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Work from home to work from anywhere: The future of co-working spaces

The accelerating remote work culture born during COVID-19 is bound to further propel the growth of flexible workspaces, especially since several employers are looking at remote working as a long-term practice.
When we look back at 2020, there will be a clear distinction between life before and 24 March, the day that marked the start of India’s complete two-and-a-half month nationwide lockdown. This should in no way be construed as the beginning of the pandemic experience in India, but the date marked a seismic shift for most, where our homes and offices became one.
Last year (2019) feels like a distant past. In that world, flexible workspaces were a rapidly growing segment of commercial real estate across the globe. [1] This small yet ‘hot’ segment was a veritable growth catalyst for the larger commercial real estate industry. Across the globe, these spaces were no longer just an option for businesses looking for cost-effective, efficient, dynamic and state-of-the art physical environments for their employees. Closer to home, the demand for flexible offices — including co-working spaces and serviced offices — has grown faster in the Asia Pacific region than anywhere else, [2] with India emerging as the second-largest market for flexible workspaces in the region. [3]
The year 2020 was supposed to be another ‘growth’ year in this rapidly growing segment, with even skeptical analysts slowly coming around.
But we all know what happened next.
Across the world, entire industries pressed pause without an end in sight. The interruption to work and our work lives had a debilitating impact on the flexible workspace industry. Spaces that were synonymous with life, energy and ideas now resembled the start of an old Sergio Leone Western. The onset of work from home created its own negative headlines in the media. But as days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, the lockdown-induced doom and gloom has slowly given way to hard-nosed pragmatism. Indications are that the sector will bounce back with more resilience and potential growth opportunities in a post-pandemic world. [4] The cause for optimism emanates from the fact that the massive disruptions brought about by COVID-19 has created the need for business solutions that are cost-effective, agile and sustainable.
As days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, the lockdown-induced doom and gloom has slowly given way to hard-nosed pragmatism.
Through late March and April, the immediate impact of the pandemic was primarily driven by a shutting down of business activity due to the nationwide lockdown. As companies went into business continuity planning mode, workforces were trimmed, and the lines between work and home blurred. Several influential companies completely curbed their onsite business activities during the lockdown and simultaneously launched policies that allowed employees to maximise output through work from home (WFH) setups.
In the months following the lockdown, flex operators witnessed a 50 percent dip in footfalls at their spaces. [5] But amidst this crisis, the inherent resilience of the industry has become apparent and gradually, the industry has shown signs of bouncing back. To be sure, there is historical context to this. During the Brexit transition, companies in the UK were looking to relocate to mainland Europe and flexible workspaces proved to be a natural choice, with flexible spaces in both Berlin and Paris ending up being major beneficiaries. [6] Furthermore, even during the current economic slowdown, enquiries for serviced workspaces in Australia saw a 30 percent increase. [7]
During the Brexit transition, companies in the UK were looking to relocate to mainland Europe and flexible workspaces proved to be a natural choice.
This period also ushered a new term into our collective lexicon — social distancing. Due to this, maintaining a six-foot distance became de rigeur across all physical spaces, including our own, and this has forced companies to reconsider seating, design and operations. [8] Moreover, several companies adopted innovative work plans and gravitated towards revised working schedules by implementing rostered working days. This mass-embracing of ‘flexibility’ has instilled renewed belief in a business model like WeWork’s where we are considered a long-term strategic partner to complement their revival and growth in a post-pandemic world. Moreover, as many of these companies are tightening their purse strings and reconsidering their fixed asset investments to save on overhead costs, flex spaces will play an important role in rationalising costs and maintaining financial agility.
But the question remains — what about individual consumers working from the safety of their homes? Here, too, the pandemic will act as a catalyst wherein the WFH model will lead a transition to a world where remote working is the norm. The mantra will change from ‘work from home’ to ‘work from anywhere.’ Another truism that has come to light thanks to the pandemic is that offices continue to be important spaces for training, mentorship and collaboration — something employees have vocally stated that they miss. Whilst industry leaders like Google’s Sundar Pichai and Accenture’s Julie Sweet have emphasised the importance of in-person interactions for business growth. [9] A 2020 McKinsey report also found that teams that work in the same space find it easier to build trust. [10] The report also emphasised several other challenges faced by employees practicing WFH, including lack of sufficient communication and coordination. [11] These findings were echoed in a Brookings Institution report that reiterated that people prefer communicating complex information face-to-face rather than digitally. [12] Due to these problems, studies have shown that over 90 percent of people want to return to the office at least one day a week. Statistics like this highlight the value people associate with physical workspaces.
This period also ushered a new term into our collective lexicon — social distancing.
Another important question to ask is what happens to physical office spaces that are lying vacant and might never reach a pre-COVID-19 level of occupancy? Once again, flex spaces can prove to be a problem solver as outsourcing office spaces to flexible workspace operators could substantially ease the commitments associated with maintaining a permanent staff whilst also ensuring that social distancing, sanitation and safe hygiene within premises is strictly adhered to.
As WeWork India CEO Karan Virwani said, “The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift to flexible workspaces. The company can help businesses and educational institutions de-densify their spaces. Corporate clients contribute around 65-70% of the business and it will remain so going forward.” [13]
Given that the feasibility of WFH is limited in India due to several restrictions, from the lack of widespread internet connectivity [14] to other severe challenges, flex spaces offer both flexibility to employees and cost-effective solutions to businesses, which will be especially relevant in a post-COVID-19 world. These spaces already support a significant number of small and medium enterprises, with reports revealing that over 13 million people were predicted to work out of flex spaces by 2020 in a non-pandemic context. [15] Moreover, flexible workspaces will also complement the upsurge in the Indian gig economy, which has a 17 percent annual growth rate, whose scope will now broaden dramatically and encompass not only blue-collar jobs but also various white-collar jobs. [16]
The initial days of the WFH model in India were rife with reports stating an increase in productivity as well as employees eluding to feeling a greater work-life balance. [17] However, as the months have passed, several challenges have emerged, including mental health issues. A recent survey by a Kochi-based NGO highlights that WFH was more stressful and lethargic than working from office for most people and nearly 87 percent of the respondents felt that companies must evolve clear WFH policies focused on the wellbeing of employees. [18] Increased screen time, awkward sitting positions and a lack of social interaction has also resulted in physical health-related issues. Such sedentary work patterns have been known to have long term health impacts, including increased stress levels. According to a pre-pandemic report by the World Economic Forum, [19] concerns around people’s diminishing mental health and physical wellbeing were on the rise in countries like the UK. The report also stated that businesses can lose up to £100 million every year due to workplace stress, depression and anxiety.
Compared to this, flexible workspaces are a study in contrast. By employing dedicated community managers and hosting a variety of events at the spaces, operators have tried to promote a culture that balances recreation with work. Such spaces are inherently designed to allow employees and members to be surrounded with people from a myriad of industries, which ensures a collaborative work environment and facilitates conditions for networking and knowledge-sharing. Very often, valuable business advice and potential business opportunities exchanged within these spaces facilitate the growth of the members. A recent WeWork-ORF study showed that co-workers express a relatively high degree of satisfaction with their job and workload, experience a positive work-life balance and remain optimistic about their future job opportunities. [20]
The benefits of flexible workspaces for working women in India are also essential in assessing the viability of such spaces.
Further, flexible workspaces promote a culture of diversity and inclusivity. According to the same WeWork-ORF study, the average age of the workforce fell squarely in the ‘youth’ category and more importantly, consisted of more female workers (~39 percent) in comparison to the overall labour force (~26 percent). The benefits of flexible workspaces for working women in India are also essential in assessing the viability of such spaces. Female workers are currently overwhelmed with both domestic and professional responsibilities as the extended period of WFH has increased family dependence on them. Flexible workspaces allow these women to restore a balance between these two domains.
Moving beyond the confines of the office space, organisations can also leverage the accessibility of these workspaces — where these spaces are present in a city — to ensure commute time is reduced. This enhanced accessibility holds an even greater advantage in metro cities, since Indians spend more time in daily office commute than most countries in the world — over two hours on the road every day. [21] A report by MoveInSyn showed that Indians spend 7 percent of their day commuting to office, averaging less than three minutes per kilometre. [22] By having offices distributed across cities, this model also allows employers to recruit talent without accounting for proximity issues. Finally, remote working also enables employees to cut living costs by moving to affordable cities instead of metro cities where the average household rent in cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi are bordering on the exorbitant.
Remote working also enables employees to cut living costs by moving to affordable cities instead of metro cities.
Another major advantage a shift towards flexible workspaces brings relates to urban infrastructure development. With a rapidly growing number of people residing in cities, there is an urgent need to think about decongesting our cities, especially the central business district areas. Flexible workspaces offer this compliance with the ‘smart city’ model by facilitating ease of travel, access to the latest technology and reliable sanitation — all under one roof. [23] By providing the facilities for office spaces in local areas, flexible workspaces solve the problem of growing congestion in cities due to traffic-related pollution. Data reveals that car ownership went up by 27 percent in 2017 from 2015, with over 11.2 million registered cars in Delhi. [24] In the same period, car ownership increased by 21.8 percent in Mumbai [25] (3.2 million vehicles) [26] and 10 percent in Bangalore (6.8 million vehicles). [27] Not only does this mean that metropolitans in India are becoming unimaginably crowded, the air and pollution levels — both sound and air — in these cities are also going off the charts. The use of flex spaces could help decongest Indian cities and this decluttering will also help reduce time spent stuck in traffic — a menace that most metro dwellers will attest to. To put things into perspective, reports have shown that the average Bangalorean spends 243 hours in traffic each year. [28]
If time is money, this is not time well spent. Even from an employment point of view, flexible workspaces make a lot of sense to India’s growing ‘gig’ workforce. More and more professionals, especially the increasing millennial workforce, prefer freelance work and smaller contracts. Indian freelance workers today make up 24 percent of the global online gig economy [29] and flexible workspaces have a long history in catering to these workers’ space needs. Trends are also showing that full-time jobs are diminishing, and assignment-based hiring is gradually becoming the norm. Flexible workspaces will allow businesses to keep resizing their workforce without getting burdened with logistical arrangements related to workspaces. Thus, the onboarding of new employees or the expiration of the older employees’ contracts will not present a logistical burden to the organisation and will, instead, be managed with ease by flex operators.
The use of flex spaces could help decongest Indian cities and this decluttering will also help reduce time spent stuck in traffic. COVID-19: How the government can step in
Several reports, including a June 2020 survey by Gartner Inc, [30] have indicated that a substantial number of employers intend to allow their employees to work remotely full-time even in the post-pandemic world. Such forecasts call for policy measures by the government and enhanced cooperation between the industry and officials to facilitate the growth of flexible workspaces and ensure that they recover from losses induced by the pandemic.
• To start with, the flexible workspace industry needs formal ‘industry recognition’ from the government. This will enhance awareness about the industry whilst helping contribute to the growth of flexible workspaces. This, in turn, could help define the ‘future of work’ as a trifecta of agility, flexibility and accessibility. The industry recognition could also pave the way for discussions around infrastructure development in the office space, which is currently focused on large metros.
• Secondly, government assistance to the flexible workspace industry is also bound to act as a catalyst for other businesses that depend on such spaces — a number that is set to increase in the aftermath of COVID-19. Some of the key consumers of flexible workspaces are startups, a sizeable number of whom are facing an existential crisis owing to the pandemic. [31] How can flex spaces facilitate governance assistance for small and medium enterprises and startups? For instance, the government has launched several relief packages and schemes during the current healthcare crisis to rejuvenate application developers; the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and NITI Aayog recently launched the Atal Innovation Mission to incentivise technology innovators to create an Indian-origin app ecosystem with substantial cash rewards. Initiatives like this depict the sustained efforts by the government to support startups. [32]
Flex spaces not only act as the top preference for budding startups as office spaces but also provide incubation opportunities to facilitate their growth. Initiatives like WeWork Labs [33] and the 91Springboard Incubator, [34] which assist entrepreneurs with mentorship and investment opportunities, demonstrate the role flex spaces are playing in facilitating India’s startup ecosystem. A partnership between government initiatives and industry players in this space can amplify the benefits of such support and accelerate innovation in the country.
• Thirdly, government intervention to support the flexible workspace industry also becomes important when we realise that Indian work culture is currently showing a shift towards a gig economy. Millennial workers, who are predicted to constitute over 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025, [35] prefer flexible work cultures that offer them the option of freelancing with projects that suit them best. By supporting the growth of the flexible workspace industry, the government will directly engage with an emerging gig workforce — most of whom fall in the ‘young demographic’ — who will be critical to not only a post-pandemic rebound but also to help boost growth prospects in years to come.
• Fourthly, as employees transition from WFH to physical office spaces, the government needs to provide effective standard operating procedures for a safe return to onsite work. Industry players need to ensure that these procedures are being effectively implemented to ensure the safety and wellbeing of employees. Throughout the lockdown phase and in the ‘back to work transition’, flex spaces have set benchmarks for on-site health and safety protocols, [36] and these practices could be leveraged by the government as the benchmark for other industries to follow as they reopen their workspaces.
• Finally, a collaboration between government bodies and the flexible workspace industry also appears prudent when we acknowledge the shared urban development model between the two. The government has come up with several provisions to make Indian cities ‘smarter’ through its smart city missions. With over INR 111 trillion [37] set aside for the National Infrastructure Pipeline, the official priority appears to be around ensuring that cities continue to act as agents of growth and higher living standards. Flex spaces too have a similar mission with their focus on making Indian megacities ‘smarter’ by ensuring reliable technological access to professionals and working towards decluttering city spaces and fostering sustainable urban development.
The pandemic has compelled businesses across industries to think of innovative work solutions. While COVID-19 has been a crisis of unimaginable proportions and rightly made us question current work practices, the onus will now be to look at the future with optimism and with the belief that the country’s economy can bounce back. Employees all over the world have managed to conduct their operations remotely through WFH, thanks largely in part to digital platforms that exist in the world today. However, as this paper has argued, WFH is not a sustainable work-model and the industry is showing a decided pivot towards a ‘work from anywhere’ model instead. The hope is that the government, companies and workers will coalesce around the idea of remote working.
Looking back, the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in China convinced millions of Chinese consumers to embrace a platform called Alibaba whilst the Y2K bug turned into a blessing in disguise for the Indian IT industry.
The accelerating remote work culture born during COVID-19 is bound to further propel the growth of flexible workspaces, especially since several employers are looking at remote working as a long-term practice. A symbiotic and sustained collaboration between the government and the flexible workspace industry is required to navigate this growth and to ensure that the economy benefits from our innovative workplace solution(s).
In the years to come, 24 March 2020 will always be looked at as the day India came to a standstill. But if there is one thing that history teaches us, it is that moments of crisis can turn into opportunities. Looking back, the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in China convinced millions of Chinese consumers to embrace a platform called Alibaba whilst the Y2K bug turned into a blessing in disguise for the Indian IT industry and took business process outsourcing to scale.
What is to say 2020 cannot do the same for remote working?
[2] Kailash Babar, “Over 13 Million People Estimated to Operate out of Co-working Spaces in India by 2020: Report – ET RealEstate”, com, May 30, 2018.
[3] Pranay Gupta and Karan Virwani, “Co-working Has Cradled India’s Start-up Boom; the Support It Now Seeks Is Well-deserved”, Times of India Blog, May 12, 2020.
[4] Gupta and Virwani, Co-working Has Cradled India’s Start-up Boom; the Support It Now Seeks Is Well-deserved.
[7] Pranay Gupta and Karan Virwani, “Co-working Has Cradled India’s Start-up Boom; the Support It Now Seeks Is Well-deserved”, Times of India Blog, May 12, 2020.
[8] Anirudh Singh Chauhan, “COVID-19: Is the Co-working Space Industry Looking at an Uncertain Future?” 99acres, June 24, 2020, Accessed September 28, 2020.
[9] WeWork, “Reimagining work in the era of COVID-19,” WeWork, June 16, 2020.
[10] McKinsey, “The path to the next normal Leading with resolve through the coronavirus pandemic”, McKinsey & Company, May 2020.
[11] Santiago Comella-Dorda et al., “Revisiting Agile Teams after an Abrupt Shift to Remote.” McKinsey & Company, May 07, 2020.
[12] Julie Wagner and Dan Watch, “Innovation Spaces: The New Design of Work”, Brookings, April 2017.
[13] “WeWork India Expects 25% Growth in Revenue for 2020 despite COVID-19”, Mint, September 04, 2020, Accessed September 28, 2020.
[14] Ananya Bhattacharya, “India’s Internet Penetration Is Actually Way Lower than You’d Think”, Quartz India, June 21, 2018.
[15] “Over 13 Mn People Will Operate Out Of Co-working Spaces By 2020”, JLL India, May 31, 2018.
[16] Deepak Sood, “As Coronavirus Makes Freelancing Popular, Govt Must Make Wage Policies, Safeguards for Gig workers”, The Financial Express, June 12, 2020, Accessed September 28, 2020.
[17] Rohini Swamy et al., “High Productivity, Less Gossip, but No Work-life Balance – WFH Tales of Bengaluru Techies”, ThePrint, July 04, 2020, Accessed October 06, 2020.
[18] “Work from Home Stressful for Most, Finds Survey”, Top News Wood, June 01, 2020.
[20] Sabrina Korreck, “New Space for the Future of Work: Co-working in India,” ORF Occasional Paper No. 255, June 2020, Observer Research Foundation. Pp 43
[21] ET Bureau, “Indians Spend 7% of Their Day Getting to Their Office”, The Economic Times, September 03, 2019.
[22] ET Bureau, Indians Spend 7% of Their Day Getting to Their Office
[25] Somit Sen, “From 20.3 Lakh to 32 Lakh, Mumbai’s Vehicle Count up 56% in Just 5 Years: Mumbai News – Times of India”, The Times of India.
[28] “Bengaluru Is the ‘Most Traffic Congested City’ in the World: Report”, Bangalore Mirror, January 29, 2020.
[30] Mary Baker, “Gartner Survey Reveals 82% of Company Leaders Plan to Allow Employees to Work Remotely Some of the Time”, Gartner.
[32] Trisha Jalan, “Govt Looks to Push Indian Apps with Atmanirbhar Innovation Challenge”, MediaNama, July 06, 2020.
[34] Rashi Varshney, “New Incubator in Town 91SpringBoard to Invest in 10-15 Startups a Year”, Techcircle, March 19, 2013.
[35] The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, “Gig Economy: The Way Forward”, January 24, 2020.
[36] Kannalmozhi Kabilan, “Coworking with Social Distancing”, The New Indian Express, June 27, 2020. Read from source….