Coworking with social distancing
Arjjun Chander, founder of Karya Space, talks about the future of coworking spaces in a world put to test by a pandemic
CHENNAI: It took a pandemic to finally get the corporate conglomerates and neighbourhood business houses alike to face the fact that work does not have to happen only at the office. Four months into the lockdown, when the world seems to have collectively accepted the work-from-home system as a viable alternative, the coworking business has not fared as well. While the global phenomenon took its time to find resonance in the Indian work culture, coworking spaces have managed to script history in the past few years.
One such success story is Arjjun Chander’s Karya Space. Established in 2015, the organisation has grown into a sought-after space for businesses in Chennai; its clientele including MNCs like TATA and MSMEs/start-ups like Shuttl. Five years down the line, faced with a virus and the damage it has wrought, Arjjun talks about the future of coworking spaces and the great potential it holds.
Karya Space was launched at a time when our cities had not yet caught up with the concept of coworking. What was it like to start things from scratch then?
Coworking was just coming up then; all the big players in Pune, Bengaluru and Mumbai were just starting out. I got to experience the concept in New York City in 2011. A couple of years later, I worked out of an informal coworking space in Bengaluru and saw a world of difference between what was available here and abroad. That’s only because it was catching on in India and not many people were serious about running it as a sustainable business.
That’s the idea behind Karya Space — to provide budget coworking spaces without losing out on the aesthetics of a feel-good office. Many of the players who started then charged much higher, on a per-seat basis. We are more conventional in terms of pricing, and much more friendly to MSMEs. Besides taking inspiration from other spaces abroad, we also took notice of the practices in place in business centres (precursors to coworking spaces) that have existed in the country since the 60s. We’ve had to keep updating our processes, what we offer, and pricing flexibility. This happens based on market trends and what we learn from client requirements over the years.
While Karya has witnessed a steady growth since its inception, it has had to weather quite a few challenges by way of floods and cyclones in its early years. Now, it finds itself facing a much larger crisis. What do you think is the way forward?
When Chennai went through the floods or faced a cyclone, the shutting down of operations was only for a few days. Many businesses came up to us in the aftermath because their offices were flooded or damaged. They needed an immediately ‘up and running’ office at a time when they have had a loss. We offered the best possible solutions we could. In this pandemic, it is a much larger challenge that has gone on for months.
It is a time when business is low on cash flow, and as consumer trends are reducing, we are spending lesser. And we don’t see the end to this economic pandemic yet; we only have estimations of how businesses will function. Stepping into a ‘cash is king’ scenario, coworking has its place firmly established. Companies will not be able to afford their own offices; they wouldn’t have the flexibility of increasing or decreasing the number of people coming into the office or the rent. The advantage with coworking spaces is that you can hire the bare minimum of space and increase it as more people begin working out of offices or reduce when the situations demands so. Our business model perfectly fits the need of the hour. Similar to the period after the floods and cyclones, we can help companies more in the long term.
Now that many businesses have adapted and grown accustomed to the work-from-home system, do you think they would choose coworking spaces over this new-found, cheaper alternative?
The past few months have been challenging for the coworking space industry. But it’s not because companies do not believe in the concept but want to safeguard their employees first. With this being a highly communicable disease, it’s better that people stay home till the numbers (of cases) start coming down. We believe that the work-from-home trend will continue in the long-term.
But companies are allowing only 30-50 per cent of its staff to work from home. The rest will have to come back to offices. With the work-from-home module, it’s somehow assumed that offices will become nonexistent. That’s not the case — we’ll always need physical offices, for humans are social animals and get inspired from each other’s presence. Companies too will only have structure and collective goals when they meet periodically, at least. And we’re seeing enough discussions about not being able to motivate employees working from home. So we see the future to be a hybrid model where you’ll have work-from-home and work-from-office spaces — shared or otherwise.
Post-lockdown, how do you see day-to-day operations playing out at Karya?
Companies might work in shifts; employees will still be coming in two-three days a week on a rotational basis. Say there is a business with 50 workers, they might take a space at Karya for only 20-30. So it does mean that we will not be able to sell to capacity; at least, until a vaccine becomes available. Until then, most of our offerings is around private rooms.
This reduces the risk of community spread. We have on offer closed cabins that allow for social distancing. Employees will be made to use the same rooms; the common spaces (conference room and pantry) will be sanitised from time to time. Few basic protocols like restricted entry and temperature checks will be put in place. We will have touch-free sanitisers all over the places. Employees will have to use masks and be equipped with personal hand sanitisers. Frequently-touched surfaces will be disinfected every two-three hours. And workers will be asked to bring their own food, cutlery and water.