There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has had unfavourable consequences for most of the coworking industry. As some companies, such as WeWork were already struggling with their business models, it is still too early to predict if this sector will bounce back.

Although social isolation will not last forever, it has unwittingly led us into a social experiment on a massive scale, testing companies’ ability to be flexible, and get to grips with the home-working paradigm. The probability of seeing a shift in our working culture to include more at-home, virtual spaces is high; however, collaboration and coworking will still rank highly for many enterprises, so there is hope yet for the sector in this changing landscape.

Coworking and COVID-19

The problem COVID-19 poses for coworking, simply put, is this: shared office spaces are perfect places for the transmission of a virus such as COVID-19. The collaboration and efficiency offered, which makes them attractive to higher densities of clients, means they are hot-desking close together, touching surfaces, gathering in groups, and coming and going. The chances of it spreading in these spaces are incredibly high, with few implementable ways of social distancing.

man and woman sitting on table

Being potential virus breeding grounds has forced many coworking spaces around the world to close their doors, or at the very least, introduce stringent cleanliness precautions to continue trading. Coworking giant, WeWork is a prime example. With 739 locations (12 in Singapore alone!) and around 662,000 members globally, it is a huge corporation. Yet, we have heard the phrase “coronavirus doesn’t discriminate” many times, and this could signal the end for WeWork. If international companies such as it are going under, what chance do smaller Southeast Asia startups have amidst this black swan event?

Coworking in Southeast Asia

While demand for coworking spaces during the pandemic is taking a hit, flexibility and affirmative action could see the industry through a dark time. Vietnam, which has seen phenomenal growth in the sector in recent years, is experiencing an upturn in demand for flexible working spaces where employees can have access to the same facilities as they have at the office. 

Tony Suh Heasung, CEO of Hivelab Vina, the operator of Dream Station, a coworking space from South Korea, stated that the company had not changed plans for expansion into Hanoi due to COVID-19. The Kafnu coworking network in Ho Chi Minh city is also reportedly running its business as usual. Furthermore, Hanoi-based Cogo remains optimistic, citing 70% occupancy rates, and explains the continued demand is due to their customer base largely not coming from retail, manufacturing and trade — the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.

Perhaps it is a little premature to speculate, but industry players remain buoyant, and confident that by tweaking some safety protocols, and layout issues, the coworking sector can continue to thrive. Anshuman Magazine, chairman and CEO at CBRE India, South East Asia, Middle East and Africa, stated that if the virus could remain relatively contained, the impact would be short-lived. He went on to say that “on the positive side, health and wellness of employees could take centre stage for the majority of the corporates with greater focus on workplace hygiene, remote working policies, and increased adoption of flexible space options.”

How the coworking industry can fight the coronavirus

Despite many coworking spaces remaining open during the pandemic, it is clear that in doing so, they must adhere to the guidelines issued by local health authorities to keep their tenants and employees safe. Many shared offices have been intensifying cleaning, creating more space between people, and changing the focus to private areas rather than collaborative spaces in a bid to prevent the spread.

Going forward, we are likely to see the reversal of the open office, which has been so ubiquitous recently. Architects and designers will be called upon to come up with new solutions to create distance between people, without destroying the entire coworking concept. Cleaning and ventilation systems will be up for review, as well as automation and voice technology modalities to limit the number of buttons we have to push. Different teams may need to have different working hours even, to limit the footfall in the office.

The COVID-19 crisis and its associated social distancing measures have turned our working cultures upside down. The coworking sector in Southeast Asia, although at the moment appears somewhat resilient, must prepare for change. The fear that has developed amongst us of being ‘too close’ to the next person will not leave our psyche overnight. The architectural and digital revolution of physical workplaces is coming, and if coworking startups can keep pace, they will have their part in that revolution.