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How co-working spaces could succeed in the post-pandemic world

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Now that millions of professionals have proven they're able to do their jobs remotely, many experts agree it will become more common for people to split their time between working from home and going into an office.

But what will that office look like once they get there?

In a post-pandemic economy, it's possible only the biggest companies will have the budget to maintain headquarters, while businesses without the financial resources may scrap the idea of having a physical location altogether. Others may decentralize their physical presence and open regional hubs wherever their workers are located, whether that's in the suburbs, mid-sized cities or across the country entirely.

While the future remote workforce is expected to grow, many will still want a place to connect with others in person. Co-working and community spaces are uniquely positioned to fill the void.

"Co-working spaces have the potential to provide vital business services to support the remote workforce closer to where they are, especially as residual anxieties linger over taking public transit," says Brent Capron, design director of interiors at architecture firm Perkins and Will's New York studio.

Prior to the pandemic, co-working spaces were the fastest-growing type of office space in commercial real estate. While they currently comprise less than 5% of the market, they're expected to make up 30% by 2030, according to real-estate company JLL.

In order for co-working companies to continue their expansion, they'll have to be designed to address workers' concerns over spacing and sanitation, Capron tells CNBC Make It. Members may gravitate toward spaces where they have assigned seating at desks that are farther apart. They'll expect access to cleaning supplies, as well as frequent deep cleaning protocols, and generally environments that are attuned to keeping members healthy and safe.

With these precautions in place, experts think workers will be more likely to leave their home offices for a work environment that offers more than just desk space.

"People will always need, and will be looking for, a place to connect, find community, and to find a purpose," says Amy Nelson, founder and CEO of co-working company The Riveter. "That's what brought people to co-working spaces in the first place."

Nelson originally launched The Riveter to provide professional services, networking opportunities and fundraising support to women growing their own small businesses. While people of all genders make up its membership, The Riveter is built by women and oriented toward their needs.

As governors across the country issued closures of non-essential businesses, The Riveter pivoted to offer its usual lineup of events, programming, conversations and access to experts online. These digital offerings were originally planned to launch prior to the pandemic and through a paid membership, but Nelson says they are now available to everyone at no cost.

These community spaces can provide what traditional offices can't in terms of a tight-knit network of support, even after the pandemic subsides, she says.

"As women are facing the impacts of Covid-19, the platform will focus on what working women need now. For example: how to work from home, childcare and homeschooling your children, helping individuals find a job if they've gotten laid off, self-care through the crisis. But we're also looking ahead to what working women will need after the crisis, focusing on how what we can do to make sure that working women's interests are represented in the response."

As networking moves online, some experts worry a digital networking divide could result in a gap between the types of workers who get face time to build their professional circle. "Are in-person gatherings going to be reserved for people we really want to see, and expanding networks is reserved for things we do online?" says Lakshmi Rengarajan, a workplace connection consultant formerly of WeWork and Match.com.

"I hope the groups of people interacting in-person is democratized, and it's not just people at the top getting together."

The desire for deeper connection in a virtual working world could help more intimate networks thrive, even as they expand farther geographically.

Naj Austin closed the doors to Ethel's Club, a professional and creative community space designed for people of color, in early March. Within four days, however, she and her team launched a digital membership model "to keep connection and community  alive." The club, which had 300 members for its Brooklyn location, added another 400 creatives and professionals around the world to its base.

"People all over still need a space like this," Austin says.

Online, the club hosts three events per day, including book club discussions, speakers, concert series, networking and more.

The intentional and intimate nature of such social clubs could be a huge draw for people to build relationships if they're not going into an office every day.

"We were always an intimate space that gathered people in small groups," Austin says. "It's hard to create a safe space when the space is 30,000 people full. Specificity is important. I think on the outside of this, people will want that community even more."

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