Coworking is trying to cope with COVID. The shared-workspace businesses, which first came to Evanston about a decade ago, are facing many of the same troubles that the giant office towers face in downtown Chicago. Workers are working from home, and there’s no telling how long that may continue.

Miguel Wong owns CoLab on Chicago Avenue. “My honest opinion,” Wong says, “a lot of the trade articles out there are very optimistic, but I can tell you talking to space owners it’s a very different story.” Wong says his membership, clients who rent space, is half of what it was before the coronavirus.

At Creative Coworking on Davis Street, owner Angela Valavanis is seeing the same thing — a lot more empty desks than before the pandemic.  “It’s a little nerve-wracking now,” she says.

Coworking gives clients the chance to rent anything from a place to sit and use a laptop, to an office with a door.  But “coworking at its best,” Valavanis says, “is not just a desk in a room.” Ideally, she adds, “it’s a community that you join.”

Desks, empty for now, at Creative Coworking.

Diane Testa joined the Creative Coworking community four years ago. An executive and business coach, Testa only needs a desk at Creative, or sometimes a conference room, bringing her computer and backpack from home. “I can sit wherever I’m inspired to sit,” she says.

Testa says, “I actually built my business” at the coworking facility, meeting others such as writers and startup entrepreneurs who could use business coaching. Now, however, her clients are down 50%.

She meets her remaining clients on Zoom, but says face-to-face at a desk or table is far better than on a computer. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be with people in person,” she explains.

CoLab and Creative Co2working were shared space pioneers in Evanston. Now, there are at least three other owners downtown. “We were all doing okay before COVID,” says Wong, who also has a coworking site on Oak Avenue. “Our members are our friends and our neighbors,” he says. The landlords have been understanding so far, but it’s impossible to predict how long that might last.

Valavanis owns the Creative Coworking building. She also has a second site, in Edgewater, in Chicago. Both Valavanis and Wong see coworking as not just a business, but as a philosophy. Meeting. Sharing. “I love the concept,” says Wong.  

Valvanis says coworking can work in the current reality. But it’s uncertain if members will feel comfortable. “When people are ready to come back,” she says, “they’ll be pleased to see they can socially distance,” if that’s necessary.

Diane Testa is maintaining her membership, even if she’s currently Zooming at home. She wants to return to coworking in person, six feet apart if need be.  But, she knows “it’s just a matter of is the world ready” to return with her?

Looking to the future, Valavanis and Wong both hope they’ll not only get the old members back, but attract new ones who may want to stay closer to home in Evanston, but not at home in their houses.

“My intention is to be here for the long haul,” says Valavanis.

And, says Wong,“We’re all trying to get through this together.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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