- or partially-distributed workforces.

2020 even saw the development of a global data infrastructure to help operators effortlessly sync changes across the whole ‘distribution & discovery ecosystem’ of software platforms, aggregators and commercial real-estate brokers.

Opportunity: Software is evolving for, and with, the coworking spaces that use them. With quieter offices, and probably the slowest first quarter in coworking history, there’s no better time to test, pick and have a say in the direction of useful coworking software.

🤝 Unprecedented coopetition.

2020 was brutal, heart wrenching and slightly trying for owners, operators and staff at coworking spaces of all sizes.

However there’s been one huge undeniable reward for everyone involved with coworking at any point during the year, inter-competitor collaboration (or coopetition) at levels never ever experienced in the sector.

Whilst this coopetition could be attributed to the previously mentioned topics of highlighting hyperlocal impact and the virtualization of event content, the sheer number of ways coworking spaces collaborated this year warranted coopetition getting a topic of it’s very own.

We saw increased activity and engagement across all the regional and mission-driven coworking alliances as they responded rapidly and consistently to support participating workspace operators during the waves of uncertainty.

Women Who Cowork rapidly coordinated with partners in March to release a free Public Health Resource for community leaders. The Global Workspace Association launched and moderated a COVID-19 Discussion group on Facebook from March too.

In April the Coworking Library launched a crowdsourced directory of global business support resources for both members and operators of coworking spaces in 9 countries.

There was also a surge in the starting, and restarting, of coworking alliances, assemblies, federations and associations around the world. A primer guide was also curated and released and shared widely to help new coopetitive alliances take their formative steps.

Traditionally event- and meeting-driven coworking organizations like Coworking EuropeGCUC and GWA launched or doubled-down on memberships, new event series, resource directories and virtual communities.

But we also saw the emergence of completely new types of communities (like The Lab), events (like Coworking Convos) and coordinated marketing campaigns (like GiftWorkspace) that are designed and built to enable and leverage cooperation and sharing between, and for, coworking spaces.

Outside of alliances, there was a dramatic coordinated effort to collectively make coworking more accessible, inclusive, representative and welcoming to all.

Global projects include the Inclusion & Diversity handbook (spearheaded by the European Coworking Assembly) who’s first draft is expected in 2021 and the Coworking IDEA Project which has had a number of open calls ahead of the global coordinated challenges planned for next year and beyond.

Opportunity: Many workspace operators, even those ‘competing’ for members, banded together during the challenges of 2020. We expect to see even more collective action, even higher levels of coopetition, and creative new collaborations into and after 2021.

About TWIC is a weekly newsletter summarizing the coworking celebrations, stories, market moves, tech updates and discussions you may have missed.

It’s curated by Hector Kolonas and available for free via email or this website with topics and trends being discussed Fridays on Clubhouse at 10:30am Eastern.

Other Weeks

This Week In Coworking: #01, 2022

This week we saw how huge employers redirected the millions they’re saving into supporting remote working, explored WTF DAOs are, explored the history of African innovation hubs, and touch on the subtle differences between hot-desking and desk hotelling.

👉 Read this.

This Week In Coworking: #49, 2021

This week we see how to help employees sell coworking, Tulsa brought in $62M via remote workers, on swapping a party for a small biz grant, another dive into Lomad-ing, a trove of end-of-year data drops and much more.

👉 Read this.

This Week In Coworking: #48, 2021

This week we look at how landlords are being advised to add flex, a new academic study of coworking impacts in the UK, new US businesses up by 56%, Selfridges adding coworking, a new network of WNH spaces coming to Melbourne, and more.

👉 Read this.