Coworking spaces in South Asia, like the other parts of the world, have been severely affected by COVID-19. The good thing is they are among the first to start thinking about how they should adapt to the situation. Also, they are among the first to start the recovery process.
To help more operators learn from their experience, we share the story of Kickstart. Kickstart is Pakistan’s largest coworking space operator. It’s on a mission of creating ease of doing business for SMEs, startups, and freelancers.
Below, its co-founder Saad Riaz shares what the space did to fight COVID-19 and keep functioning as a business.
COVID-19 has suddenly turned the great coworking USP of community and collaboration into something negative and risky – at least for the time being. The ensuing lockdowns and safety risk of going to offices have left coworking spaces across the world with little or no footfall, and the South Asian region isn’t an exception.
Much has already been said about the standard best practices and safety measures that flexible operators and coworking spaces across the world could adopt. However, in this article, I would share some of the steps that we have taken at Kickstart deriving from our peculiar South Asian context.
As the footfall started reducing and eventually led to a complete lockdown, we started thinking of ways to engage members and help them do business while they are at home.
This was a completely new territory for us since we never thought about offering services to members at their homes. However, we started having conversations with members about the issues they are facing.
As the COVID-19 spread and spaces closed, it became clear that 2020 will not see any events or gatherings like the ones we used to have before COVID-19. This means zero revenue for coworking spaces from events & gatherings. The industry expects that revenue from Hot Desks remains significantly low even a few months after the spaces open.
Under these circumstances, we thought it necessary to work on developing more revenue streams.
In our conversations with members, we learned that around 60% of them don’t have a proper work desk at home. Reports also state that the e-commerce sector doing well as customers preferred to shop online during the lockdown.
So we came up with the idea of a B.Y.O.D kit. The desk is made from high-quality, recyclable cardboard that we can easily ship to any place in a flat pack. We could price it very low since it is made of cardboard. Customers gave an overwhelming response, and we shipped 50+ desks for just a week. We are also gradually refining the product based on customer feedback.
For us, coming up with the B.Y.O.D had a background. Before the lockdown, we were in the process of developing a height-adjustable desk that didn’t go through. So we always wanted to do something like this. When COVID-19 happened, we thought it is time to do that one thing we always wanted to do.
B.Y.O.D is working great for us. That’s why we would highly recommend other operators to come up with products to generate additional revenue. It’s important to keep in view the customer needs and operator’s positioning.
During our conversations with members, we also learned that they are having a hard time carrying out chores related to business that required going outside.
It is especially difficult here in Pakistan since there is much room for digitization, and people are regularly required to go out to conduct business. It became even more difficult when the ride-hailing and delivery services were suspended indefinitely.
In the South Asian region, coworking spaces and flexible operators employ a high number of “office boys”. Since the spaces were closed, so all our staff was free, we decided to convert our “Office Boys” to “Riders” and launched the Kickstart Rider Service.
It is a free-of-cost service. So far, we have carried out tasks like collecting laptops from laid-off employees, delivering stuff to new hires, depositing cheques in banks, and collecting cash from customers. A not-for-profit company that is a member of our coworking space is even using this service to deliver rations (donations) to daily-wagers who have been left unemployed due to lockdown.
65% of our member companies have already used this service and they have absolutely loved it. More than the tangible value, they loved the intention and the message behind it: no matter what the situation is, we are here to help our members conduct business!
We launched this service without deploying any additional resources. We just created a simple form and shared it with members. Any member who wants to call a rider fills out the form.
I think there is a great deal of opportunity for all operators to utilize their unused resources at the time of lockdown for the help and support of members and broader society.
Across the world, there has been much conversation around launching Virtual Office plans to generate additional revenue. The following services are generally a part of a standard virtual office plan:
It is an excellent source of additional revenue for spaces in regions like the US and the UK, and in most countries in Europe. However, here in South Asia, the same template doesn’t apply. The main reason behind this is that you can get a flex desk plan in a coworking space here for as low as USD 30. So the customers don’t find great value for money in the virtual office plan when a better substitute is available.
However, our market research suggests that if we add a few more services in this plan, we might unlock a reasonably large share of the market for the virtual office plan. Those services will include:
Virtual Assistant is an online assistant who receives calls on behalf of customers and forwards it to the customer’s cell phone or landline number. Customers can provide a professional calling experience to their callers. An online virtual assistant can also perform tasks like booking a plane ticket or managing a schedule. We are planning to launch this service within a couple of weeks. (We will post the details of customer response as an edit to this post)
Even though we have maneuvered to launch these initiatives to engage members and generate revenue, our core business focus for 2020 has shifted to safety and hygiene. Coming into 2020, the focus was on growth, but we have put our plans on a halt.
We had started implementing the safety and hygiene measures when there were only a handful of COVID-19 cases in the country.
So far, we have implemented all the necessary safety measures. This includes thermal temperature check at the entrance, disinfection of all hand-accessible areas every 30 minutes, and deep disinfection of space every day. Also, we ensure the provision of hazmat suits to thermal scanning and disinfection staff, hand sanitization at the entrance, and installation of hand sanitizers at multiple points. These are some of the basic measures. You can get more reopening ideas here.
We have also completely revamped the flow of our facility management operations. We also changed all processes to ensure the interaction between people and the sharing of physical resources stays low.
In addition to that, we are also implementing a complete record-keeping of the body temperatures and entry/exit times of members. This record enables us to track the overlap of any particular member with other members, and it is an essential part of our strategy to deal with any unfortunate situation.
Going ahead, we are also looking at the problem from an architectural angle. We will reduce seating in the common areas to 40% of what it was before. We will tag chairs and seats in Red and Green to signal to members where they can and can’t sit. Our team will also tag frequently hand-accessible areas in Red to ensure members always have the correct perception of risk. We will also install transparent separators in the shared workspace.
I would be happy to learn about the safety measures and other steps you are taking to fight COVID-19.
About the Author: Saad is a cofounder of Pakistan’s largest coworking space operator – Kickstart. They established the 1st coworking space in Lahore back in Feb 2016. Since then coworking has picked up in Pakistan with 51 operators in Lahore only.
Saad is interested in everything coworking and would love to engage with and learn from other operators across the globe. Feel free to ping him here if you want to get in touch with him.
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