On a recent Friday afternoon, dozens of people sat hunched over laptops at TheDesk’s six-story coworking space near Hong Kong’s Central business district, while others chatted over snacks at tables on the outdoor terrace — all of them ignoring government advice to work from home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Whether escaping tiny apartments that are not conducive to work, or less concerned by a virus that has infected about 1,000 residents compared with more than 110,000 New Yorkers, the surprise result is coworking providers are thriving in Hong Kong, even as much of the world remains in lockdown.
TheDesk signed up 25 percent more new members in the first quarter of this year versus the quarter prior, chief executive officer Thomas Hui (許?) said.
“I think it’s especially because the living environment in Hong Kong is very cramped, so there are a lot of disruptions to people working from home,” Hui said.
The Executive Centre, a high-end serviced office operator, leased 33 percent more desk space in the first quarter from a year earlier. Across its 135 mostly Asian centers, it grew about 9 percent in the first three months of this year.
Companies are looking to conserve cash and retain flexibility rather than take the risk of committing to a long-term office lease, chief executive officer Paul Salnikow said.
“The idea of signing a fixed lease with fixed rental commitment over a three-year period, which is the minimum term in Hong Kong, and then investing in the fit-out, buying the furniture, is an overinvestment for most companies,” he said.
It is a different story in Singapore, where a government-ordered shutdown of all but essential services means most workers have to stay at home, with employers facing hefty fines or even jail if they do not enforce the measures.
In the early days of the outbreak, marketing manager Jivan Tulsani preferred to use a coworking office rather than work from home, free from the distractions of family members and Netflix.
“I have a very comfortable home, but it’s too comfortable for work,” Tulsani said. “It’s difficult for me to resist temptation to continue watching Homeland once the afternoon slump kicks in.”
Now he has no choice. The lockdown has forced most coworking spaces to close, remaining accessible only to workers providing essential services such as banking, logistics and security.
Tulsani’s knowledge-sharing platform does not meet the criteria.
Singapore’s coworking spaces are popular with technology firms — from start-ups to multinational corporations — and the lockdown has hurt operators like JustCo.
With all 17 of its centers closed to most workers, usage has declined, chief executive officer Kong Wan Sing (龔萬鑫) said, without providing figures.
Another problem JustCo faces is not receiving rent relief from its landlords, despite the government providing a property tax rebate to ease the strain on commercial tenants.
To help its clients through the crisis, JustCo — which is backed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte — unveiled its own multimillion-dollar relief package. It would benefit more than 3,000 companies across its centers in eight cities including Singapore, Bangkok and Sydney.
As for WeWork, which made coworking hip before almost imploding last year, while it has closed its Indian offices indefinitely, it remains open in Singapore, China and other Asia-Pacific nations.
In Australia, decals have been placed on floors and furniture to meet social distancing guidelines. Pantries are operating with limited amenities, but the beer taps have been shut off.
In Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, all members must have their temperature checked and wear masks or risk being refused entry, while pets are no longer allowed.
With the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment potentially reshaping the future role of the office, the test for the coworking industry would be to show that it can provide a safe space for workers and companies seeking flexibility.
“The challenge for a multinational is that if you put your staff at a coworking space, can you guarantee that you create a safe environment?” said Tim Armstrong, head of occupier services and commercial agency for Asia-Pacific at Knight Frank LLP.
“There will be pressure on coworking groups to show that they have gone above and beyond with their health and safety as well, if they want to entice multinationals in.”
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