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On March 4, Launch Coworking cut the ribbon on 6,400 square-feet of office space on the fifth floor of the Grain Exchange Building on Lombard Street.
It was a major move that was years in the making for the company, which since 2017 had operated a co-working space — a shared workplace that hosts multiple entrepreneurs, organizations, or independent workers who pay flexible, tiered fees to use the facility as much or as little as they want — on Chevrier Boulevard. With 150 members, it was time to expand, said founder Jason Abbott.
Ten days later, the pandemic struck, and thousands of workers in Winnipeg were sent home from their respective offices. "I think any business owner looks at the long- and short-term," Abbott said. "The short-term was, ‘How long is this going to last, and how many members are going to cancel their membership?’"
It turned out Abbott’s worries were a bit backward: the number of cancellations was soon dwarfed by people asking to sign up. Launch now has 200 members, and last week opened a third outpost on Scott Street in Osborne Village, with communal workspaces along with individual and executive offices; companies including Lululemon and Total Metabolic Solutions have already moved local operations there.
While the pandemic trends of working from home and flexible work have been a tough pill to swallow for office traditionalists, those concepts have proven popular for many workers balancing the risks of returning to cubicles and the challenges of at-home productivity.
For some employers not eager to pay a premium for office ghost-towns or be locked into long-term lease agreements amid a pandemic, eschewing tradition for co-working space is no longer quite as taboo.
"I think it’s being seen as a new way to work," said Andrea Tiopo, the co-founder of Osborne Village co-working space TableSpace, which has had steady interest since reopening in May, with many first-time users converting to full-time members.
Over the last decade, the concept of co-working and flexible work grew from a niche idea for freelancers to one employed or considered by major tech startups or financial institutions, said Chanel Dehond, who works in corporate workplace strategy for international firm HLW and teaches interior design at New York’s Parsons School of Design.
Dehond said COVID-19 could be a "black swan" event for how businesses and organizations view their office needs, giving mobile work and co-working a jolt of new interest.
The traditional office won’t disappear, Dehond said, but ideas like spending less time there and working remotely, in places such as co-working spaces, are being entertained or embraced by more companies than before the pandemic.
For one thing, Dehond said, workers — particularly millennials and baby boomers — appear to appreciate the options flexibility allows.
Cost is another major factor, especially in the Big Apple, and prior to the pandemic, companies were already looking to densify their operations to limit real estate and equipment spending, she said.
That was the thinking for a few new Launch members, including the Certified Technicians & Technologists Association of Manitoba (CTTAM), which signed up in July. Since 1995, the non-profit was working out of an office at 1600 Portage Ave., but CEO and registrar Robert Okabe said Launch provided an opportunity to streamline operations and cut costs significantly.
For the Portage office, CTTAM was spending $4,500 per month on rent, and were locked into three-plus years more on their lease. At Launch, the organization spends $1,000 per month with access to all three locations and a fixed desk for Okabe. On an annual basis, that’s $54,000 as opposed to $12,000, plus savings on phone, internet and insurance. The leftover cash will likely be used to heavily or fully subsidize training opportunities for the organization’s 3,200 members, Okabe said.
"(Co-working) is something new to us, but once you see you have the flexibility of working from home or meeting in person with clients, it’s easy enough," he said.
Tech Manitoba moved to Launch’s Exchange location in August, and CEO Kay Gardner said the change was less about financial savings than it was about the access to different locations and proximity to the tech community. Even before the pandemic, co-working was something staff preferred, Gardner said.
While COVID-19 has improved the fortunes of some local co-working companies, it has had some negative impacts on the industry as a whole thus far.
A Research and Markets report said the co-working market is expected to decline to $8.24 billion in 2020 from $9.27 billion in 2019. (The market is expected to grow to more than $11 billion by 2023). Earlier this month, IWG, which owns leading on-demand office companies Regus and Spaces, filed for creditor protection in Canada.
There are also, of course, added health concerns that weren’t pressing before the pandemic that the spaces must address: TableSpace and Launch both implemented safety measures like reduced capacity and increased spacing and sanitation.
Those measures are also in place at Launch’s Osborne spot, which is 4,500 square feet and was already an office space before the company moved in.
The highest membership cost at any Launch location starts at a baseline of $399 per month, with added costs for certain perks like a dedicated desk ($99), a mailing and shipping address ($29) or coffee and tea ($19).
So far, the company has grown as more employees and independent workers see their jobs shaken up, and as companies see the merit in co-work.
He said a lot is to be determined in the next six to 12 months, but the company has fielded inquiries from major companies and received interest in expanding out of Winnipeg into Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Kenora, or smaller, growing Manitoba cities like Brandon and Dauphin.
He also isn’t ruling out growing into west and northeast Winnipeg.
"From Day 1, I’ve had a vision of Launch being the preferred co-working supplier on the Prairies, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to do that," Abbott said. "I think there’s going to be a wave."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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