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Local Coworking Spaces Thrive Where WeWork Dared Not Go

May 22, 2024 6:00 AM

Local Coworking Spaces Thrive Where WeWork Dared Not Go

A disused church, a school, and a motorcycle garage are among the hyperlocal new coworking spaces cropping up to offer remote workers a place to go.

The exterior of a church on a sunny day with a green lawn in front and a blue sky in the background
Courtesy of Main Space

The white colonial revival church with its high steeple adds an idyllic architectural touch to the affluent town of Huntington, a Long Island suburb of New York City. But a sign grabs the eye from the road: “Coworking space,” it says. “Kind of like a WeWork. Was a church, but not anymore.”

The former church may have been leveled and replaced with condos, had Michael Hartofilis not bought it and repurposed it as a coworking venue called Main Space that opened earlier this year. What was once a sanctuary with a high ceiling has been split into two floors of coworking space, with cubicles, glass phone booths, and minimalist art. Industrial-style beams and modern, geometric light fixtures are juxtaposed with the preserved, intricate crown molding and artisan details that hug the building’s windows and doorways.

I spent a morning working out of the bisected sanctuary, where cubicles with ergonomic desk chairs have replaced church pews. Neon signs and bright colors make it easy to forget Main Space was once a church, and it has all the amenities of a typical coworking space—a gym, ice bath, kitchen, various conference rooms with comfortable armchairs and patterned wallpaper, and an outdoor patio decorated with a string of lights. But it’s also embedded in the community. On a Thursday afternoon, people were scattered at desks throughout the building and in conference rooms, chatting with one another between their own business calls.

“Ideally, it is local people” who sign up for the coworking space, says Hartofilis, who also heads an energy company and is working on a neighborhood social app. He’s hoping those who come feel like they’re part of something exclusive and get to know one another. But people have already come from neighboring towns, or used it as a meeting place between New York City and towns on Long Island. “There's not a whole lot of supply as far as coworking spaces, there's nothing like this.”

The interior of a row of desks inside of a coworking space
Courtesy of Main Space

After Covid changed work patterns and styles, coworking is hanging on. The industry is growing and is expected to continue doing so—despite negative headlines about the company that brought coworking to the masses: WeWork. The coworking behemoth filed for bankruptcy in November, sparking concerns about the model after it took on office leases at a rapid pace and sought to sublease desks out at a premium. Rising interest rates and massive shifts in the office space marketplace following the Covid outbreak hammered the coworking giant, which was at one time valued at $47 billion. But WeWork is now preparing to right itself and exit bankruptcy at the end of May, getting $450 million in new investments and shedding excess office space after renegotiating leases. And industry experts say there’s lots of potential for coworking to mature.

“Coworking is a great product,” says Jonathan Wasserstrum, a partner at Unwritten Capital, who has invested in Switchyards, a coworking company in the US southeast which shuns the title of coworking in favor of “work clubs.” The company has spaces in Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina. A former school, a motorcycle garage, a warehouse where elevators were tested, and a church are among its offerings. Coworking “is in high demand, and will continue to be in high demand,” Wasserstrum says.

Many of the memberships at Switchyards’ locations are sold out. The company plans to have 25 clubs by the end of the year—with a total of 200 in the next five years. The design and music selection take inspiration from libraries, coffee shops, and hotel lobbies more than offices.

Part of the draw, too, is convenience. Switchyards clubs are often located in residential neighborhoods and away from crowded commercial districts, where office space is plentiful but can be costly. “We felt like people were going to spend more time reorienting their lives away from the central business district and closer to where they live,” Michael Tavani, Switchyards’ CEO and founder, says. The result is something Tavani sees as not quite a first, second, or third place, but a new category somewhere in between.

Even as workers push their companies for flexibility, plenty are looking for work-related communities. Peter Bacevice, vice president of R&D for workplace intelligence platform at Pangeam, says the spaces are a “professional third place” that sit between home and office. His research has found that people in coworking spaces “thrive” at higher levels than those in offices. “Some of this is attributable to people being able to find a sense of community with others,” Bacevice says. As a loneliness epidemic persists, some people don’t want to be at home, but also don’t want to stray far away from it. A 2023 Gallup poll found that the average employee prefers to work in an office two to three days a week, as a desire for hybrid work over fully in-person or remote shrinks.

“The hottest trend in working for individuals is neighborhood coworking spaces that are close to home,” says Jamie Hodari, cofounder and CEO of Industrious, one of the larger coworking companies that differentiates itself by entering into management agreements with landlords instead of leases, which Hodari says carry less risk.

It’s not just individuals: Companies are seeking coworking platforms like Industrious to rent spaces for mini offices instead of setting those satellite spaces up themselves, Hodari says. These companies might seek more centralized locations in typical office locations and downtowns. This is all as office space rentals are languishing. Buildings in commercial downtowns have been slow to recover after white-collar workers went to work from home. Nearly 20 percent of office space sat vacant as of late 2023, according to an analysis from Moody’s Analytics.

There are other companies and flexible models designed to meet that community demand. In Brooklyn, Work Heights has opened seven coworking locations and offers outdoor space that is highly coveted in New York City. Storefront coworking spaces also attract attention. WeWork itself has some locations that have repurposed old buildings as offices, including a historic theater in India and at one time, a century-old ballroom in New York City. Apartment buildings are building coworking into their model, including Adam Neumann’s own Flow, a residential real estate venture that he had hoped would partner with WeWork.

Main Space might become more than just coworking, Hartofilis says. It could be a place for fantasy football drafts, escape rooms, or birthday parties—he says he already held a beer pong tournament there to christen the space. During the hours I spent in the coworking space, I used one of the glass phone booths to make calls to talk to other people about coworking. The coworking space living inside the church’s doors is certainly unexpected, but inside, it’s what you would expect of an office: people reheating food in the kitchen, catching up with one another, and seeking out a quiet corner to take their calls. Some parts of office life will ultimately stay in place—no matter where people decide to work from.

Amanda Hoover is a general assignment staff writer at WIRED. She previously wrote tech features for Morning Brew and covered New Jersey state government for The Star-Ledger. She was born in Philadelphia, lives in New York, and is a graduate of Northeastern University.
Staff Writer

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