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COVID-19 / Coworking / Jobs / Workplace culture

Coworking while distancing: How Baltimore’s shared workspaces are reopening

Baltimore's coworking spaces are reopening, but there's a lot that goes into keeping them safe so members feel comfortable. We talked to leaders of shared spaces to gather some early best practices.

Spark Baltimore. (Photo via Twitter)

This editorial article is a part of Workplace Culture Month of's editorial calendar.

Around the city, Baltimore’s shared workspaces are starting to reopen. But those coworking and makerspaces that many left in March amid pandemic orders are doing things a little differently these days.

With the latest phase of government-ordered mandates requiring capacity limits and social distancing still very much a part of our lives, there are new measures that must be put in place. Given that coworking spaces are often testing grounds for new ideas about how to work, we reached out to some of the area’s leading voices to see how it was all working.

Here are some early best practices that we gathered up:

Get feedback.

As restrictions were lifted by the city, space managers said they heard from members who wanted to return. At the end of the day a coworking space is a community, so it made sense to bring folks together and talk about what they want and collecting their concerns can help to shape procedures that make everyone comfortable.

Inner Harbor space Spark Baltimore sent out a member survey and collected responses, then held two town hall sessions before reopening on June 8, said its director of community and partnerships, Shervonne Cherry.

Similarly, Impact Hub Baltimore in Station North sent out a survey and held a town hall virtually. The feedback was wide-ranging, and it led to a decision to put in place strict policies at the beginning to ensure the folks who felt the most at-risk could be safe, said Community Manager Sam Novak.

At Open Works, Executive Director Will Holman said the Greenmount West makerspace shifted wound down its operations making face shields for medical workers June 12, then had a community call ahead of reopening July 1. In the case of the space, which looks to offer community access to tools that folks wouldn’t otherwise have, opening back up the space meant not just offering a place to work, but a way to get members’ production up and running again by using Open Works’ CNC machine, lasercutter or embroidery machine.

“A lot of our member businesses are sole proprietorships or may not necessarily be formally incorporated, which means that they really didn’t qualify for a lot of government bailout programs or unemployment,” Holman said. “That put them in a really really tough spot to try to survive these couple months of shutdown when they didn’t have access to the tools to make their products.”

Members only.

Each of the spaces we talked to said they began reopening only for members. That makes it easier for folks to keep track of who is in the building, and have fewer people accessing space to limit the spread. At Spark Baltimore, that meant limiting day pass use, as well as non-member booking of conference rooms. Open Works is requiring reservations before folks come in to use the tools offered, and it is offering day passes for shop access. As of Aug. 3, Highlandtown’s ETC was reopened for members only with 50% capacity, and no visitors.

At Federal Hill’s Vision, the 24/7 space’s model includes 20 private offices and six live-work suites that tend to be favored by folks in the immediate vicinity who wanted to have a workspace outside the home. Since this allows for distancing, it has remained open for essential workers, said Drew Peace, who is head of business development at space owner Chasen. The pandemic brought an increase in cleaning to five days a week, and the building now has hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes throughout. Over the last two months, the owners started to see more folks coming in on day passes for those offices.

“A lot of the tenants that do use our space and small companies that are coming in are individual entrepreneurs or law firms,” he said. “Financial advisory firms and nonprofits are renting space from us as well. They felt comfortable here, as the environment was conducive for safe working.”

A private office at Vision, complete with nap loft (Courtesy photo)

A private office at Vision, complete with loft (Courtesy photo)

Leave a buffer.

The guidelines that call for six-foot social distancing are now in place at coworking spaces, with desks spread out to ensure folks don’t come too close. At Spark Baltimore, conference room access is also limited to a given number of people, and the schedule is allowing for 10 minutes between meetings so there’s time for cleaning.

In spaces that typically allow folks to mingle freely and move furniture as they please, this has meant more attention to the details of where everything must be placed. Impact Hub Baltimore’s team measured out the furniture so it is six feet apart, and marked out where it must be on the floor. The team has also learned that cleaning takes more time than originally expected — after all, there are not only surfaces, but door knobs, the space above door knobs where folks push on the door, and so on.

These requirements hold true throughout buildings, as well. Spark allows only two people on an elevator at a time, and every other stall in restrooms are closed. And at Open Works, the sewing machines and other supplies were spread out over multiple rooms to accommodate social distancing.

When it comes to masks, requirements range from strongly encouraged to requiring they be worn in open workspaces, if not the entire building. Baltimore's original view at the ETC Highlandtown coworking space. (Photo by Stephen Babcock) Baltimore’s original view at the ETC Highlandtown coworking space. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

Check in.

Many spaces are keeping track of who is in the space, requiring a sign-in when folks enter the building. This allows the managers of the space to keep track of who is in the space to keep limited capacity in check, and also provides a list for contact tracing should a positive case arise.

It’s a place where tech tools can play a role. At Highlandtown-based ETC, anyone entering the space will have to take their temperature at a wall-mounted thermometer when they enter the space. If they have a fever, which has been identified as a potential symptom of COVID-19, they won’t be able to enter. Members will also have to download the Envoy app so they can check in. To this end, there are a number of third-party apps available, or there’s the option to go the Google Form, which Spark Baltimore uses, and which allows check-in by scanning a QR code.

Staff members are always onsite, but shifts are varying as the spaces are limiting capacity. Before at Impact Hub Baltimore, the folks who checked visitors in were typically on work-trade, but now these volunteers aren’t being asked to come in during a pandemic. That’s meant coordinating staff time more closely.

“We pretty dramatically reorganized the way that we operate,” said Managing Director Eric Lin.

Look local.

The six-foot social distancing that we’re all used to is also reinforced by signage. To get it ready in a few days, Spark Baltimore worked with printmaker Alpha Graphics, a move Cherry said she was glad to make as it helped a small business. Impact Hub Baltimore bought hand sanitizer from Mount Royal Soap Co., the Remington business that teamed up with Charm City Meadworks and Waverly Color Company to make the highly sought-after pandemic product.

As it reopens, Open Works is also making supplies. The makerspace built its own hand sanitizer pump stations, and now has 18 stationed throughout the building. Open Works is also producing sneeze guards that are available to spaces, and Tillett said ETC is installing a dozen.

In talking to these teams, it was apparent that many of the leaders had kept in touch throughout the pandemic, and asked how they were handling different aspects of reopening and policies. Lin pointed out that there was no detail too small to ask about, like who had sources for hand sanitizer, leading to the Mount Royal purchase.

Don’t forget community.

While the lists of operations details can be long, staff are striving to maintain that feeling of community so prevalent in coworking spaces, too.

Such spaces prize a shared kitchen, where endless coffee is on offer and some community food may be up for grabs. But in the pandemic it’s a bit different. Spaces like Spark Baltimore and ETC are shifting to paper products, for one, and ETC is going single-serve on the coffee. But there’s still room to make it fun. Spark Baltimore is encouraging Bring Your Own Mug — “BYOM” — and putting out the challenge to see who has the best.

Like so many things about the pandemic, these changes to spaces have a way of putting values in the spotlight. Impact Hub Baltimore sees itself as having a culture of reciprocity and shared responsibility, and that comes into play now that health and safety are in question.

“It’s been a real practice in trust and luckily we already had a culture pre-COVID where that was a major part of it,” Novak said.

Integrate wellness.

Stopping the spread of the pandemic is ultimately about health, so the infrastructure of a building and elements like air quality can also play a role. As Kelly Ennis, founding principal of Hampden-based interior architecture firm The Verve Partnership, points out, the HVAC system of a building comes into play when considering how to keep air circulating. Now might be a time to consider upgrading. And for cleaning, it’s not just about the frequency: The materials that one chooses for surfaces can also be important. Access to sinks is another key consideration.

It’s also a time to think about the design of spaces in general, and how to think about wellness in relation to buildings themselves. Ennis said the company is hearing from clients that they didn’t need to change things to account for distancing post-pandemic because of the spacing that was in place in the initial design. So, instead, the focus has been long-term.

“I really believe that the coworking model has it down because it’s a nice blend,” she said. “You have your own personal space as a small business yet [you] can go out and share and collaborate in these other kinds of spaces.”

It’s also leading to some creative approaches to staying connected. A distanced hike is in the works at Impact Hub Baltimore, where in surveys, many members said that self-care was important. Novak has experience with guided community hikes in Baltimore, and will look to pilot what it’s calling Connect and Trek events for the space’s members.

The bottom line

Of course, spaces seek to serve members while also maintaining their own financial sustainability, as well.

At Open Works, Holman said there’s been a 30% reduction in microstudio leases even as it reopens, and the space hasn’t been able to conduct in-person classes. Greenmount Coffee Lab also closed inside the space in recent months. The in-house team has remained active with face shields and sneeze guards, and they’re seeking new ways to connect with folks, like online safety courses that were developed with member and drone company Global Air Media. But overall, services have been reduced and revenue is down 60%. To that end, Open Works started a membership campaign, public radio-style.

“We just can’t support the same level of revenue that we had before,” he said. “We’re asking people to appreciate the work we’re doing to rebuild Baltimore’s economy and help out during the pandemic, and anyone that can afford it to chip in a couple bucks to have some reliable recurring revenue.”

Spaces like Spark Baltimore offered a break on rent and offered resources to members, but the pandemic also meant workers had to be furloughed until the reopening process began. Cherry said transparency remained key, and kept things relatable.

“This is what spaces like Spark are here for,” Cherry said. “We’re the extra layer of support. We’re here just not during good times to celebrate wins. … We’re here for the struggles.”

Companies: Open Works / Spark Baltimore / Emerging Technology Centers (ETC Baltimore)
Series: Workplace Culture Month 2020 / Coronavirus

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