A lawyer, an accountant and an author walk into an office? Some locals say get

Keene resident Ken Kiburis lives about 75 miles from his company’s office in Hopkinton, Mass. His commute is under 10 minutes.

That’s because Kiburis, who works for a Dell Technologies affiliate, has a desk at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship’s collaborative workspace in downtown Keene.

Kiburis was an early convert to working remotely, before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered corporate offices and added “Zoom” to the normal lexicon. To avoid a long commute, he set up an office at his Concord Hill Drive home.

About three years ago, though, Kiburis started taking his work to the Hannah Grimes Center’s co-working space, The HIVE — a 2,000-square-foot suite on Roxbury Street with desks spread across an open floor plan, as well as private offices and a conference room. While people there span different industries and professional pursuits, he said being together has sparked friendly relationships among them.

“You kind of recreate that office environment,” he said.

Local business leaders think Kiburis might be ahead of the curve again.

Mary Ann Kristiansen, the Hannah Grimes Center’s executive director, said she expects collaborative work spaces like The HIVE to become more attractive if employees continue working remotely, even if only on some days, after the pandemic subsides. That trend will accelerate, she said, if businesses eschew large corporate offices — and their costly leases.

“I think people are looking for clean … adaptable, nimble spaces these days,” she said.

Migration to rural areas, like the Monadnock Region, during the pandemic could also boost co-working facilities, according to CoWork Peterborough owner Susie Hunter, whose space is similar to The HIVE. Even in a rural setting far from their own company, Hunter said, employees may still want an office with regular human interaction.

“If you’re just working remotely, it’s not as enriching,” she said. “I believe that the more interesting and the broader your life is with your community, the better thinker and worker you are.”

Since opening in March 2017, The HIVE has drawn entrepreneurs, students working toward advanced degrees and employees at larger companies who would otherwise be working from home, Kristiansen said.

Workers can reserve a desk for $15 a day or $50 a week, or select from a variety of monthly membership options.

In addition to reliable Internet, The HIVE gives workers a chance to spend the day in downtown Keene. And working next to strangers facilitates inter-industry exchange, which Kristiansen called “vitally important.”

“I think the network is one of the most important things,” she said.

Use of The HIVE increased last year, compared to 2019, according to Kristiansen. With many workers struggling to focus at home during the pandemic, she said finding an alternative office can be very attractive.

“The work-life balance just got stretched to the max this year,” she said. “… For lots of reasons, a more professional space is good.”

COVID-19 has not been kind to large co-working spaces that grew popular with the gig economy’s rise in recent years.

WeWork, which was valued at nearly $50 billion two years ago and has offices worldwide, lost $1.7 billion in the first three quarters of 2020, according to reporting by Forbes, though the company was already suffering before the pandemic. In January, the co-working space operator Knotel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Hunter said the number of people at CoWork Peterborough, which is above the Peterborough Community Theatre on School Street, also fell last year.

In recent weeks, however, she has noticed an uptick in demand.

Hunter, who owns the theater, said she decided to turn its upstairs — a former function room and office space — into a co-working facility while doing renovations in 2018. CoWork Peterborough has four private offices, a conference room, a kitchenette and a large room with four desks that can each be rented monthly, she said.

Like The HIVE, the space draws a mixture of self-employed people and residents working remotely for out-of-area companies, according to Hunter.

“I found that a lot of people were coming because their Internet connection was not good enough at home … and also to have the socialization and to be downtown,” she said.

Hunter said another factor may be responsible for the recent spike in interest: greater feelings of isolation caused by the pandemic. She predicts that will continue pushing people toward co-working spaces even after the public health emergency ends, however.

“Working from home has its challenges,” she said. “… Even before [the pandemic], shared workspace became popular because you weren’t so isolated.”

Shared offices are also financially efficient, since they provide many of the materials that people working from home would otherwise need to purchase themselves, according to Roy Schlieben, executive director of the MAxT Makerspace in Peterborough.

The makerspace, which launched in 2015 and moved to an 8,000-square-foot facility on Vose Farm Road three years later, provides workshops geared toward people working in engineering and the visual arts. However, it also offers a small amount of office space for workers in more corporate jobs, Schlieben said.

For local remote workers, Schlieben said co-working spaces offer technical benefits like high-speed Internet as well as the social benefits of an interactive environment.

“It’s like having an office when you need it,” he said.

Schlieben said that even for corporate workers at the makerspace, whose jobs may not require hands-on expertise like some of its other laborers, the chance to collaborate with employees in other sectors is advantageous.

“You can learn something on YouTube, but it’s much better to get somebody leaning over your shoulder and saying, ‘Here you go, try this,’ ” he said.

Kiburis said people at The HIVE don’t typically discuss their work, instead sticking to conversations about their personal lives. That interaction is much-needed during the pandemic, he noted, with opportunities outside of work limited due to public-health protocols.

And working at The HIVE has kept his job and personal life from bleeding into each other, he said.

“I find that getting out of the [house] helps create separation between home and work.”

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