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Open Access 2023 | OriginalPaper | Buchkapitel

Italian Experiences in Coworking Spaces During the Pandemic

verfasst von : Ilaria Mariotti, Michele Lo Russo

Erschienen in: European Narratives on Remote Working and Coworking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Verlag: Springer Nature Switzerland

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Abstract

The chapter presents and discusses the results of two surveys addressed to coworking spaces managers in Italy, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The strategies coworking spaces have adopted to cope with the pandemic are described, and the determinants of the coworking resilience level (e.g., size, ownership, sector specialisation, hybridization) are presented. It is explored how the coworking spaces managers have kept the community alive and the perception of the interviewees about the future in the two years. The results of the survey in 2021 show that the average level of profitability and confidence in coworking performance returned to the pre-pandemic level. The pandemic has underlined a potential key role of CSs in enhancing work-life balance and promoting the socio-economic development of peripheral and rural areas. Besides, during the pandemic, Southern Italy has attracted remote workers (e.g., “southworkers”), and promoted the so-called ‘community garrisons’, willing to host them and ‘retain’ young people.
Hinweise
The chapter presents and updates the results of the IC-Surveys in 2020 and 2021, described in Lo Russo and Mariotti [8].

1 Introduction

Coworking spaces (CSs) are usually presented as “joining a community” [1, 7, 19]; they represent community-based organisations founded on mutual help and collaboration, that are crucial aspects in the emergence of innovations [4].
The COVID-19 pandemic has had several effects on working modalities and workplaces, including the CSs, which is the present chapter’s object. On the one hand, legally imposed closures and the reorganisation of spaces to ensure social distancing have reduced its revenues. On the other hand, the increase in the number of remote workers has opened up interesting possibilities for these spaces that can improve workers’ satisfaction and well-being and foster a better work-life balance [2, 13].
In 2018 Italy hosted 549 CSs, mainly located in urban areas because CSs tend to be knowledge-intensive places for creative people [11]. In 2020 there were about 760 CSs, approximately one CS for every 70,000 inhabitants. Compared to the year 2018, during the pandemic, CSs also started investing in peripheral and rural areas, and attracting remote workers and digital nomads. This new trend confirms that the dense networks of the inner city are not the only environment in which creative industries operate because of the complexity of their geography [5]. In Italy, remote workers increased from 570,000 in 2019 to 6580 million in March 2020 in total lockdown; the forecast for 2022 is 4380 million workers [18]. The economic activities that show greater ease of working remotely, e.g. at workers’ homes, are professional, scientific, technical activities; finance and insurance; professional services; public administration [3]. However, the home is not always considered the ideal place to work; workers complain of inadequate technology, a sense of isolation, difficulties in work-life balance and a feeling of being always connected [18].
This chapter describes the results of the survey conducted by Italiancoworking1 and addressed to CSs in Italy in 2020 (IC-Survey2020), and the survey conducted by Italiancoworking together with DAStU and the Cost Action CA18214 in 2021 (IC-Survey 2021). The measures the CSs have adopted to cope with the pandemic are described, and whether and how the CSs have increased the resilience is explored.

2 Coworking Spaces Facing COVID-19

2.1 Survey During the Lockdown at the Beginning of 2020

The first survey was launched by Italiancoworking in the period 26 March 2020 and 2 April of the same year. The coworking spaces in Italy, registered by the italiancowoking.it platform were 760 in 2020, approximately one CS every 70,000 inhabitants. Twenty-five per cent of CSs in Italy responded to the questionnaire. The temporary closures of spaces in the first lockdown, and those that followed at the end of 2020, turned, in some cases, into long-term closures. Over 100 spaces closed for the whole year 2020 and a large part of 2021 waiting to reopen, while 66 closed permanently already in 2020, and as many more will follow in 2021. The closure of spaces is partially counterbalanced by investments planned and/or initiated before the pandemic, which saw 36 new CSs opened in 2020.
However, the restrictions adopted at the beginning of the pandemic affected the sector unevenly across different types of spaces and territories. The most resilient were the large spaces that housed companies and workers in essential activities. Only 14% of spaces larger than 1000 m2 closed completely, with a cancelled membership rate of 16%.
Southern areas registered a higher degree of space closure (70%) probably because CSs are less frequented by companies, are smaller in size and involve less investment. In Northern Italy, one out of two spaces were operational despite the restrictions to fight the pandemic, which led to a drastic reduction of services. The spaces affected by the closure were mainly non-profit managed spaces (74%).
During the closures, the CS managers aimed to keep the community alive and not to dissipate the wealth of relationships and synergies that previously characterised the spaces through investment in communication channels and the organisation of many online or in-presence events while respecting security measures. New online activities such as “coffee breaks on zoom”, “aperitifs on Meet”, “Fuckup Night online”, “Help Desk” for companies and professionals (online support in organising and managing smart working), training courses, etc. have been experimented. Nevertheless, the attempts to maintain the community were not very effective. They were dispersed in the nebula of online services and content proposals that began to increase during the lockdown period. Only organisations operating facilities larger than 1000 m2 could use more elaborate interaction channels, such as virtual events and the promotion of community activities. Some CSs migrated services previously offered on-site to digital platforms.
During the pandemic, remote working has grown, and CSs have attracted these workers because they offer the flexibility and tools they need. Knowledge workers who did not find working from home (WFH) the best choice started looking for a workplace nearby. Even policymakers promoted near working, as in the case of the Municipality of Milan, which allowed its workers to work e.g., in public libraries, and CSs, close to their homes. This phenomenon triggered the development of CSs and hybrid spaces in peripheral and rural areas: at the end of 2020, around 20 new spaces opened up around Milan’s urban belt, while in the South about 13 spaces opened in cities of under 100,000 inhabitants. The renewed attractiveness of the southern areas is related to the so-called South-Working phenomenon: the return, even temporary, of workers originating from southern regions who choose to live in the South and work remotely in the North [17].
About 46% of the CSs managers that answered the survey expressed confidence in the new opportunities represented by remote work and the push towards digitisation of the population. Although all operators emphasised the importance of the innovations brought by the pandemic, a large proportion was more cautious or doubtful (34%), if not sceptical, about the future of coworking (20%).

2.2 Survey During the Pandemic: End of the Year 2021

The second survey (ICSurvey 2021) carried out during 26 October and 31 December 2021. One hundred thirty-six administrators and CEOs of CSs, flexible offices and other shared workspaces participated in the online questionnaire. The objective of the new survey was to understand how the continuation of the health emergency over almost two years has affected the coworking industry and the operators’ perspectives.
The data collected revealed, not without surprise, a remarkable degree of resilience in Italian coworking spaces. In December 2021, the following elements have returned to their pre-pandemic level, if not in some cases increased compared to the 2018 and 2019 ICSurvey surveys: (i) number of CSs surveyed; (ii) average level of profitability of spaces; (iii) other indicators of the level of confidence on the performance of coworking activity.
Coworking profitability, in particular, returned to the values tracked in 2019: approximately 50% of those involved in coworking and flexible offices as their primary activity have a positive balance sheet, while the share of those who make a loss (less than 20 per cent) is residual. One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the professionalisation of the market offer of flexible workspaces: more than 90% of the 107 coworking spaces which closed down in Italy, between 2019 and 2021, were operators whose coworking activity is residual or not prevalent. This also covers a part of those spaces in the non-profit or public area that did not reopen after the various lockdowns. As a further confirmation, more than 40% of the operators whose motivation for starting a CS was to reduce their facility's expenses declare a loss-making budget (12% are positive). The emergency period also seems to have impacted the type of investment operators have to make. The experience of forced closures and the associated losses were much more manageable for those who did not have to pay rent. Another factor in the professionalisation of supply is the size of CSs and flexible office facilities. CSs hosting, on average, 50 coworkers or more and in particular those above 100, reacted better and had a fast growth perspective. The occupancy rate declared by the operators confirms that the largest CSs are also those with the highest ratio of available desks to occupied (over 75%); while those below 20 desks, which alone account for about 55% of Italian coworking facilities, show a low occupancy rate (51%).
It is interesting to note that Southern Italy results more vulnerable because of a low presence of large CSs, and a lower density of firms operating in knowledge-intensive sectors. However, 72% of CS managers in the South experienced an overall increase in members in the last 12 months (although these are short-stay members) and 45% see an increase in remote workers. Notably, the ICSurvey 2021 recorded a general attitude of confidence among respondents, which was confirmed by the outlook on membership increase provided by operators.
Although the picture is patchy and overall not very rosy when looking at the 2021 occupancy rate and other indicators, more than 63% of Italian CSs operators expect an increase in membership in 2022 and an upturn in other services such as room hire and in-person training. Over 70% of respondents expect to maintain or increase the workforce employed to manage their facilities and the price of services to the public in the coming year. All this despite crisis mitigation tools and policies by local and national governments that were generally absent or useless in the perception of operators. Only a residual minority had access to tax instruments, utility reductions, rent suspension, loans and contributions, or support for their workers. Among these, even fewer rated the measures they had access to as helpful. But even with private counterparts, operators found little room for manoeuvre to mitigate the crisis phase. Few respondents claimed to have been able to renegotiate rental contracts (33%) or have a reduction in long-term rent (25%), or to terminate contracts at shorter notice (4%). None were able to involve the property owner in sharing in the dividends of future income. Finally, only 37% of the operators were able to postpone rent payments on the property.

3 Conclusions

The IC surveys (2020 and 2021) have shed light on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on CSs, and the strategies they have undertaken to respond to this exogenous shock. The most recent survey results show that the number of CSs surveyed has returned to its pre-pandemic level, as has the average level of profitability and confidence in coworking performance.
Coworking is, therefore, facing important challenges in the present and future. Firstly, companies are changing their business model by investing in flexible and hybrid spaces closer to their employees and opening new geographically dispersed hubs. Therefore, CS could be adopted by individual companies as a model for organising work internally to maximise interactions and relationships, especially in a situation where workers only go to the office a few days a week [9]. Moreover, policymakers promote near working in third spaces that can accommodate remote workers, both in large cities as in the case of Milan, and in peripheral areas in the South of the country [16]. CSs could therefore become multifunctional/hybrid environments (equipped with services for childcare, professional skills updating, aggregation and socialisation, etc.) to rebalance the family-work balance and, in suburban and peripheral areas, contribute to reducing commuting to big cities and, therefore, congestion, pollution, traffic, offering space users higher levels of well-being and less perceived stress [6, 12, 15, 20]. Recent studies have shown that CSs in suburban areas are more likely to organise and participate in activities with a potentially positive impact on the area in which they are located (e.g. facilities with bars and shops in the neighbourhood, outreach events and cultural activities open to the outdoors and/or dedicated to the neighbourhood), compared to CSs located in urban areas [10]. Furthermore, coworkers working in CSs in the suburbs are more likely to increase their revenues than those in urban areas [14], and experienced a higher well-being [2].
Finally, it is interesting to note how in the peripheral areas in southern Italy the return migration of southworkers has led to the establishment of so-called ‘community garrisons’, mainly public and ready to host remote workers and ‘retain’ young people by offering them training courses [16]. Remote work to be carried out in third locations is an interesting opportunity that the South and, in general, the internal Italian areas should be able to seize to attract professionalism and retain young and qualified human capital.
Open Access This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://​creativecommons.​org/​licenses/​by/​4.​0/​), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.
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Fußnoten
1
See: Italiancoworking.it.
 
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Metadaten
Titel
Italian Experiences in Coworking Spaces During the Pandemic
verfasst von
Ilaria Mariotti
Michele Lo Russo
Copyright-Jahr
2023
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-26018-6_12