How social distancing affects coworking spaces in Estonia

The year 2020 brought along a massive shift towards remote work within a short period of time. The principles of mobile, paperless, and flexible working methods were conceptually established already in the 1970s. However, surveys show that in many EU countries, more than half of the workers who have started working from home since the pandemic started had no prior experience with teleworking.

The Covid-19 crisis accelerated several trends already under way. An increased demand for contractors and gig workers, as well as more remote work, will remain as the new normality in our working lives.

In this period of rapid changes, a team from the University of Tartu – Professor Tiiu Paas and PhD students Anastasia Sinitsyna, Luca Alfieri, and Kaire Piirsalu-Kivihall – joined the international research on “The geography of New Working Spaces and the impact on the periphery” (COST Action CA18214), which involves 140 research partners from 33 countries.

The project aims to share the scientific outcomes regarding new working spaces. The latter include coworking spaces and smart work centres, makerspaces and other technical spaces, hackerspaces and informal working spaces. Additionally, the aim is to compare the best practices within different countries. The work will continue until 2023, but we can share the first results of the qualitative study carried out among locally owned coworking spaces in Estonia.

Currently, there are 16 registered coworking spaces in Estonia; however, the awareness of such working spaces is still quite low. Image credit: Inga Külmoja /

What are coworking spaces?

Coworking spaces are open-plan offices that mobile or independent knowledge workers share as places of work. In the beginning, coworking offices were used by freelancers, start-ups, and knowledge workers in the creative industries. Nowadays, however, 36 percent of the members worldwide are corporate employees, compared to 41 percent of freelancers. Many international organisations do not establish local offices for their branches but rent coworking spaces for their employees. Also, some corporations purposefully look towards coworking to benefit from its advantages. These include community building, a social workplace, and an increase in revenue as well as improved workflow.

However, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, most governments have used social distancing measures to protect citizens from catching the illness. This also meant difficulties for coworking spaces, as the concept of their business model is strongly built on the social dimension and community building. Different sources show that internationally, coworking spaces have experienced more than a 30% drop in membership contracts. Also, a majority of coworking spaces have seen a significant decrease in the number of people working from their space.

How are coworking spaces doing in Estonia?

The coworking phenomenon is comparatively new in Estonia. The first coworking spaces here were established within the last decade. Currently, there are 16 registered coworking spaces in Estonia. Also, managers of coworking spaces pointed out that the awareness of such working spaces is still quite low in Estonia. In recent years, however, new forms of coworking have evolved – hotels with hubs, platforms for finding remote workplaces, etc. 

We were pleasantly surprised that coworking spaces in Estonia seem to be coping rather well and are quite optimistic about the future. This might be due to several reasons. One of them is the hybrid form of the spaces. The majority of Estonian coworking spaces have both private and open space offices. Being restricted in the utilization of open spaces, customers were allowed to transit to private rooms. However, this is only one reason for the smooth transition under Covid-19. For other explanations, we carried out in-depth interviews with the managers of leading coworking spaces. This showed several interesting results:

  • Fast adjustment to the customers’ needs helps to overcome the most difficult times. During the first wave of the pandemic in spring, coworking spaces made some quick adjustments to their services. Since then, they have been developing their services and packages. The first measures were naturally related to safety, including disinfection, reshaping of the offices, and cost optimisation. The following steps already included new value propositions to customers, such as new, flexible membership packages, different online services, etc. 
  • Virtual community-building expertise is an increasingly important skill and should be developed further. Community building is still at the core of the coworking movement. However, due to the crisis, all coworking spaces transferred most communication to virtual channels. Although some of the spaces had a positive experience with that, some managers admitted that it has not worked very well. The reason is low participation from customers who are probably tired of online communication. 
  • Coworking spaces offer added value for workers. After the first wave of the pandemic, customers came back, although at least some of them could continue working from home. This shows that coworking spaces can provide people with a basic need: social contact. Also, multifunctional rooms, technological means, and perks are not irrelevant to boosting work motivation. 
  • Coworking spaces may offer more flexibility in rental contracts and savings in costs. By doing this, they could be a good choice during uncertainty for many companies. Managers of coworking spaces in Estonia are optimistic about the future. They do not plan to shut down coworking spaces, rather the opposite: they plan to have more marketing activities to raise awareness of coworking spaces and attract new customers.

In summary, coworking spaces in Estonia have adapted relatively well during the Covid-19 crisis and may have a bright future. The results of various studies show that the benefits of coworking include an improved work-life balance, flexibility, a sense of social belonging, and an increased sense of autonomy. Developing services further to meet the customers’ needs may accelerate the growth of coworking spaces in Estonia. 

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