by Dunstan Carter, business development manager, The Sharp Project

Except for key workers, the majority of people across the UK have found themselves either furloughed or working from home over the last three months. The odd eerily accurate science fiction film aside, no-one could’ve predicted anything like this happening a year ago and it’s turned most sectors upside down and given them a big, unwelcome shake.

Before the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown, the creative sector in Manchester was booming and co-working hubs were popping up all over the city and thriving. The spirit of collaboration seemed buoyed by all the progression, and the popularity of creative co-working spaces seemed to be growing by the week.

With social distancing and many people’s ongoing fears about tackling crowds on public transport and in the workplace, working practices and routines will obviously be slow to return to normal over the coming months. The pandemic’s effect on co-working will obviously continue to be detrimental in the short term but many companies are already proving that agility and adaptability are key qualities in these tricky times. Technology has filled the gap over the past few weeks with Zoom calls becoming an ever-present part of people’s daily routines and faster broadband speeds making everything just that bit more quicker than a year or two ago. Logistics companies like DHL and banks like HSBC have swathes of staff working from home and have found that whilst it’s not a long term solution the level of customer service required is still attainable.

A recent survey by the CIPD points to a number of short term and possibly long term solutions to the current problems facing employers. Measures now expected by employees include altered office layouts (67%), staggered shifts and break times (54% and 49%), greater distance between workstations (54%), fewer and shorter meetings (53%), temperature testing (19%) and regular virus tests (6%). Such measures all point to a very different few months for the vast majority of the country, but this doesn’t mean one and two person businesses and those usually based in co-working spaces stay isolated. Collaboration, outsourcing and the spirit of co-working are needed more than ever to get the creative sector thriving again. The focus now is on safety and flexibility.

During my time at The Sharp Project I’ve been really impressed with the site’s flexibility as a workspace. It’s housed countless TV productions, hosted big events like CoderDojo and Coolest Projects, had artists like The Courteeners, Little Dragon and New Order record and mix music in 80 Hertz’s studio and been the backdrop for countless JD Sports and Footasylum photo-shoots. As a huge ex-electronics factory it’s lucky that it’s spacious and able to accommodate a lot of the changes and measures that have been outlined. A number of other co-working spaces in and around the city are fortunate that they too have spacious corridors and big workspaces. Some of the restrictions in place will obviously mean space is at a premium but hubs like The Colony, The Landing, Accelerate Places, The Bright Building, Use.Space and Soapworks and are all big buildings with plenty of flexible work space and common areas.

For many entrepreneurs and creatives, the idea of constantly working from home is either not possible or at least not particularly palatable and right now they need to return to, or find areas and working spaces they feel safe in. That’s the challenge facing all of Manchester’s creative hubs and co-working spaces right now as the lockdown eases. Every hub will have formulated a way to implement safety guidelines and it’s clear from daily attendance figures at the Sharp Project that people are starting to slowly return more and more each day, and enquiries for space are started to increase.

Last night I had a short chat on Twitter with Applied Futurist, Tom Cheesewright and I was left really cheery from his take on things. I simply asked him, safety measures aside, what he saw changing most in the world of co-working long term and he told me, “It’s going to be more popular. Most people will forget about the pandemic in a year and unless it reoccurs people will start behaving as they did. Most of us know that if we have the space and comfort then home working is fine, but actually sometimes we need a change of scene, a place to meet, or just some people around us. So I see a pretty bright future for co-working. The biggest threat is oversupply, as a lot of landlords are piling into it at such speed they might out pace demand.”

Tom’s gentle warning seems a wise one as we’ll all undoubtedly start wanting to work and push more and more in the coming months. It feels like we’ve been told to be sensible over and over again these last few weeks but it’s going to be the simple mantra we need to keep repeating for a few more months at least.

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