As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out across Canada and case counts are waning in many parts of the country, businesses and their employees are cautiously poking their heads out of work-from-home setups and wondering what kinds of offices — if any — are waiting for them after the pandemic.
A number of major companies have made their intentions clear already, setting the tone of the conversation in North America. JPMorgan Chase has mandated a full return to the office for the U.S. bank’s employees; Ottawa-based e-commerce giant Shopify has meanwhile abandoned its offices in favour of a remote-only workforce.
But as vaccine protection increases and the debate rages over the future of work, some companies are finding opportunity in playing the middle ground with a more “flexible” approach to the office — through co-working.
When Shopify announced in 2020 that it would vacate its original headquarters at 150 Elgin St. in Ottawa, a co-working company called The Corporate Centre leapt at the chance to take over a few floors.
The company announced in April it would open a new location in the downtown Ottawa tower, suddenly opening up one of the city’s most well-known office spaces to all comers.
It was an opportunity not to be missed for Linebox Studio, an architectural firm with a long-standing connection to Shopify’s old offices — after all, it designed them.
“Moving into the space, it’s sort of an affirmation,” says Linebox COO Melissa Reeves.
The 150 Elgin St. offices were designed to promote collaboration and encourage interaction, Reeves says, the kinds of chance run-ins that co-working companies often advertise as a feature, not a bug, of the model.
Co-working or shared workspaces vary from office to office, but the typical format sees a large space occupied by a number of companies but fit-up and managed by a single provider.
Some spaces are wide open with a series of long desks, some offer semi-private offices. Many providers target standalone remote workers or fledgling startups looking for a like-minded community. Terms on co-working agreements are typically less restrictive, in some cases a year or less, than traditional leases with a commercial landlord.
Before the pandemic, Linebox held a lease at an office in Ottawa’s ByWard Market. A return to a long-term lease after months spent working remotely, however, was increasingly unattractive for the company. The uncertainty around the pandemic, future expansions or contractions of its staff and the desire to bump into people in entirely unrelated fields drove Linebox to start considering co-working as a realistic option.
“We know things are going to change. We know we’re not going to be in the same spot, even in a few years, as we are now. So going into a co-working space also offers the flexibility for us to change” Reeves says.
“I think that the future of co-working is the future of work, in many respects.”
Linebox isn’t alone in seeing the upside of co-working and more flexible arrangements.
A survey of more than 2,000 Canadian workers released by KPMG LLP in May showed that a majority of those polled (77 percent) want a mix of both remote and in-office working models after the pandemic ends.
Leigh Harris, a management consultant with KPMG, tells Global News that the demand for “hybrid” working models could lead businesses down the co-working route.
Not all companies will want to let go of their real estate portfolios in the way Shopify says it plans to, Harris notes. But companies that can get out of a lease that’s no longer making sense for them post-pandemic might be looking for more flexible space in the near term to gauge their employees’ appetites for a return to the office.
“If you’re the owner of massive real estate… you may want to maximize that. If you’re not, and you’re getting out of leases, then you might be re-examining whether or not you want to make investments or maybe scaling it down and seeing what your next move will be”, she says.
One of the world’s largest co-working providers, WeWork, has signaled in recent interviews that it’s fielding a ton of demand for flexible office space in the United States, where COVID-19 vaccinations were outpacing Canada earlier this spring.
A number of co-working providers who spoke to Global News say they’re preparing for a flood of demand in the fall when a larger proportion of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Kane Willmott is the CEO and co-founder of iQ Offices, which has an office portfolio including space in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal.
Willmott said his company has gotten plenty of interest, especially in Ontario and Quebec, from companies thinking about breaking their traditional leases and give co-working a try. The ongoing stay-at-home order in Ontario is holding people back from signing on dotted lines just yet, but he sees brighter days ahead with the lineup of prospects.
“As soon as things open up, this whole pipeline will start to flow through. The levee’s going to break”, he says.
The uncertainty coming out the other side of the pandemic is actually a selling point for the co-working model, Willmott argues.
The demand for a hybrid working style could see companies of 30 employees only require 15 desks in an office per day, if certain employees are only coming into the office a few days a week — if at all.
He says the modular nature of co-working makes it easier for companies to adjust their space needs and scale up or down based on their employees’ interests, which will likely also evolve over time.