In a hybrid working world, city businesses can be the boardroom

Welcome to the workplace.
Welcome to the workplace.
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn
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As some (but not all) companies shrink their real estate and offer workers a choice between coming to an office or working from home, other businesses are betting that there will be demand for new types of places to meet and work.

Untethered from the office, some people able to work from home are working instead from other people’s homes, often in exotic locations. Just ask Airbnb, which has rolled out new search functions to help users find remote-work destinations. But you don’t have to travel far for a change in scenery. When the home office is no longer cutting it, and the opportunity for collaboration or face-to-face contact arises, any number of small businesses or public spaces in the neighborhood might be the perfect meeting place, whether for a pair of teammates or the entire team.

Of course, public spaces like coffee shops, restaurants, and libraries have long been used for business and non-business meetings. But they may take on increased importance to employers as more hybrid workplaces move out of the office, and out of employees’ homes, and into the world.

The local coffee shop

In succeeding in its mission to become a “third place” for people after home and work, Starbucks has redefined the role of coffee shops large and small in cities around the world. They’ve become places to set up with a laptop for a few hours, or grab time with a colleague for a one-on-one meeting.

But there are also new models for making local businesses like coffee houses and restaurants places for larger teams of employees to do collaborative work. Traction on Demand, a software consultancy based in Vancouver, is piloting a project to partner with local small businesses to rent their spaces as meeting rooms. A restaurant that doesn’t open until dinner, for example, might be rented as a co-working space during the day. If a coffee shop has an extra section of tables, the owner might reserve it for a group to come in and hold a meeting. The company also is talking to bike shops, coffee shops, and microbreweries about hosting its employees in their spaces.

“The idea was basically, ‘what if we create these little gathering areas in our community, right where our employees are based?'” says Megumi Mizuno, Traction on Demand’s chief of staff, who is spearheading the project it calls Working Forward. This model would benefit small businesses, Mizuno says, by providing extra income for use of the space, while giving Traction on Demand employees an alternate workspace option without creating a demand for more office space.

So far, leaders at Traction on Demand have been in early talks with Vancouver area small businesses about establishing partnerships, but are waiting for pandemic restrictions to be lifted to try them out in practice. Once the spaces are up and running, Traction on Demand employees will be able to reserve a spot at a coffee shop or closed restaurant using the same software they would use to reserve a hoteling desk at the office. The spaces will accommodate independent work as well as collaboration and meetings.

The goal is to leverage these spaces in a way that’s beneficial for all parties involved; Employees working at a dinner restaurant may be able to, after working there during the day, purchase a meal to take home to their families just as the restaurant begins to open, Mizuno says.

“We think this is something that could work for multiple people. We want it to be successful for our company, but we also want to help our communities thrive.”

The “anti-café”

Working cafés, or “anti-cafés” as they’re known, offer the best of co-working spaces and coffee shops. Instead of paying for food and drinks to gain access, some shops are set up for workers pay for the time they spend, and everything else is complimentary. WeWork’s now-closed café in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, for example, initially charged $6 for 30 minutes, and $0.20 per minute beyond that.

These spaces, popular in European economic hubs like Manchester, Berlin, and Moscow, are designed for dropping in, with large spaces for meetings as well tables for solo work, and no co-working membership required.

In the US, the work-friendly café model has sometimes been sponsored by companies, like the Capital One Café or Amazon Web Services startup lofts. These spaces are built to encourage collaboration and meetings, but also use of the sponsoring company’s products. The Capital One Café offers on-site banking services. The AWS lofts (which closed amid the pandemic), offered many of the amenities of a private co-working space for free; the only cost of entry: an Amazon Web Services account.

The hotel conference room

The hospitality industry runs on hosting meetings. While hotels are often designed with spaces for large conferences and events, many have conference rooms for single-day use. These spaces are typically targeted at event planners and large companies looking to hold formal meetings. Hybrid work may change that. Hotels perhaps will move to serve distributed business teams looking to work in-person. If nothing else, working out of a hotel conference room—or repurposed guest room—can offer employees a change of scenery.

The library

Libraries, the often-overlooked public resource, are filled with tomes of information, helpful staff, community programing, and in many places, bookable meeting rooms. Often thought of as silent spaces for individual concentration, libraries typically offer spaces for collaborative work as well. Many library networks in major cities have meeting rooms and electronic equipment for presentations that can be booked in advance.

Libraries are not always the most popular choice—a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that just 18% of US library users attended a meeting at a library. Nonetheless, these spaces offer a free, pleasant, accessible, and nearby meeting option for urban dwellers. Depending on the city, they’re also an opportunity to experience an architectural wonder.