Work in progress: Is coworking the way of the future or a thing of the past?

  • Mary Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton, Monday, June 15, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mary Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton, on the first floor of the workspace. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mary Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton, at the entrance. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emily Vance works in a shared workspace, Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emily Vance works in a shared workspace, Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Denis Luzuriaga works in a shared workspace, Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke. He is a co-owner. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alexis Fallon and Patrick Presto work together at Mass Property Partners, a business that has a private office in the Cubit Coworks workspace in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emily Vance and Denis Luzuriaga talk while working in a shared workspace at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke. He is a co-owner. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jason Katsoris, the owner of Holyoke Marketing Company, works in a private office adjacent to a shared workspace at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alexis Fallon, who works at Mass Property Partners, waters a plant, Wednesday, July 1, 2020 in a shared kitchen that is part of the Cubit Coworks workspace in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Denis Luzuriaga works in a shared workspace, Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke. He is a co-owner. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Co-owner Denis Luzuriaga works in a shared workspace, Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at Cubit Coworks in Holyoke. Behind him is a lounge that was constructed in an elevator shaft in the former manufacturing building.   STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2020 2:21:21 PM

The COVID-19 lockdown took a toll on coworking spaces in western Massachusetts, much as it did on so many other businesses. But while some coworking spaces in the region remained open, others had to close temporarily or were shuttered when the buildings housing them were closed to the public.

At Cubit Coworks in Holyoke, the coworking space saw a small drop in membership at the onset of the pandemic, with three members who used open desks ending their membership. But the organization’s numbers have since risen, said Marco Luzuriaga, who founded Cubit Coworks with his brother, Denis, in November.

“Starting in June, it started picking up again,” Luzuriaga said. “The rise was for offices. In that case, I believe it was people that for one reason or another have to look for a new office. One case was Berkshire Health. They were no longer able to work in the hospital.”

The members at Cubit Coworks range from graphic designers and financial planners to a marijuana dispensary accounting office and two administrative offices for health care companies.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Baker-Polito Administration and MassDevelopment announced funding for a fifth round of the Collaborative Workspace Program (with a due date of Aug. 10 for applicants), which is intended to spark job creation, innovation and entrepreneurial activity in communities with supporting infrastructure. Through the program, established coworking spaces can apply for grants of up to $100,000 for new equipment or building improvements; this includes solutions to help spaces follow social distancing and public health and safety protocols.

AmherstWorks announced on July 1 that it will begin the process of reopening its doors with members who have an office or dedicated desk invited back to the coworking space, according to a press release. In adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations and recommendations, the organization also listed changes to the coworking space, including closing its communal dish section and increasing cleaning of the space to three times daily. General members will be allowed back into the space with reservation of tables and phone booths after July 15.

Luzuriaga said his coworking space has remained open throughout the pandemic. Though it isn’t considered an essential business, Cubit Coworks was open to members to use the working spaces, which are a mixture of small offices, dedicated personal desks and open spaces.

“When the COVID pandemic hit, we didn’t really lose any membership, just a few of the open desks, but we didn’t have many to begin with,” he said, adding that five people decided to cancel their memberships. “People didn’t come in as much, but they continued paying. In a sense, it didn’t affect us as much as we thought it would.”

He has a cleaning crew disinfect the building, wiping down all surfaces, door knobs and light switches on a daily basis, he added. Most of people coming to the coworking space on a weekly basis have their own offices.

“The ones that are in a more shared space have been sporadic,” Luzuriaga said.

Luzuriaga believes small offices will be attractive to businesses to rent in the future.

“Irrespective of the pandemic, I would have made the same statement, and why? Because the traditional office leasing model is difficult for a small business to find space,” he said. “In an office, you have to either pay for the buildout or you need to sign a five-year lease. You have to share in the cost of utilities and maintenance expenses.”

He added that shared open spaces have always been difficult to sell, but with the pandemic they are less viable options for workspaces. He thinks that workers will want options besides working from home as well.

“Working from home can sometimes be a drag, especially if you don’t have a good setup or [or if you have] … a small apartment,” Luzuriaga said. “Ultimately, these coworking places are communities. I think everybody tends to care for each other, look out for each other and respect each other. Because of that, I think people would feel more comfortable coming in as long as everybody is wearing a mask.”

A ‘relatively new industry’

For the past five years, Easthampton Co.Lab has been a space that’s fostered collaboration among its members. But at the start of the pandemic, Easthampton Co.Lab shut its doors and was without income for several months. On June 11, the decision was made to permanently close the coworking space in Easthampton.

“We’ve been open since 2015 and have always managed to stay in the black,” said Sita Magnuson, one of the founding partners of the Easthampton Co.Lab. “It’s never been a profitable initiative, and it was never intended to be that. We started that space to be a community gathering and community learning space. The coworking was the means by which we were able to do that and support some of the experimentation that we did.”

Magnuson said the coworking space typically had 17 members renting spaces on average during the organization’s five-year span.

“We had open office space seating where people could sit wherever they wanted,” she said. “We had a common space where we had private offices. We had private shared offices and then an area that we called dedicated desk, which was for people who wanted to leave their stuff in an open area. In terms of size, the space is about 3,000 square feet, and we had at a maximum seven or eight people at one time.”

Magnuson said the Easthampton Co.Lab applied for economic relief such as a Paycheck Protection Program loan but did not receive any funding.

“It’s just not sustainable for us to continue,” she said, adding that the coworking space had received no income for the past several months because it was shut down due to the pandemic.

Some of the projects that grew out of Easthampton Co.Lab included community meetings, workshops and learning events, Magnuson said.

The space was also home to collaborations among members, with some lending their skills, such as copy editing and writing for projects, she said.

“There’s a sense of camaraderie and care for one another that has just been developed over the years,” Magnuson said. “I think a lot of the activity in the space has been fun and funny. We have an ongoing Slack channel that people are still engaged in, and I think a lot of friendships were developed there that won’t go away just because the space is closed.”

Founders of the coworking space and community gathering center plan on brainstorming a new alternative space for the future, said Magnuson, who also works as a graphic facilitator in her own studio in Eastworks.

“I have a studio on the second floor [of Eastworks], and Mass Collaborative — the actual legal entity that was running the co-lab — is not going to close,” she said. “We’re combining forces on the second floor. We have a gathering and community learning space there. We’re currently in the process of thinking of what the next iteration of the work is. Coworking right now is currently not a viable path, and it takes up a huge amount of energy.”

Mary Yun is executive director of Northampton’s Click Workspace, which reopened on May 26 after being closed since mid-March. Pre-pandemic, Click had 75 members; as of early June, membership was down to 55 people, she said.

“Even before the pandemic, it was a challenge for every member that had to leave, for whatever reason,” Yun said. “You were able to replace that person and have a steady growth over the years. If you’ve done your homework, you know what the level of membership has to be in order to have a robust coworking space. Now, this drastic drop in numbers is a setback.”

“This is something really new for everyone,” she continued. “And coworking is still a relatively new industry. We’re not categorized with anything else. It’s challenging, and I think only time will tell what will happen.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.


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