According to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Rates of anxiety and depression have tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Maurizio Fava, M.D., Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Mass General, cites numerous reasons for this massive increase in depression, including unprecedented social isolation and loss of community. Dr. Fava said, “Social isolation, in particular, has made the COVID-19 pandemic challenging. People are not able to leave home for support.”
Coworking providers have long touted the benefits of the community that builds in their workspaces between members. As two of the owners of Gather Workspaces, a coworking firm with six locations in Richmond, Virginia and Hampton Roads, Virginia, we have seen the way community builds in a coworking space first hand.
The connections that such a community offers have become even more important given the isolation many of us are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. These connections can enable us to maintain and build social connections as well as business connections. Of course, this only makes sense if it can be done safely.
Normally, we have a big family get together in July because numerous family members have a birthday around that time. However, this year, because of concerns about COVID-19, that didn’t happen. We did have a family Zoom meeting at Easter, but it just wasn’t the same. The last time we saw our extended family in person was at Christmas. This may be the longest we have gone without this interpersonal connection.
We are loyal followers of a local Division III college football team. We haven’t missed a game in 16 years, home or away. Normally, we would be well into the season, hosting tailgates with large guest lists at home games and meeting friends for lunch and dinner at away games. We would be completing our invitation list trying to figure out who would join us for each tailgate. Obviously, the games and the tailgates aren’t going to happen this year—an exceedingly sad thing for us.
For us, church is a very important part of our life. Our church stopped meeting in person in March. We resumed in person meetings a few weeks ago, but with no singing of any kind. Unfortunately, the in person services are very poorly attended. Most people are opting to attend the Zoom services. Again, it’s just not the same experience. We miss seeing our friends at church.
COVID-19 has resulted in the breaking of social connections for us and for many other people. We have been told by more than one person that they only leave home to go to the grocery store. They have welcomed no guests into their home since the pandemic hit. Other than their biweekly excursion for food and other necessities, they have been holed up in their homes since mid-March. This situation is unprecedented, to say the least.
People are made to be with other people. Human interaction is very important. When Professor Abraham Maslow constructed his hierarchy of needs, he listed physiological needs as the most basic (food, water, warmth and rest). These needs have to be met before any others can be addressed. Second in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes safety and security. It makes sense that the two most important needs would be those things required to maintain life, your physiological needs and safety.
However, third on Maslow’s hierarchy is belongingness and love (intimate relationships and friendships). The isolation brought on by COVID-19 has stripped many people of their ability to fulfill this critical human need. People need people. Isolation is debilitating. It leads to unhappiness, depression, and all too often suicide.
Those who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home may not be suffering a loss of income, but the isolation can be crippling. Being a member of a coworking community can provide the kind of social interaction that is missing in the rest of our lives these days.
We have found that the interactions we have with the staff and members in our coworking spaces allows us to bring some sense of normalcy into our lives in this otherwise very abnormal time. Some of the people with whom we connect are people we have known for years. Others are people who have recently joined the coworking community. Either way, being able to connect with people over a cup of coffee is a refreshing break from the isolation.
Admittedly, this is probably not a sufficient long term solution. At some point we must get back to something that more closely resembles life as we knew it. But, in the meantime, the social interaction offered by a coworking membership is proving to be an invaluable stop gap for many of our members. The result is that these social connections in the COVID-19 era are even more important than they would be in normal times.
In the before time (pre COVID-19), we attended three to five networking events each week. Whether it was giving a speech at a Rotary Club, going to a BNI meeting, or attending a Chamber of Commerce event, we were heavily connected to the local business communities in which we have Gather offices.
This was an important source of new members for our coworking spaces. We would meet people at these networking events, find out what they do for a living and share with them that we run coworking spaces. More often than not, this would lead to one or more people coming to our space for a tour. We know that 40% to 50% of the people that tour a Gather will become members. Obviously, COVID-19 has brought the vast majority of this networking to a screeching halt.
Many of our members have had similar experiences. Networking used to be a source of new revenue for them. They attended many of the same events that we used to attend. Of course, they too have been cut off from this source of new business.
Traditionally, Gather and most other coworking spaces held a number of events each month to bring members together for business purposes. Obviously, these events all stopped when we were first hit by COVID-19.
Recently, Gather has begun to bring some of these events back, with appropriate social distancing of course. For our members, Gather has become one of the few venues where they can make these types of business connections.
However, making connections at Gather is much more than networking. We proactively connect people. Our Community Managers know our members and their businesses. When they identify two members where they think that one might be able to help the other, they will make an introduction.
These introductions often lead to business being conducted. We’ve seen one member’s business hire another member’s business or one member buy another member’s product. We’ve seen businesses collaborate to bring a new product or service to market. We’ve even seen joint ventures formed to pursue an idea they hatched jointly.
In the COVID-19 era, coworking communities are one of the few remaining options for finding these types of business connections. This makes the connections that can be made within a coworking community all the more important. However, the social connections and the business connections this type of community offers are only valuable if they can be made safely.
It Can Be Done Safely
While being in the presence of other people inherently increases the risk of disease spread, it can be done safely. At Gather, we have developed a health and safety protocol that minimizes the risk.
Gather’s health and protocol, which is shown below, is broken into four sections:
1. Reducing airborne disease transmission
2. Sanitizing hands and surfaces
3. Reducing the need to touch surfaces in common areas
4. Enabling social distancing.
- Reducing airborne disease transmission:
- We have installed 950 CADR H13 HEPA air purifiers in all Gather work cafés. These medical grade air scrubbers remove viruses, bacteria, pollen, dust mites, mold, and many other harmful elements. They filter the air in a typical 5,000 square foot space once per hour. All of Gather’s work cafés are smaller than that. Therefore, the air will be filtered more frequently than once per hour.
- All HVAC systems in Gather locations blow air from above toward the floor. This type of system is preferable because it moves undesirable elements in the air toward the floor rather than keeping them suspended in the air people breathe (which would be the case if the HVAC system blew air from the floor up).
- We have installed sneeze and cough guards where needed (particularly in the dedicated desk areas).
- Masks do not need to be worn when you are:
- In an office by yourself
- In a phone booth
- Stationary, working quietly and social distanced in the work café
- Masks should be worn when you are:
- Moving around a Gather space
- Talking on a phone outside of a phone booth
- Speaking with other Gather members or staff in the work café
- Mask usage will be left to the discretion of the group when you are:
- In an office with multiple people
- In a conference room with multiple people
Gather Community Managers will have masks available for anyone who does not have one.
- Sanitizing hands and surfaces
- Multiple free standing, touchless hand sanitizing stations have been installed in each Gather location.
- Cleaning stations have been put near each conference room and phone booth to enable members to sanitize these spaces prior to use. The cleaning stations have paper towels and spray bottles containing a solution that kills viruses.
- We have put in a 10 minute buffer between times that conference rooms can be scheduled to allow people time to sanitize the space prior to using it.
- Community Managers are wiping down frequently touched surfaces with a virucide multiple times each workday.
- We have asked our cleaning crew to exercise extra care when sanitizing surfaces in our spaces nightly.
- Reducing the need to touch surfaces in common areas
- Doors are being propped open, wherever feasible, to reduce the number of surfaces which members and their guests need to touch as they move around and through the space.
- Where feasible, we are installing foot operated door openers so that people will not have to grab handles to open doors.
- In the work cafés, the dishwasher that is accepting dirty dishes will be left open. This makes it clear where dirty dishes are to be placed and eliminates the need for each person putting dishes in the dishwasher to grab the handle.
- In the work cafés, to improve sanitation, we are offering:
- Individually packaged creamers, stirrers and sugar packets.
- Single use, biodegradable plates, cups and utensils, for those wishing to use them (our normal kitchenware will also be available for those who prefer to use it).
- Enabling social distancing
- To facilitate safe social distancing, approximately half of the seats have been removed from the work cafés. Signs have been installed indicating where people should and should not sit.
- We are capping occupancy of conference rooms to enable recommended social distancing while meeting in these spaces.
- Until we receive different guidance from the Governor’s office, we will cap the number of members and guests in any one area of a Gather space to:
- 50 members and guests in Hampton Roads locations
- 250 members and guests in Richmond locations
- We have declared Gather to be a hug and handshake free zone. It will remain so until the crisis passes.
- Tape has been placed on the floor:
- In some locations it shows where to stand for safe social distancing (e.g., in front of reception desks).
- In other cases it indicates the direction of foot traffic (using arrows) so that members can maintain safe social distancing and not pass too closely to one another.
This strong health and safety protocol has enabled Gather to remain fully operational throughout the COVID-19 crisis. We believe that continuing to follow these guidelines will enable us to prevent disease spread in our space.
The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented isolation. This makes the community offered by coworking spaces even more important for social and business interactions than it was pre COVID. Of course, these interactions must be done safely. Fortunately, rigorously following an appropriate health and safety protocol can ensure that these interactions can happen safely.