Covid-19 has fast-tracked new working practices and highlighted the benefits of flexible co-working spaces.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live and work. Some of these changes will be temporary, while others will be permanent, either due to ongoing health concerns or because better ways of working have been discovered.
So, how has the landscape changed for startups and how can founders make the most of new ways of working?
Remote working or a return to the office?
Lockdowns across the globe have led to significant changes in the way companies operate.
For example, Zoom had 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019; by the end of April that figure exceeded 300 million1. With the majority of staff working from home, companies have taken the opportunity to experiment with new ways of working, developing workflows and systems – many of which will outlast the pandemic.
And while remote working has its challenges, a significant proportion of workers do not want to return to previous patterns. An IBM survey of 25,000 adults in the US found that 54% wanted to primarily work remotely, with 75% wishing to work from home at least occasionally2. Part of this desire to work from home could be linked to new concerns about getting to work, with one in five of those surveyed saying they will stop commuting by public transport.
The IBM findings contrast with a survey of 317 chief financial officers (CFOs) conducted by Gartner. A quarter of these business leaders said that none of their workforce would remain working remotely after lockdown, and more than half said a maximum 10% of staff would continue to work from home. Just 6% said more than half of the workforce would continue to work remotely3.
Startups, especially those in the tech world, are more equipped than many other businesses to accommodate remote working. The challenge founders now face is to balance the cost of office space with the benefits of working face-to-face – while also factoring in the desire of some employees to work remotely, at least some of the time.
The future of the office
The outlook for startups is uncertain. The pandemic has impacted all parts of the global economy and, while many sectors have suffered, others have seen increased demand and new opportunities. Agility and the ability to pivot are key as founders respond to shifting markets and changing customer requirements. Periods of rapid growth, as well as necessary scaling back, are likely to be the norm.
Alongside this disrupted economic landscape is uncertainty about restrictions on movement, with governments warning that aspects of lockdown could be reintroduced in the months and years to come.
This combination of changed employee attitudes, economic uncertainty and ongoing health concerns means that flexible office solutions are likely to be in increasing demand, both by startups and larger businesses. Such solutions allow teams to get together as needed, reduce costs and increase agility.
Co-working spaces to foster innovation and collaboration
While higher levels of remote working are undoubtedly here to stay, there are many good reasons to get back to the office when it is safe to do so.
People thrive on social interaction, and the collaboration and innovation needed to meet ongoing challenges is often best enabled by face-to-face meetings. Not only can people communicate more effectively when they can see one another’s body language, they also have the opportunity to bounce ideas off colleagues. Such initial thoughts have great potential but may not seem significant enough to share when working virtually.
It’s also important to consider the possible impact isolation can have on wellbeing. The World Health Organisation predicts a mental illness crisis is looming as people struggle with the effects of isolation4. Working remotely is not for everyone, and working physically together allows founders to tackle loneliness in their workforce, helping to build a happy, productive culture and be attractive to prospective hires.
Co-working spaces also offer community support and greater access to talent, potential corporate partners and investors. It’s amazing where a conversation over a coffee or slice of pizza can lead.
Collaboration is key
Collaboration outside your organisation – with other startups or corporates, or with customers to better understand their needs ¬– can also be more effective in a physical environment. While angel investors have reported that it has been easier to attend virtual pitches during lockdown, they also said that building trust in founders is much harder if you have not met them in person.
Some entrepreneurs have found it hard to find partners and customers, while others have been able to organise meetings and do deals more quickly because people’s diaries have become clearer without the need to travel or attend physical events.
The digital-physical hybrid
The distinction between physical and digital worlds will continue to blur as technology advances. Augmented and virtual reality is likely to develop at an increased pace as Covid-19 has prompted a seismic shift in attitudes towards connecting remotely.
Telepresence robots already allow people to explore physical locations and interact with people ‘in the real world’. Such technology could, for example, allow you to virtually attend a physical trade show, tour the halls and ‘meet’ exhibitors who could speak to your robot’s video conferencing facility. This could save time and money, reduce carbon emissions and allow a better work-life balance. It’s just one more way in which Covid-19 has made us reconsider the way we work and created opportunities for startups.
A great deal remains uncertain, but a complete return to pre-Covid ways of working is unimaginable. In terms of where we work, it seems that flexible workspaces that allow co-working will become more important as part of an increasingly digitally enabled future.
That’s certainly the view of Ben Davey, CEO of Barclays Ventures, which includes Eagle Labs as well as Rise, the global FinTech platform and community that is celebrating five years since its launch.
“I think we have learned through the Covid-19 crisis how to blend physical engagement with digital engagement, and I do see that model continuing for the foreseeable future,” said Davey. “This allows us to support and work with a much broader audience beyond specific sites and help businesses grow across borders too. I think that's a huge step forward and one which we're going to build on.”