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Alex Hillman

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I founded a coworking space, and I don't want to kill anybody.

3 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I’m getting a lot of questions from coworking operators about how to re-open operate “after COVID” and I feel like I need to share some thoughts about what this question implies.

My Personal Context

My state (Pennsylvania) is still in lockdown. Most recent estimates for easing restrictions are mid-may, but that’s in other counties, and it certainly won’t include coworking spaces in the first wave of re-openings.

And I’m closely watching the data come out of everywhere that has attempted re-opening, and the only places that have done it safely have widespread testing and contact tracing.

Everywhere else has seen massive spikes in new cases directly correlated with easing restrictions.

So as much as I miss being around other people and hate working from home, right now I can’t look at a coworking space as anything other than a tool of harm.

Which is painful, because obviously, it’s the furthest thing from its intended design.

But while the pain/problems of isolation are serious and significant, widespread death is…more significant.

I care more about people than the space. Always have. Always will.

What we don’t know: how do we-reopen in the future?

I don’t know, and I have a hard time trusting that anybody knows for sure, since this scenario is packed with too many unknowable things.

We’ll reopen our space when it’s safe. That’s the most knowable answer. I have.

Too many re-opening plans seem to treat the virus like an annoyance, rather than a deadly force.

For example, I find it telling that I haven’t read one that explains how to handle when a member dies from COVID19, or what happens when someone dies because they caught it in your space.

So I don’t know what it will look like. I don’t know when it will be. I’m staying patient. We’ll get there.

The way we use physical space, and when we return to doing so, isn’t in our control anymore.

So I have two choices:

  1. I can grasp for control (and probably not get it), or
  2. we can work to create NEW spaces where we do have control to solve problems of isolation, serendipity, knowledge sharing, and a sense of community.

Right now, those spaces are on the internet, and things are ripe for SO much more experimentation than “another zoom call.”

I would love to see more spaces lean into this set of constraints and find new ways serve your communities in ways they need NOW.

Professional organizations have existed without physical spaces even before the internet.

Space is useful, and for some people, absolutely necessary. Lots of people cannot continue working from home, for various reasons. I appreciate that.

But that the workspace industry is spending so much time scrambling to cobble together a “less dangerous” space is disappointing to me.

For the sake of a thought experiment…

Imagine a reality where re-opening a coworking space isn’t actually safe until a vaccine is widely available.

How can you serve your community until then?

There are lots of unexplored answers. Get to work.

When the choice is between:

  1. trying to control a virus that nobody knows how to control (except by keeping people in quarantine) and
  2. trying to serve people and solve problems in new ways

Hopefully the better choice becomes a bit more obvious.

I’ll add: I don’t want to be right about any of this.

I hope that spaces who attempt to open early do so safely and that there are no negative repercussions.

I felt very alone when Indy Hall made the call to close while many others waited to close until they were forced to. And I feel rather alone now, making these observations while industry threads are packed with “re-opening safety checklists” and “how to market post covid.”

But I know I’m not actually alone, and that perception often doesn’t match reality.

That’s why I’m sharing this publicly, and now.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.