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MassDevelopment

Co-working spaces, built on collaboration, are retooling for life in the era of social distancing


January 4, 2021 : The Boston Globe, by Tim Logan


These are not easy times for in-person collaboration. Or for the places that exist to make it happen — like the co-working and shared workspaces that have exploded in recent years.

Now, some of them are trying to adapt.

Co-working spaces across Massachusetts are retooling for a life of social distancing. They are investing in new HVAC and sanitation systems and buying desk dividers and other equipment designed to keep people safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Late last month, a dozen co-working spaces — mostly smaller and nonprofit operators — received state grants to help pay for all that. It is recognition, said the state’s economic development secretary, Mike Kennealy, of the role these sort of places play in the Massachusetts economy.

“We’re all challenged to work in different ways right now,” Kennealy said. “If you’ve got a business model that relies on people coming together, you need to help them do that.”

Co-working had erupted in popularity around Greater Boston, with deep-pocketed operators such as WeWork scooping up huge blocks of space and community-oriented nonprofits nurturing startups in specific industries. The details vary, but they all tried to offer flexibility, shared resources, and — crucially — the sort of community that many entrepreneurs and small companies can struggle to build on their own.

That all crashed in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut offices all over Massachusetts. Even in the months since the spaces reopened, workers have been slow to return when they can instead work at home, even on the couch.

That has co-working providers rethinking their place in the world, and how to provide the connections their customers crave, no matter where they might sit.

“It has really pushed us to think differently,” said Sarah Athanas, owner of Groundwork Coworking in New Bedford. “I’m not just here to provide a chair and a desk. I’m here to support people in their work life.”

For her, that has meant more online events, like monthly networking breakfasts that have now moved to Zoom. But it has also meant being there for people who want to get out of the house, creating someplace safe for them to go and work.

About 10 people still work at Groundwork each day, Athanas said. With a $7,800 grant from MassDevelopment, it’s installing soundproof “phone booths” with better ventilation and swapping out big communal desks with individual workspaces. Color-coded coasters mark whether someone has worked at a desk — and it needs cleaning — or not. And people have to sign up in advance instead of just wandering in, so that the place doesn’t don’t drift over capacity.

“Usually, co-working spaces are designed to figure out ways to encourage people to bump into each other,” Athanas said. “It felt really strange to reengineer that.”

Some places have bigger re-dos in mind.

Grub Street, a nonprofit creative writing center in Boston, was midway through building a much larger home in the Seaport when the pandemic hit. They shifted classes online, dropped the lease on their old building, and spent a lot of time thinking about how to design the new space to address any virus concerns that might linger after the pandemic, said executive director Eve Bridburg.

“We ask people to come and sit in a room for three hours with 12 other people,” Bridburg said. “People are not going to be in a hurry to do that.”

She’s not sure when, exactly, Grub Street’s new home — on the lower floors of a Fan Pier condo building — might open. Probably later this year. But it will have an even more robust HVAC system and audiovisual equipment that will allow for more hybrid in-person and remote classes, along with events to be streamed to viewers, wherever they might be.

“We have a national audience now,” she said. “We’ve had people logging in from as far away as Saudi Arabia.”

But there are places where being there in person is the whole point. Several state grants went to organizations that provide the sort of specialized equipment you can’t use at home, like LabCentral in Cambridge and Technocopia — a Worcester makerspace that offers 3-D printers and metal= and glass-cutting shops. The Record Co., in the Newmarket section of Boston, received $50,000 for COVID safety measures at its new music studios — low-cost practice and recording space the nonprofit rents to bands that pretty much have to be in one room together.

“You can’t do that in your studio apartment in Allston,” said Record Co. executive director Matt McArthur. “You start playing the drum set there and someone’s going to call the police.”

These types of places, where people can get together and make stuff, are important to the region’s culture and economy, McArthur said. Like Grub Street, the Record Co. was at work on a new home when the pandemic hit and received $50,000 for UV-sanitizing lighting, touchless systems, and a better HVAC system — important in a recording studio where white noise from fans is best avoided.

They’ll reopen next week, at reduced capacity, and ramp up as both demand and the virus allow. After more than a year of running a construction project — much of it also spent dealing with a pandemic — McArthur’s ready to get back to helping people make music again, he said.

“I now know far more about air conditioning than I ever thought possible,” he said. “I went to school to learn how to write songs.”