Will the pandemic create a co-working boom in Washtenaw County?

Business leaders anticipate co-working will continue to grow as companies pursue more flexible work models.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Washtenaw County businesses work, from small startups to large, established companies. Experts think those changes may become permanent as companies pivot to remote work or hybrid models. What does this shift in thinking mean for the future of the co-working model, though?

"I don't know exactly how things are going to shake out, but I think co-working will be very relevant going forward," says Bill Mayer, vice president of entrepreneurial services for Ann Arbor SPARK.
Ann Arbor SPARK vice president of entrepreneurial services Bill Mayer.
Mayer says the pandemic has created an "interesting window into the company culture of an organization." A year and a half into the pandemic, company leaders must decide if they are going to continue with all-remote work, require employees to come into an office two or three days a week, or come up with some sort of hybrid model, Mayer says. 

Mayer says the co-working model will continue to be attractive to startups while providing some flexibility for larger companies that have always had traditional offices. 

"Startups are well positioned to flip to remote work without missing a beat," he says. "Large employers have very established and mature ways of doing things. With startup companies, they don't have any company culture set in stone, and they're very flexible. Startups have known that remote work was perfectly acceptable for a long time, but that was judged as weird. Everyone has caught up with the startups now."

Work from home doesn't work for everyone

"Work from home is hard for some and enjoyable for others," Mayer says. He says he doesn't miss the drive to work, but he does appreciate having an office where he can make phone calls or be on Zoom calls all day without annoying his wife.

Kristin Danko, community manager for Ypsilanti-based Back Office Studio, says people are ready to stop working from home.
Back Office Studio community manager Kristin Danko.
"People really want to get out of the house, even if it's just one day a week," she says. "A lot of members are telling us that when they do come here, they're a lot more productive. They felt like they worked a whole day, and then they could go home and play."

For those who need social interaction or to keep their home and work lives separate, co-working will likely continue to be an attractive option.

"We very much cater to the individual that is stuck at home working remotely. They need that community connection," says Brendan Chard, president of Ann Arbor-based Workantile, a member-operated co-working space.

Chard says Workantile was launched before many Washtenaw County residents had even heard about the concept of co-working. 

"We were solving a problem we knew existed for a smaller amount of the population at that time. Now, with COVID, there are a lot more isolated people and companies giving up traditional office space in this flex-limbo work smorgasbord," Chard says. "In the meantime, workers often like their job and want to keep doing it, but they really also like having co-workers and the social side of things. For a lot of people, co-working is a pretty elegant solution."

Co-working appeal for both startups and cost-conscious big companies

Mayer says economic crises and downturns are often counterintuitively good for startups. He notes that when Pfizer pulled out of Ann Arbor, that displaced a lot of scientists, some of whom decided to launch their own medical technology startups.

"It's one thing if I have a great day job with a Fortune 500 company or the auto industry. At that point, it's too risky to go out on your own," Mayer says. "But if you get downsized, you start thinking, 'I should start that idea I always had for a great company, and here's my chance.' From an activity and growth standpoint, this pandemic has been a net positive for the majority of our startup companies."
Chelsea Hohn at Cahoots.
Chelsea Hohn, operations manager for downtown Ann Arbor's Cahoots co-working space, says Cahoots caters to small startups who consider it their "home base."

"Say it's a startup with two people who don't know where they'll be in five years. Why sign a five-year lease?" she says. "We're here to make it easy for them to grow their business a little or a lot."

Hohn thinks co-working will be an "even more attractive option moving forward" both for cost savings and community feel.

"If community is important to your company culture, you'll immediately be a part of the tech community surrounded by several other companies," she says. "It's also nice having a space that isn't necessarily managed by your company. Someone else is stocking the sticky notes. You don't have to do all those things. You just come in and get to work."

On the flip side, office space has been scarce and expensive in the Ann Arbor area, and big companies could save money by going remote or transitioning to a hybrid model that involves co-working.

Mayer says both the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor SPARK business incubators offer a flexible model for companies that are considering a hybrid model.
Co-working at SPARK East.
"Say a company has 50 employees, but only 20 are local, and only half of those are in the office at any time," he says. "Why would they pay for 10,000 square feet of office space when you could use the incubator model, rent 10 desks, and have your people trade off on the desks?"

Using a hybrid model also means large companies can recruit talent from further away. 

"Historically, when the expectation was that you need to be in the office five days a week, you're going to recruit someone within 100 miles, or otherwise it's a ridiculous commute," Mayer says. "Now, there's no finite radius for talent. Theoretically, they could be in Montana or California and work effectively with your team."

The future of co-working in Washtenaw County

Mayer says he doesn't have a crystal ball, so he tries to have some humility when it comes to his "best guess about what's going to happen."

"It's very humbling when the staff wants answers and dates, and I just have to say, 'Team, you have to stay flexible and be okay with the fact that these are unknowable questions we're discussing,'" Mayer says. 

The pandemic was hard on co-working spaces that lost members and revenue during a three-month shutdown in 2020. But things are looking up currently, and the future looks promising.

"I really do think we're going to see a new trend in how and where we work," Danko says. "I think people have really gotten used to flexibility and variety."
Workantile president Brendan Chard.
Chard says Workantile's community model helped the space survive. All the members who stayed chipped in to create a financial "cushion" for Workantile during the height of the pandemic.

"We're very fortunate that we have a dedicated membership that understands the importance of the community," Chard says. "During COVID, people chose to keep supporting things they wanted to exist when this is all over."

Hohn says 2020 was "tough for co-working spaces all over the country." But as more area residents got vaccinated, traffic at Cahoots began to increase. 

"We're finally allowing ourselves to dream a little bit again, instead of being in survival mode," she says. "We learned a lot from [the pandemic] and we understand what the big things are that matter and what little things don't matter, and where to place your energy. We're excited about the future, excited to come up with new solutions."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.