On most days, Chris Selland works out of a Workbar co-working space in Burlington, just a couple of miles from his home in Reading.
When he has a meeting downtown, he makes the roughly 30-minute trip to Boston and pops into Workbar at 24 School St. — or he connects virtually. But nothing beats a short suburban commute.
“Workbar’s strategy of not just being downtown but also in the suburbs, that’s absolutely a reason we chose it,” said Selland, the chief executive at DipJar, a startup that creates cashless donation jars for fund-raising.
Since 2019, Selland has moved from Downtown Crossing to Cambridge to a co-working space just off Route 128. Nine of his 14 employees live near Boston, dispersed across Workbar locations in Salem, Needham, and Burlington. The others live in Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Austin, Texas, occasionally coming to home base in Burlington for meetings.
Selland’s setup is nothing out of the ordinary and is becoming more common as the COVID-19 pandemic changes how and where we work. As homebound workers look to ditch crowded trains and traffic jams, but still want a place to go that’s social and free from the distractions of home, more are finding it in the suburbs.
That’s a shift from the pre-pandemic boom of co-working, which was highly concentrated in the core business districts of Boston and Cambridge, with a wave of buzzy spaces catering to urban workers. Some of those urban operations have closed, with data from the real estate firm Newmark showing that, overall, the amount of co-working space in Greater Boston has declined since the pandemic hit.
It’s too soon to know just how many will crop up in the suburbs instead, said Newmark research director Elizabeth Berthelette; more clarity about Boston’s office market in general will come as more companies return to the office this fall. But she and other observers are watching closely.
“A lot of offices will be having some flex or hybrid model for employees,” she said. “Will that increase demand for suburban co-working? Potentially.”
Co-working has become big business. WeWork, the industry giant that in its 2019 heyday was almost synonymous with the industry, controlled roughly 1.5 million square feet in 16 locations in Boston, nearly all within a 15-minute walk of Downtown Crossing. Most, though not all, of those locations are still there. And WeWork said it has no immediate plans to expand in Boston-area suburbs. But others do.
Workbar has long had suburban locations and plans to add more. LocalWorks, which focuses on suburban co-working and operates seven locations in Massachusetts, is taking the leap, as well. And a variety of smaller operators have seen new niches emerge during the pandemic.
When Workbar began opening suburban offices in 2015, CEO Sarah Travers said, the move was driven by the needs of members.
Six years later ― as the pandemic accelerates a desire for short commutes — the company is operating nine Boston-area locations, six of them beyond Boston and Cambridge in towns such as Needham and Arlington. They’re looking to grow and are actively targeting the suburban market, with hopes of having a location within 20 minutes of where everyone in Boston lives or works.
LocalWorks founder Barry Greenfield is banking on the same philosophy, though he compares his company to the Southwest Airlines of an industry renowned for hip perks, offering nice, clean space, and just enough amenities to get the job done. Most people who work there live nearby, he said.
The business aims to target 30- to 60-year-olds in the suburbs and small companies experimenting with satellite offices. And it’s paying off. Revenue has quadrupled since last fall, when the company opened several locations and stepped up its marketing, Greenfield said. Locations that have been open about six months boast an 85 percent occupancy rate.
“These aren’t people who were living in the city and coming out into the suburbs,” Greenfield said. “These are people who need space but don’t want to go into the city. They want to be close to home.”
Landlords see the benefit, too.
Suburban co-working locations tend to generate less foot traffic than their downtown counterparts, but the flexibility they offer is attractive to companies in an uncertain time, said Mike Wilcox, a senior vice president and director of leasing at Bulfinch, a commercial real estate firm with office buildings in Boston-area suburbs. That brings tenants into the building.
“Co-working spaces are the beneficiaries of people saying ‘I’ll make a commitment that’s short-term and see what the world looks like a few quarters from now,’ ” said Wilcox, whose firm has four co-working spaces in its Boston-area buildings, including outposts of Workbar and LocalWorks. They’re a fraction of Bulfinch’s portfolio, Wilcox said, yet brought more traffic during the pandemic than traditional long-term tenants.
What office life looks like after the pandemic remains an open question. But there’s a growing sentiment that many white-collar employers will shift to a more hybrid model than the traditional 9-to-5-at-your-desk. A recent study by WeWork and Workplace Intelligence found that many employees would be willing to give up benefits like health care coverage, bonuses, and paid time off for more autonomy over where they work — which could include a co-working space relatively near home.
Really, it’s too soon to say what the next phase of office work will look like, said Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. And it probably won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.
But as Selland, the DipJar CEO, ponders his next office space, it probably means flexibility, and being close to his workforce in the suburbs. That has him leaning toward one option, in particular.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be in a Workbar,” he said.