How the remote work evolution looks in NH
|Published: 11-25-2023 3:00 PM
The recent bankruptcy of the high-profile startup WeWork may have cast a pall on the coworking industry nationally but you wouldn’t know it from New Hampshire’s independent operators.
“We started with 2,400 square feet, now at 8,000. We’re into the majority of the second floor of our building, with 19 offices, three living rooms, phone booth, 30 hot desks, and access to larger meeting rooms on the third floor,” said Jamie Simchik, owner HRKNSS cowork at 11 S. Main St., in Concord.
As of November, the site was about 85% full, said Andrew Damour, community manager of space for HRKNSS, which is named after Edward Harkness, a founder of collaborative learning who attended St. Paul’s School. That name was chosen, Simchik said, because all the obvious web addresses built around “co-working” were already taken.
Clients range from public affairs companies to non-profits to a solar firm to a virtual optometrist, ranging from start-ups to employees of major corporations. “One start-up came to us because they got funding from New Hampshire,” he said.
New Hampshire has about a dozen independent co-working spaces, which are sites for short-term office rentals offering an “office” as small as one desk and the rental as short as one hour, although multi-month leases of traditional closed offices are also common. The majority are around Manchester or Portsmouth, but they can be found all over.
Forty-five minutes up I-89 from Concord in the little town of Grantham, for example, a site called Flexwors is humming along after two years in business.
“It’s been pretty steady. I haven’t seen any recent decline,” said owner Jerry Volpe. In fact, he’s had interest in expanding into New London.
Flexworx (not to be confused with Flexwerc, a co-working space in Londonderry) leases space in a professional building, taking up one of the 12 suites. It offers three small offices and six desks. Like many co-working spaces, he sells a variety of packages, from day passes to 12-gatherings-a-month packages to rent-a-meeting-room. Customers run the gamut.
“I have a number of people that said, I’m doing construction, work from home, need a place to park for three months. Can I have an office? … One customer runs her own business. She had to hire people, all of whom work remote, so she uses the space every two weeks for staff meetings,” Volpe said. “I have a recurring customer who comes through 2 to 3 times a year. They always plan a stop here for a few hours, do a meeting.”
This kind of flexibility is the whole point of co-working spaces. They sprang up around 2008 as an alternative to commercial real estate, similar to the way AirBNB sprang up as an alternative to hotels, and came to widespread attention after WeWork, which was founded in 2010, began a meteoric rise atop the gig-economy explosion.
WeWork fell as fast as it rose, but its financial problems arose not from its basic business model but because it bought office buildings instead of leasing space. It owns millions of dollars worth of downtown skyscrapers whose value tanked when businesses moved out during the pandemic.
Its problems may even help local co-working spaces by bringing attention to the idea of short-term office space as well as by exposing WeWork’s finances.
“When WeWork started to falter during its IPO, a lot of independent operators … were able to look under the hood, operationally. You got to see how these big companies operate, some proprietary information. It was the start of a democratizing of data around co-working, if you will,” said Simchick.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the health of local co-working spaces comes from Spark Offices in the Manchester Millyard. It opened in March 2020 just as the pandemic lockdown hit. This seemed disastrous at first but may have been for the best because the resulting surge in work-from-home made the idea of hot-desking and using short-term office rentals seem a lot more normal.
“A subset had realized that before the pandemic. Now the entire world had the aha moment,” said Jenna Baggs, office manager at Spark.
As might be expected in downtown Manchester, home to big companies and nationally known biotech startups, Spark’s membership is more corporate than many.
“About one-quarter of our membership is associated with a larger company, where a corporate office is in charge of membership,” Baggs said. This includes one of Manchester’s most prominent tech firms, Autodesk. “Autodesk gave up their massive (leased) space. Their local team still wants to see each other from time to time … and they need space. We have a partnership going with them.”
That’s not to say Spark lacks the small fry traditionally attracted to flexible space.
“We do have a couple members who hot desk, typically coming in and out for summer vacations when they have a big work meeting. The majority of membership is long-term, a large variety of types of people. … We have smaller businesses that give up leases. The teams are now meeting monthly in conference rooms; startups; and large companies offering stipends to workers to work remotely,” she said.
The business is doing well enough that Spark is branching out. It has opened a franchise in Hooksett and is looking to open another in Dover and Baggs thinks the idea of people working in places other than the company space has finally infiltrated the corporate mindset.
“I believe that (being open to remote work) is a requirement that new people coming to the workforce, as well as a certain section of the existing workforce, want. It is now something that everybody’s asking about, for a benefit,” she said. “It’s the norm.”