As the pandemic changes the way we work, coworking takes off in the suburbs

Since 2019, Selland has moved from Downtown Crossing in Cambridge to a coworking space just off Route 128. Nine of its 14 employees live near Boston, scattered across Workbar locations in Salem, Needham and Burlington. The rest live in Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Austin, Texas, and occasionally come to Burlington for meetings.

Selland’s setup is nothing out of the ordinary and is becoming more and more common as the COVID-19 pandemic changes how and where we work. As homebound workers seek to ditch crowded trains and traffic jams, but still want a social place free from the distractions of home, more and more are finding it in the suburbs.

WorkBar, a co-working space, in Needham.Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff

It’s a change from the pre-pandemic coworking boom, which was heavily concentrated in the major business districts of Boston and Cambridge, with a wave of bustling spaces geared towards urban workers. Some of those urban operations have closed, with data from real estate firm Newmark showing that, overall, the amount of co-work space in Greater Boston has declined since the start of the pandemic.

It’s too early to know how many people will pop up in the suburbs instead, said Elizabeth Berthelette, Newmark’s research director; More clarity in the Boston office market in general will come as more businesses return to the office this fall. But she and other observers are watching closely.

“Many offices will have a flexible or hybrid model for employees,” she said. “Will this increase the demand for coworking in the suburbs?” Potentially.”

Coworking has become big business. WeWork, the industry giant that at its peak in 2019 was almost synonymous with industry, controlled approximately 1.5 million square feet in 16 locations in Boston, almost all within a 15-minute walk of Downtown Crossing. Most, but not all, of these locations are still there. And WeWork said it has no plans to expand into the Boston-area suburbs. But others do.

Workbar has long had suburban locations and plans to add more. LocalWorks, which focuses on co-working in the suburbs and operates seven sites in Massachusetts, is also taking the plunge. And a variety of small operators have seen new niches emerge during the pandemic.

When Workbar began opening offices in the suburbs in 2015, CEO Sarah Travers said the move was driven by the needs of members.

At the WorkBar in Needham, employees of a company meet in the kitchen.
At the WorkBar in Needham, employees of a company meet in the kitchen.
Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff

Six years later, as the pandemic accelerates the desire for short trips, the company operates nine sites in the Boston area, including six beyond Boston and Cambridge in cities like Needham and Arlington. They are looking to expand and are actively targeting the suburban market, hoping to have a location within 20 minutes of where everyone else lives or works in Boston.

LocalWorks founder Barry Greenfield uses the same philosophy, though he compares his company to Southwest Airlines in an industry known for its hip perks, providing a nice, clean space and just enough amenities to get the job done. . Most of the people who work there live nearby, he said.

The company aims to target 30-60 year olds from the suburbs and small businesses experimenting with satellite offices. And it pays off. Revenue has quadrupled since last fall when the company opened multiple locations and stepped up marketing, Greenfield said. Locations that have been open for about six months show an occupancy rate of 85%.

“These are not people who lived in the city and went out in the suburbs,” Greenfield said. “These are people who need space but don’t want to go to town. They want to be close to home.

At LocalWorks in Wellesley, people can rent space instead of working from home.
At LocalWorks in Wellesley, people can rent space instead of working from home. Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff

Homeowners also see the benefit.

Suburban coworking sites tend to generate less foot traffic than their downtown counterparts, but the flexibility they offer is attractive to businesses in uncertain times, said Mike Wilcox, senior vice president and director. rental from Bulfinch, a commercial real estate company. with office buildings in the suburbs of the Boston area. This brings tenants into the building.

“Co-working spaces are the beneficiaries of people who say ‘I’m going to make a short-term commitment and see what the world looks like in a few quarters’,” said Wilcox, whose company has four co-working spaces. working in its Buildings in the Boston area, including Workbar and LocalWorks outposts. They are only a fraction of Bulfinch’s portfolio, Wilcox said, but generated more traffic during the pandemic than traditional long-term tenants.

What office life looks like after the pandemic remains an open question. But there is a growing feeling that many white collar employers will switch to a more hybrid model than the traditional 9 to 5 at your desk. A recent study by WeWork and Workplace Intelligence found that many employees would be willing to forgo benefits like health care coverage, bonuses and paid time off for more autonomy in their workplace, which could include a coworking space relatively close to their home.

Truly, it’s too early to tell what the next phase of office work will look like, said Ethan Bernstein, associate professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. And it probably won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.

But as Selland, the CEO of DipJar, is considering his next office space, that likely means flexibility and being close to his suburban workforce. This leads him to lean towards one option, in particular.

“I have a feeling it’s going to be in a working bar,” he said.

Samantha Subin can be reached at [email protected]

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