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Open Access 2023 | OriginalPaper | Buchkapitel

Narratives on COVID-19 Effects on Coworking Spaces in France: A Winning Ticket for the Peripheries?

verfasst von : Divya Leducq, Christophe Demazière

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

Verlag: Springer Nature Switzerland

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France, like other European countries, has not been spared the COVID-19 crisis, but this pandemic, unknown in the twenty-first century, has highlighted and served as a sounding board for many other issues, both in society and in the materiality of contemporary cities. A new territorial narrative has emerged around the following question: can coworking spaces, and more generally third workplaces, meet the needs of a French society that is looking for planning solutions in the face of successive emergencies, in favour of better territorial equality and individual well-being? To assess the growth of coworking in France and its territorial impact—real, potential, or symbolic—the authors refer to their own research in the Centre-Loire Valley region and to specialized literature on economics and regional planning.

1 Introduction and Research Focus

France, as other European countries, has not been spared by the COVID-19 crisis, but this pandemic, unknown in the twenty-first century, has highlighted and resonated with many other issues, both in society and in the fabric of cities [1]. Indeed, France before COVID-19 was not a country keen on remote working but in recent years the spread of broadband internet has encouraged the rise of more remote working. Thus, the aspirations of non-managerial office workers, both women and men, to work one day a week from home had favoured the beginning of individual and sector-specific collective agreements. In 2018, the Yellow Jackets protest brought to light the problem of costly mobility from the countryside to the city. At the same time, and almost in contrast, the growing attraction for a better quality of life, the possibility for digital nomads and higher intellectual professions to work from their second home in the countryside or by the sea was already slightly present. Finally, since 2012, we have observed in France a growing success of coworking spaces and third places of work which are marked by a triple trend: their multiplication, their spatial diffusion, and the diversification of the typology of coworking spaces.
When it arrived in 2020, the unforeseeable, the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic severely affected France, first the cities (the very large ones), then the whole country. The batch of restrictions, administrative closures, barrier gestures in a first time (from spring to winter 2020), then the arrangements in a second phase (during the year 2021) damaged the economy, the state of mind and the conditions of numerous individuals and families, but also endangered the coworking spaces which were in danger of survival.
The COVID-19 crisis therefore raises a paradox of living together, of the collective, of co-housing in flexible workplaces: are coworking spaces a luxury of good times, a promise that can be avoided in difficult times? Or, on the contrary, can they be a bulwark against loneliness, to face the health crisis whose consequences go beyond the overcrowding of hospitals and the constrained isolation?
As this chapter is being written, two other crises have occurred in France—as in other European countries (Germany, Italy, etc.). Firstly, the scorching summer and the climate crisis confront us with the need to rapidly adapt our cities and territories to the effects of global warming to (perhaps) mitigate its consequences. Secondly, the energy crisis, related to the war in Ukraine, confirms that sobriety is no longer a scenario or a choice, but an obligation linked to the increase in electricity prices and the shortage of power. These two phenomena reinforce the crisis of traditional office real estate in French metropolises, and particularly in Paris Mega Region.
All these combined explanatory factors reinforce the argument in favour of coworking spaces (hereafter: CSs) as solutions for households, self-employed workers, and employees, but also as a means of resolving various forms of territorial crisis (inequality between metropolises and small towns, the feeling of declining in medium-sized towns, etc.). At the same time, they underline the limited scope of this solution, which is still largely unthought of in urban and territorial policies. Our chapter on French coworking narratives in the post-COVID era is based on our expertise in new trends in commercial real estate, acquired through international scientific monitoring, regular press reviews and the production of knowledge on coworking spaces and third places based on case studies located mainly in the Centre-Loire Valley Region, Paris Metropolitan Area and other French regions marked by a metropolis-periphery interface.

2 A Growing Number of Coworking Spaces: Spatial Diffusion and Business-Model Diversification

Since 2012, the number of coworking spaces has increased (Table 1). There are now nearly 2800 in France, one third of which are in the Paris region and two thirds in other French-regions. The Coworking 2021 index published by Ubiq [2], the former Bureaux à partager, shows a 60% increase in two years, after a clear pause in 2020, linked to the health crisis.
Table 1
Increasing number of coworking spaces in France
Growth (%)
+ 44
+ 66
+  183
+ 58
Source Bureaux À Partager—Ubiqdata [2]
While the market experienced a clear slowdown during the health crisis, the record number of leases taken out by coworking operators in 2019 (6 players took out 182,000 m2 of leases in the IDF in 2019) made it possible to support the growth in the number of spaces and the number of square meters over the years 2020 and 2021. Thus, the year 2021 has not been left behind in terms of site openings.
The big trend is towards very large spaces and high-end facilities [2]. Two very large coworking spaces have just opened in Paris: Wojo in the 13th arrondissement and WeWork on Boulevard Haussmann. Bordeaux is experiencing the same boom with the recent opening of two spaces by the firm Héméra, which plans to open a dozen new locations in Nouvelle-Aquitaine by 2025. This success is driven by two phenomena: the increase of self-employed workers and freelancers on the one hand, who are taking up space at these new locations. And companies that lack visibility and do not want to commit to a classic lease, which they cannot break for three years. Any flexibility that can be provided is welcome. In addition to this, there is another trend: to attract and retain candidates, companies are increasingly offering them the possibility of working in ‘third places’, close to home, and avoiding the daily commute to headquarters. This is one aspect of the new hybrid work that the health crisis has made possible.
The nomadic open space job is clearly no longer the norm in coworking. Inside the coworking spaces, sedentarisation continues: 88% of workstations are to be rented in closed private offices and only 12% of workstations are open to all in open space [2]. The business model is based on renting closed private offices by the month. These offices are growing. While in large cities outside the French capital, 70% of offers are for private offices with less than 5 workstations, in Paris, the majority of these vary in size from 2 to 40 workstations. Ubiq also notes an increase in offers of 40–70 workstations; certain large groups and scale-ups no longer hesitate to position themselves on entire private office floors in coworking, with more than 90 workstations.
In France, and especially outside the major cities of Paris, Lille and Lyon, the business models developed by “pure players” such as Régus and WeWork are not profitable. In intermediate, small, and medium-sized cities, it is often a private market initiative, a private association or a public initiative that leads to the appearance of a new coworking space type. Sometimes the public will has met with private interest around a larger project for an Innovation City (Châteauroux).
Thus, these new workplaces can be set up in unusual environments, such as in Corsica [2], where a former chapel has been desecrated and used as a workspace. In Bordeaux, a former military barracks Caserne Niel that had been abandoned was used as 7000 m2 of workspace “Darwin Ecosystem”. And in Paris, the former headquarters of the Calmann-Lévy publishing house, designed by Gustave Eiffel, with its original bookcases and old rails for transporting materials, now accommodates modern nomadic workers. Elsewhere, coworking spaces are seen as a way of revitalizing territories, around small urban centres, underused station buildings or in a wasteland with a visible industrial or artisanal character. The French Government has committed €130 million to develop them as part of the Recovery Plan.
While in Paris, concentration is making its way to larger and more premium spaces, the market in France’s major cities continues to develop successfully. In square meters, the Île-de-France region accounts for 34% of coworking spaces (vs. 35% in 2019) and Paris, with its large spaces in terms of size, now represents only 18% (vs. 23% in 2019) of the total number of coworking spaces in France. We are also seeing strong growth in the number of coworking spaces in the wider regions of Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux. Some players have made regional development their speciality, such as the IWG group (349 sites, 284 of which are in the regions), Startway (11 sites in the regions) and many new entrants such as Hiptown (5 spaces in Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux and Lille), Babel (which plans to set up in Grenoble, Lille and Bordeaux after Marseille and Montpellier), or Flex-O (3 sites in Lyon, Nantes and Lille, opening in 2021, and which plans to open 50 sites outside the Paris region in five years’ time) (op. cit.).
In the Centre-Loire Valley Region, between 2017 and 2022, the number of coworking spaces increased from 5 to more than forty. We conducted a study of more than thirty coworking spaces located in a variety of areas (from metropolitan areas to local centres as defined by the SRADDET) in the Loire Valley (Tours, Orléans and Blois), on the fringes of the Ile-de-France region (Chartres, Dreux, Montargis, etc.) and in the rural areas of the southern part of the region (Mézières-en-Brenne, Richelieu, Saint-Amand-Montrond, etc.). This study highlighted the diversity of economic and territorial models for setting up coworking facilities, but also the fragility of models based on purely associative groupings and coworking spaces with too few workstations.

3 New Expectations, Remote Working and Residential Mobility: A Fresh Opportunity for the So-Called “Peripheral” Territories?

Well-being at work has become an important criterion for the upper classes, which leads them to integrate this qualitative variable into their choice of residency, job, company, and workspace. However, the profiles of coworkers are very diverse, bringing together digital nomads (these independent, hyper-mobile, flexible, and autonomous ICT workers), creative people with varying degrees of qualifications but all specialists in a particular field (self-employed and freelancers in the service sector, crafts or agriculture) and employees of multi-localised companies (branches). Coworkers are attentive to the possibility of collaborative work (serendipity of encounters, cross-fertilisation, search for complementary skills, etc.) and to spaces with a carefully designed atmosphere that encourages creativity (architecture, design, and interior layout). Furthermore, coworkers are increasingly involved in ecological transitions and are sensitive to the locavore offer (local supplies from sustainable agriculture), to the recycling of CS waste or to the possibility of alternating active mobility (walking, cycling) and car mobility (essential in areas on the outskirts of very large cities).
Without seeking to replicate an CS model that would be unsuitable for the territory, the pandemic underlined the importance for an CS to offer a reliable internet connection, private offices allowing for confidentiality of exchanges between coworkers and clients, functional and available meeting, and creativity rooms instead of the open-spaces of the flex-office. Places for conviviality, friction and catering are also essential.
In rural areas or medium-sized towns, the hybridization of coworking spaces with other workplaces (third places, incubators, innovation clusters, etc.) or services to the population (public service centres, digital public spaces, etc.) makes it possible to limit the risks associated with the community’s investment in the CS. In fact, the CS project can be thought of at the same time with the economic development department, the urban planning department (urban regeneration, transitory or permanent occupation of empty premises, ephemeral CS, etc.), the transport and mobility department (bus timetable, cycle paths, autonomous shuttle project, time management, etc.)
Since March 2020 and the first major lockdown, not a day goes by without the publication of figures on unoccupied offices in the major business centres (La Défense, La Part Dieu, Euralille, etc.), new ways and places of working or the increased desire of the French for a better living environment. It seems that one can prove everything and its opposite. However, telework is a very real trend that may concern the regional territories, especially those in the immediate vicinity of Ile-de-France. Why is this so? Because this first trend is accompanied by a large-scale wave of departure of Parisians and Ile-de-France residents in search of a more pleasant and comfortable living environment.
Thus, according to the Paris Region Institute (2021), telework in administrations and companies could remain at 2.4 days per week after 2022. 9 out of 10 employees wish to maintain their teleworking time to better articulate individual, family and professional obligations, while only 13% of employees are dissatisfied with teleworking because of the deterioration of the quality of professional relations, poor management between professional and private spheres or a decreased efficiency of their working day. Local offices in a dedicated space (coworking, third places, FabLab, business centre, even library/media centre, etc.) are therefore very important to allow at least 2 days of telework in the week, since at the same time 62% of workers consider that their personal living space is not adapted to telework.
These trends are accompanied by an increased need for functional temporary workspaces (CS, shared offices, third places) between home and the head office or company offices, used alternatively. Thus, 45% of workers whose jobs allow them to do so would be in favour of teleworking in a coworking space near their home, especially if the expense is financed by their employer. In this respect, the Syndicat National des Professionnels de l’Hébergement d'Entreprises (Synaphe) is working on the formalisation of “office titles” that would facilitate access to local offices. This issue of workplaces is therefore part of the desire of individuals and households to better articulate their work, leisure and family lifetime.
At the same time, of the 36% of Parisians who wish to move, 11% do so each year and 50% plan to move outside the Paris Region [3]. Several reasons—family, professional or heritage—combine with the desire to live in a less dense, less polluted, less noisy area, but also with the need to have access to private nature (garden, terrace, balcony). Before the crisis, 44% of French people already said they preferred to live in a medium-sized town, 36% in a rural area and only 20% in a large town (IPSOS Sondage, 12/2019). Although the Centre-Val de Loire Region continues to be the main destination for households from Ile-de-France [4], access to services in the new intercommunal area of residence is an important factor in the final choice of location. Thus, since 2017, the CSs have seen an increase in the number of former Ile-de-France residents: the TGV effect in Tours and Vendôme, and the effect of Transilien, Intercités and Corail trains in Chartres, Dreux and Orléans. In predominantly rural areas with strong tourist potential, it is the transformation of second homes into main homes for all or part of the week that benefits the CSs of Nogent-le-Rotrou, Mézières-en-Brenne, Richelieu or Preuilly-sur-Claise.
Because of the continuous increase in land and property values, some households go so far as to leave the Ile-de-France to settle in one of the eight neighbouring departments and carry out a home ownership project there [5]. Many of them continue to work in the heart of the Paris mega-city-region, resulting in long commutes, as shown by Valentin’s testimony (Box 1); unless teleworking is possible for a large part of the week, as in the case of Raphaël.
Box 1 So far, so near… They left the Paris Region but kept their jobs there
In March 2021, the Paris Region Institute provided portraits of households that have left Île-de-France for a nearby area but continue to work there. These stories allow us to decipher their motivations and their choices.
Living in a regional capital, Orléans, and working in Paris
Anne and Valentin are 48 years old and come from the Loiret. Valentin began his studies in Orléans, continued them in Paris, then in Caen. It was in Paris that he found his first job in 1999. Anne joined him and the couple moved into a rented flat. Several events prompted them to move a few years later: the birth of two children and the lack of space in their 55 m2 flat; the landlord putting their flat up for sale; Anne’s loss of employment. They decided to find a more spacious home in a more pleasant environment, but the compromise of the Parisian suburbs did not enthuse them. They then considered returning to Orléans, 130 km from Paris, where they had family and friends.
In 2004, at the age of 32, they rented a 100 m2 house with a garden in the city centre and near the train station, for the same rent as their Parisian home. Valentin undertakes the daily train commute to Paris. Transport time: 5 min by bike to get to the station + 55 min by train + 20 min by metro and 5 min walking. Although the city is well served, the lntercity rail network is in a state of disrepair and is currently undergoing work to be completed in 2022. During strike periods, Valentin travels by car. Recently, he has been able to telework regularly, one or two days a week.
For her part, Anne found a new job in human resources in Orléans before a professional retraining that led to a sales position in the medical field in a home office. The family also welcomed a third child. After two experiences in renting and a first real estate acquisition since they moved to Orléans, Anne and Valentin built a house with ecological materials in the city centre.
A participatory housing project in the Perche region boosted by teleworking
Raphaël (44), an administrative magistrate, and Laure (41), a teacher, have two children aged 5 and 6. In 2016, they started thinking about a participatory housing project with a group of friends. At the time, they were all tenants, in Paris or a nearby suburb, and had a complicated daily life with young children in 70 m2 flats. In order not to increase their housing costs, they wanted to “try something else”, outside the dense zone. The professional trajectories of each of them are not yet fully determined, and it is necessary to continue working in Paris. The participatory housing project had its ups and downs. Finally, two couples with young children and a single man embarked on the adventure, with a more precise geographical strategy: towns served by the TGV were abandoned in favour of those along the Montparnasse/Le Mans TER line. In 2020, the group acquired a farmhouse near Nogent-le-Rotrou, in the Perche region of France, which had already been renovated to 1990s construction standards and had to be adapted to create independent housing. Although the cost price of the property is high, the group purchase allows a considerable reduction in the level of indebtedness.
Telecommuting has undoubtedly consolidated the project. Part of the group continues to work in Paris (1.5 h by train), alternating with two days of teleworking per week. Raphaël can work 80% of his time as a magistrate from home. For Laure, his partner, a local professional reconversion is envisaged.
The households from Ile-de-France who come to live in the Centre-Loire Valley Region and who frequent the CS correspond mainly to three profiles. “Opportunistic” households are young couples without children who left the Region for their studies and who return to settle here for the good life and because of a job opportunity in a high-tech sector (aeronautics, biotechnologies, cosmetics, precision mechanics, etc.). They are looking for a stimulating green work environment that offers new relational opportunities. “Pragmatic” households are couples living in Paris or the inner suburbs, living in a flat with at least two children. They are looking to acquire a main residence or convert their second home to settle in the Region on a long-term basis. These households seek to reduce their daily commuting to the capital and integrate CSs that provide a good infrastructure. Finally, “utopian” households—single women and men or couples—are seeking to live and work differently, in more open, interactive places where the boundaries between aspects of life are less clear and where they can contribute to a more sustainable society. Thus, projects for coworking spaces with coliving spaces (the “phalanstery/familistere” principle with shared living spaces such as the kitchen) may interest them.

4 The Role of Public Authorities in the Coworking Trend

How can the public authorities support coworking as an integral part of the productive city?
A first action might be to identify existing CS projects, whether they are the result of a private commercial desire to diversify activities (hotel, café, restaurant, etc.) or an associative structure (following the example of Châteauneuf-sur-Loire in Transition). Thus, the local authority can dialogue with the project leaders and support the project if the need is expressed through communication actions, temporary provision of premises (identifying unoccupied or under-occupied spaces, etc.), and occasional financial, human or technical assistance to join the human resources of companies located in the local area, for example.
If the elected representatives want to set up an CS or third-party project, then a preliminary study is necessary. Questions must be asked to ensure that the new workspace is precisely calibrated for the territory (what surface area?), that it is also in line with the local production ecosystem (what needs?) and that its insertion into the territorial fabric is relevant (what uses?). The functional mix of these new workspaces is important, as well as their individuality (variable needs of companies: one week of team building in an original CS—boat, castle—or a multinational teleworker in a building rented for the year?), their capacity to respond to the challenges of digital mediation (intergenerational training) and their openness to the city (participative projects, events…).
The initial ambition of the supporting structure is important, as is the definition of a clear line for the CS project. Will it be a space solely dedicated to work or will there be other functions for the place (repair café, social café, farm-to-fork grocery shop, exhibition room, sport grounds…)? Is a new building being constructed or is an underused space in the community being recycled (building in a business park, media library, empty industrial or commercial premises, etc.)? What identity do we want to give to the site, in relation to the site’s amenities, the assets of the local territory, with the local area? Who will run the place and how will the future community of coworkers be gradually extended?

5 To Conclude and Follow the Research Agenda on Coworking

On the borderline between prospective research and action, our qualitative approach to coworking spaces always starts with an in-depth urban survey on site, followed by an interview phase with the creators, managers, and animators of these spaces. Through an online survey and our field visits, we also met the coworkers who frequent the CSs in the region. Their profile is diverse: they are both independent workers in the knowledge economy (translators, lawyers, etc.) and creative people (in the fields of digital, design, art, etc.). Since the COVID-19 pandemic, students (in search of internet connection and socialising) and teleworkers (62% of managers and 68% of microentrepreneurs) are two categories that frequent CSs more.
In this summary note on the narratives of coworking in the post-pandemic era, we wanted to show the interest of thinking of CSs as an additional workspace within the economic reorganization of resilient territories in the face of various crises (economic, health, climate, etc.).
At a time of a plural risk society, CSs can also be levers of development if they are thought of in connection with the overall urban or rural development project. The recompositing of the tertiary real estate landscape (fewer offices in the traditional sense, and more green/open spaces, third-party spaces, etc.) offers the opportunity to think about new urban models.
In this period of multiple transitions (post-pandemic, climate emergency, (re-)structuring of future sectors, etc.), and as practitioners of territorial planning and development, it is essential to question the place of these new workspaces—whatever they are called: coworking spaces, FabLab, makerspaces, third places, clusters, incubators, poles, etc.—in the urban project. Symmetrically, it is also a question of calibrating, through studies prior to the decision and public and/or private investment, their capacity to contribute to more productive and greener territories.


The authors are grateful to the Centre-Val de Loire Region which, through the COWORK-CVL research programme, has funded and supported this research from 2018 to 2022.
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Narratives on COVID-19 Effects on Coworking Spaces in France: A Winning Ticket for the Peripheries?
verfasst von
Divya Leducq
Christophe Demazière