Craving connection in ‘neighborhood office buildings’
Co-working spaces aren’t just for cities anymore.
By Rebecca M. Knight
For more than a decade, Thomas Malone, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of the book “The Future of Work,” has predicted the rise of what he calls neighborhood office buildings. In suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas, Malone envisions houses or portions of them being converted to co-working spaces, allowing people nearby to enjoy the camaraderie of a communal coffee machine without having to battle traffic to get to it.
“It’s clearly desirable for people to have their office as close to their house as possible,” he says, “as long as it’s not in their house.”
Malone’s vision is looking prescient now that the coronavirus pandemic has turned millions of knowledge workers into remote employees. Many of them may never go back to their employers’ offices full time.
Even for people who appreciate the greater flexibility of working from home, a permanent WFH lifestyle is not always appealing, whether it’s because of patchy home Wi-Fi, family distractions, or simply an emotional, intellectual, and creative need for in-person interaction.
Take, for instance, Mary Connolly, chief marketing officer at Isaacson, Miller, a recruiting firm. Earlier in the pandemic, Connolly moved from South Boston to Maine. By August, however, she found that working from home every day wasn’t cutting it. “I missed being around people,” she says. “I missed the noise of the office, the chitchat. I even missed my commute.”
She found solace renting an office at Union + Co., a co-working space on Front Street in Bath, Maine, a town of 8,000 perhaps best known for the Bath Iron Works shipyard. The space, located in a 19th-century brick building, has touches that would be familiar to anyone who’s been in a co-working space in a big city: high ceilings, abundant succulents, and a Herman Miller aesthetic. But it isn’t, like most co-working spots, situated in a large urban center or run by a national chain like WeWork or Regus.
At Union + Co., which opened in May 2019, Connolly rents space alongside an attorney, a realtor, an independent film maker, an artist, an engineer, and a state legislator. “Being in a shared office has helped me get a little more work-life balance,” she says. “It also helps me feel like part of a community; [the other members] are my colleagues.”
Data on boutique co-working spaces is hard to come by, but William Edmundson, president of the Global Workspace Association, says shared offices in suburban towns have seen an increase in occupancy since last spring. “At first people were toughing it out and working from their spare bedroom or dining table,” he says. “But the novelty quickly wore off.”
Edmundson expects the number of co-working spaces outside metropolitan areas to grow as employers see an opportunity to save on real estate. “Companies can let their people work remotely most of the time and then repurpose or downsize their headquarters,” he says.
The rise of co-working spaces, like the rise of the remote labor force itself, has broad implications for employee compensation, worker mobility, and the future of organizational culture, not to mention zoning and tax laws.
But Sean Ireland, a real estate developer and co-owner of Union + Co., is confident those details can be worked out. “The need is there,” he says. “Just as every little town has its corner pub, a decade from now every little village will have its own co-working space.”
Rebecca M. Knight is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, covering the changing workplace. Follow her on Twitter @knightrm.