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Coronavirus: Rented, shared short-term office spaces gain in popularity as working-from-home looks to be here to stay

The concept of the American office space, rooted in a physical footprint in urban cores across the country, faces long-term impacts from coronavirus.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It's been around five very long months since a huge swath of American companies began to send workers home amid the spread of the Coronavirus, and to this day office spaces around the country remain vacant. 

For those workers who were sent home to continue in their positions, working from home likely has presented its own set of challenges and rewards. But is this the new normal?

Just off Old St. Augustine Rd. near Baptist South, Michael Wielgus invited us into a not-so-average office space that seems to be designed for the times.

"From a growth perspective, [Coronavirus] hasn't slowed us down," he said.

Wielgus is a franchise owner of two Office Evolution locations in Jacksonville, both opened within the past two years. The company currently operates 72 locations across the country, and just recently broke into the Florida market.

The concept of the company is pretty simple: anyone from a small business owner to a corporate CEO to a medical student can rent space, for whatever amount of time they need.

Between conference rooms, single offices, shared workspaces and team workspaces, Wielgus said the locations offer more effective space for companies that may not need to rent a large office or multiple floors of a skyscraper.

"[The clients] can really have what they want, when they want it," Wielgus said. "We would have everything from a business address on the low end, all the way to team offices. And you have conference rooms and co-working in-between." 

The idea of the concept is to build locations close to where workers who would normally commute live. Parents can be closer to their children's schools, companies can cut down on a physical footprint.

"We committed to five locations here in Jacksonville," Wielgus said. “Our goal is to spread them out all around Jacksonville to allow people to not only be close to home in different areas but also as they do business around town to be able to bounce into the different locations."

Cutting back on office space in the age of Zoom, Skype and Slack can be a quick way for companies to cut costs during a recession, especially when that office space is in pricier, centrally-located buildings.

But while offices stay empty for now, will vacancy in commercial real estate remain permanent? 

"It's going to depend on the industry," said Justin Bateh, a business professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville. "Attorneys may have different preferences than a computer programmer." 

Bateh said many companies have seen short-term productivity gains by implementing work-from-home orders, but some recent studies show working from home long-term could negatively impact productivity.

In short, the jury is still out on how permanent work-from-home may be.

"I think as we look at the workforce and trends it's a little too soon to take the productivity gains that we have seen and assume that those are going to be gains that we see for the long-term," Bateh said. 

"For younger workers, you lose the mentoring opportunity. The peer-to-peer relationships. The ability to set a company culture. All the things that could happen by being in a physical space." 

As companies transition some employees back into the office, Bateh said many will do so in phases slowly, meaning it will be some time before offices are back to 100 percent capacity.

Still, a hybrid model of working that involves some physical and some work-from-home could win the day in many circumstances, Bateh said. 

Wielgus said that once his five Office Evolution locations are built out in the Jacksonville area, he expects to service anywhere from 700 to 1,000 businesses locally.

"As we're going through this right now, we aren't seeing the positive effects. Where I see the positive effects coming are later, once we have control over the pandemic," he said. "From a growth perspective, it hasn't slowed us down. I think if anything, it's elevated this."