The current Covid-19 pandemic has had an epochal effect on businesses, and even the humble office space has taken a blow, with millions of us now working from home. While most companies are able to continue operating with employees remote working, what about those businesses where the office itself is the revenue model?
One such business is LABS, a shared office space company that has eight locations in London, plus one in Tel Aviv. Most of these, it has suddenly found empty, as employees stay at home and major cities fall under an eerie silence.
Its co-working model is built around a shared community of businesses enjoying the professional and social attractions of modern spaces – think comfy breakout spaces, free breakfasts, pool tables and after hours drinks. Needless to say, it's a challenging time for co-working firms, with the survival of WeWork in the balance after SoftBank pulled out of a tender process.
We spoke to LABS to find out how it's adapting to the current climate, and how it's managing to maintain some sense of community, even from afar.
LABS Community Approach
As a business, LABS is a relative youngster. Created in 2017, and focusing on spaces in London (although it does also have an office in Tel Aviv), LABS is a co-working space that offers businesses and individuals offices and even living spaces to rent.
However, anyone who has previously worked in a LABS building – and full disclosure, that includes some of the team at Tech.co – would probably state that calling the operation just a series of offices would be underselling it. Comfort and community are two of the main aspects that the business seems to strive for, offering modern clean environments with all mod-cons, as well as regular community events for customers, including networking meetings.
These events are key to the Labs approach to fostering a sense of community in its spaces. While the companies that occupy its offices may be sharing spaces, its the regular communication and meet ups that make the ‘vibe' of the Labs offices.
With these offices now empty of workers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Labs would put these efforts on hiatus until its customers return. But that's not been the case.
We believe that the community spirit of LABS stretches further than the walls of our buildings. To provide support and motivation, our members-only email newsletter has become the LABS Stay-Insider. Designed to inspire, motivate productivity and promote ways to thrive digitally. pic.twitter.com/jLMWstXiH8
— LABS (@LABS_Worldwide) April 2, 2020
Community in Exile
One step LABS has taken is continuing its regular community newsletter. Previously dubbed ‘The Insider', it's been rebranded as ‘The Stay Insider', and is filled with advice, information and inspiration for LABS customers during these times of social distancing.
The email is filled with a mix of practical business advice and best working practice. It also promotes mental health and motivational stories for its readers, some of which come from the LABS customers themselves.
“We want to keep our members connected and keep the spirit of LABS alive throughout this time and LABS Stay-Insider is just one way we are able to do that. We want the LABS community to know that we are there for them and keep providing events and news that they’d otherwise of had access to in-person” – Dotan Weiner, Chief Operating Officer at Labs
As an example, the latest edition includes information about learning a new language; tips on beating procrastination; links to positive music playlists, and podcasts on how to stay calm, among other things.
Has it worked? Engagement rates certainly seem positive – LABS tell us that the click-through rate has increased by 40% in recent weeks.
Altruism in a Time of Crisis
With its offices vacated by workers, LABS has also volunteered its space resources to those that can make use of them – the emergency services currently on the front line combating the pandemic. This includes the 13,000sqft of space in one of its spaces, as well as individual offices.
Located above LABS Hawley Lock and part of the LABS Collective, @STAY_worldwide serviced apartments are now playing host to a number of NHS doctors and nurses. The complimentary rooms offer a quiet retreat in close proximity to nearby hospitals 🙌 pic.twitter.com/xfhVrK3tzr
— LABS (@LABS_Worldwide) April 7, 2020
In addition, the company is offering apartments, part of its STAY business, to hospital workers who need them, all of which come with kitchens, living rooms and access to laundry services. This offer is in place initially for a month, although could be extended depending on the circumstances. All these services are being made available to those who need them, free of charge.
“With the current uncertainty surrounding everyday lives, the need for a community hub of facilities and support has become more important than ever. We know the emergency services across the UK are working tirelessly to cope with the increased demands during the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak and to be able to support by making space and accommodation available is a privilege” – Dotan Weiner, Chief Operating Officer at Labs
In addition, LABS has been encouraging its staff to reach out to the community to help those in needs, through initiatives such as charity Age UK's “telephone friend” service, which connects volunteers to isolated elderly individuals.
The Future for Co-working Spaces
So, what's next for LABS, and other co-working spaces, once this crisis has abated?
LABS believes that when the pandemic has declined, people will be more keen than ever to get back into offices, make connections, and embrace the traditional work life once again:
“We believe that people will crave social interaction and the workplace will become an even more desired place to be. All our workspaces have been designed to nurture productivity and collaboration and hope that in the months to come people will need environments like this to connect and build business” – Dotan Weiner, Chief Operating Officer at Labs
It's certainly true that many of us will be missing the day-to-day interactions that office life brings, whether it's the ideas exchange in the meeting room, or catching up by the coffee machine.
However, there is also a sentiment among some experts than the sudden change in working environments, with many adopting remote working, may have released a genie from a bottle that is difficult to put back in. Invariably, when life returns to normal, some staff will be looking to carry on their home working lifestyle.
In fact, far from harming co-working businesses such as LABS, such a future shift could actually work in their favour. With fewer people coming into the office, companies may find they make savings by downsizing their own physical spaces, and could lean on co-working spaces to pick up the slack. Many companies would jump at the chance to offload the day to day operation and running of an office to a third party.
While the future is looking bright for Labs, not all co-working spaces are fairing as well.
At one time the aspirational poster child for co-working businesses, the company WeWork has stumbled severely in recent years. The ongoing pandemic has had a devastating effect on an already hobbled company, and the latest news is that the company is suing its main investor, SoftBank, for failing to complete a tender offer for $3 billion worth of WeWork shares.
With losses of $1.4 billion in the last quarter of 2019, the company's security is anything but secure, and its heyday of bottomless beers after the working day feels long behind it. Other co-working companies, including LABS, will be watching closely, and doing everything possible to adapt during this time of upheaval, to ensure their own long-term future.