Is there a future for co-working spaces?

The recent coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the health & safety limitations faced by these new places of business

Is there a future for co-working spaces?
The recent coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the health & safety limitations faced by new places of business.

Co-working as a practice has been established for a few years now. However there currently is very little legislation surrounding co-working spaces, and with newness comes concerns as to the as-of-yet unknown issues that these new services could entail.

There are obviously great incentives to working in co-working spaces, generally the spaces are well-thought out and nicely designed spaces with various perks such as free coffee, networking opportunities and different types of rooms to suit individual and businesses needs. Nevertheless, with this flexibility comes some limitations as well as a grey area regarding rules and regulations surrounded OHS in the co-working space.

There are a host of questions around what co-working spaces should provide workers: fire safety drills? First aid kits? Evacuation maps? Optimal ergonomics? Even if current legislation does not necessarily cover these issues, should co-working spaces cover them of their own volition?

Amid the new concerns around health and safety in the workplace, how will co-working spaces be affected? And even before the current pandemic, what were co-working spaces doing to guarantee the safety of their workers?

Physical safety and mental wellbeing

Reports indicate that clients who use co-working spaces have one large concern, and that is how to handle workplace injury. It is understood that co-working spaces are not set up to provide users with health care benefits or sick leave, but in the case of workplace injury who is liable? This issue is complicated by the status of the worker injured (freelancer, dependent contractor, employee, etc.) as well as the different liability claims possible.

Co-working giant WeWork’s website indicates that the company offers “technical and physical security solutions to ensure the protection of our Members, their employees, and the confidential information that is handled within our spaces.” They offer further guidelines with regards to events hosting in their co-working spaces though provide very few specific details.

Outside of physical safety, there is also the worker’s mental wellbeing to consider. According to a report on Global News, co-working spaces, whilst intended to foster an increased sense of community and networking, can actually have a negative impact on workers in that they feel potentially more isolated due to the lack of traditional workplace structure.

By and large, co-working spaces are leased by companies who usually run a low-risk environment. Nevertheless, before deciding to rent out a co-working space, users should perform due diligence to see whether they feel comfortable enough leasing out the space and providing such a workplace to their employees.

Privacy and data protection

There are not only questions being raised around physical and mental wellbeing, but also with regards to privacy and confidentiality. The lay-out and the very nature of a co-working space is not necessarily conducive to optimal privacy or data protection.

These new spaces have a high influx of visitors, with new members coming and going (especially for spaces which offer month-to-month subscriptions). It may be hard to keep track of who is and is not supposed to be in the space, which could compromise the safety of the location but also put sensitive and/or confidential information at risk.

Additionally, Coworking resources states that as these spaces provide internet services for its members, it is the duty of the office manager to put into place security measures to prevent data breaches. However, with members often using personal laptops brought to and from home, these security measures may not be enough. This could also limit the type of clients a co-working space can have – would it safe for banking or government employees to use co-working services?

Future concerns amid COVID-19

With the current crisis, which has both economic and health-related ramifications, co-working spaces have taken a hit. Either these spaces have had to close until further notice, or members – especially smaller businesses or individuals – are cancelling contracts, especially those on a month-to-month plan or short-term leases.

Furthermore, working arrangements for many companies have been greatly shaken up and will likely continue to be for weeks, months – even maybe a year. And these pandemic-related changes have the potential to have a much deeper impact down the line, with some experts saying that it will fundamentally change how office environments operate now that workers have been working from home for two months in Canada and the US.

In future, will businesses feel comfortable renting out offices in a space which they do not fully control, for example where they cannot put into place their own pandemic planning or direct how often the space is sanitized?

These questions are yet to be answered, but while co-working was once hailed as the future of the workspace, it seems as if it may already be a thing of the past.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) currently has guidelines for flexible workers and free address workers. Furthermore, Coworking resources has created various online guides to help companies understand safety and security issues inherent to co-working spaces. These cover physical security, member safety, data and internet safety, use of visitor badges, equipment, desks and seating, accessibility and inclusivity as well as events and facilities.