Ruthson Zimmerman ruthson_zimmerman / CC0

Before launching into this article, we want to recognize that remote work options are not only associated with class, but contingent on the enterprise model of your organization. There are still many nonprofits whose work is dependent upon their physical spaces—at least for the time being. But, many others have found new ways of working and connecting over the past six months, which suggests it is well past time to rethink and downsize our space needs.

The pandemic and our digital age have combined to make now a good time to evaluate the operating costs and overhead savings of eliminating your NGO office space, which could ease cash flow and reduce expenses. Resultant savings, once workers are recompensed for establishing their own workspaces at home, could go toward a healthy surplus to launch that new project that keeps getting postponed, or even to add talented human capital to drive your mission forward.

But you can never do just one thing, and any change can bring unanticipated downsides. Will our work and organizational cultures be harmed over the long haul if we reduce the spaces we hold where we gather? Are the networks and connections between aligned efforts strong enough to allow a both/and approach that aids in creating less insular organizations? We are at the early stages of answering these questions, but there are some trends at play we can begin to examine.

What Can We Learn from Tech Companies?

Tech companies are already allowing their leases to expire and retrofitting home offices to adjust for the greatest flexibility and productivity of remote staff. Although shutting down office spaces is a temporary solution for some, polled employees do lean towards a preference of working from home. Given a choice, 81 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer a hybrid presential/remote work model. CNBC followed up with several companies to show the change in approach:

“COVID hit and we started to have to make some harder decisions around financials in general,” said Colleen McCreary, Credit Karma’s chief people officer. “We decided to make the call now to consolidate into Oakland. It was going to be something over time we’d probably be getting to anyway, but this really expedited that.”

In late June, surveys of startup companies showed that only 63 percent of them had plans to reopen their offices, and 10 percent decided to shut their offices permanently. Most companies confirmed that productivity has improved or remained about the same and are considering a more flexible remote schedule but keep their offices for critical business needs, including when creative teamwork is needed.

The survey shows some concern about how remote work affects team culture, the ability to support early-career employees, and raised concerns of people—particularly those living alone—missing the daily social interaction. It’s what remote work strategist Laurel Farrer calls “opportunity isolation,” a situation that goes beyond loneliness but is more about lacking access to people beyond your inner circle in day-to-day work interactions. She says that ensuring your employees feel valued and connected has more to do with the work culture than the office space per se:

True organizational culture is based on the mission and values that unify a workforce, and the most effective methods for building unity are soft skills like communication, empathy, and trust.

Yet, building community power requires much more than running successful open communications and virtual meetings. Jill Suttie writes for YES! magazine that building communities and understanding the purpose of shared rituals—whether that’s celebrating success, enjoying art together, protesting, or experiencing collective grief over the pandemic—allows for “collective effervescence” (a term coined by sociologist Émile Durkheim) that uplifts our “sense of commonality” and belonging to a larger community.

Clearly, that’s where examples from the tech world end and the power of our imagination begins. Breaking the lease doesn’t have to mean going completely virtual. We can seize the opportunity to visualize shared spaces of creativity, mutual aid, community building, connectivity, and power creation.

For Some, Sharing Space Is Old Hat

Some have long made an enterprise model from the very concept of shared nonprofit space. The Center for Social Change (CSC) in Miami, Florida, is a coworking and community space founded by Lauren Harper in 2013 for nonprofits, small social ventures, and activists. With as many as 69 member organizations, it provides various services that include access to Wi-Fi, office space, nonprofit development workshops, and free wellness programs. Their tiered membership options, starting at $149 per month, allow for access to coworker shared spaces, events, and peer networking for both small and more established nonprofits. Their sustainable practices allow them to open their space for free from time to time—for example, to veterans.

“After sustaining a lot of injuries from Afghanistan, I came back into this civilian world and was kind of looking for a place to fit in,” said Brandon Limprich, founder of the Weed for Warriors rehabilitation project, in a promotional video posted to CSC’s Facebook page. “Coming here is like coming home, it’s like a second home. Everybody here is very open, very helpful.” He used to work at the Center’s front desk in exchange for membership.

Since the COVID pandemic hit, the Center for Social Change has continued to offer remote wellness classes, workshops on grant writing, and practicing “elevator pitches” to best communicate with funders. 

Shared spaces have been subject to several studies, such as Stanford University’s Shared Space: The New Nonprofit Workplace, which focuses mostly on the economic benefits and improved efficiency of nonprofits sharing office space. The authors divide nonprofit centers into four main categories: Direct Service Centers (for medical, social services, or daycare), Theme Centers (mission-driven), Generalist Centers (to optimize shared office space), and Flexible Space Centers (co-working or incubator sites). The publication not only includes 13 case studies, but it also provides useful recommendations they’ve identified through lessons learned.

At their best, organizations in nonprofit centers work together in support of a common mission, tackling complex issues in a variety of ways: through joint marketing campaigns, program delivery, legislative agendas, or sharing staff. The nonprofit center is an excellent incubator for innovation, bringing diverse people and organizations together in flexible space for new kinds of discourse and collaborations. It provides creative solutions to major issues facing the US and Canadian charitable sectors.

The study also contains ideas for foundations to support nonprofit centers overall mission-based goals as well as thinking creatively on how communities and neighborhoods benefit from shared spaces.

second study directed by the Center for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto, Canada, came about from a need to share their experiences more strategically, as people increasingly reached out to understand and emulate their success. Based in a 23,000-square-foot facility that hosts 183 members, CSI was born in 2004 from a belief that shared spaces should promote social innovation towards social, cultural, economic, and environmental justice. From the start, CSI’s model sought to answer four basic questions that set the tone for where to invest most of their energy:

  • Would members benefit from exposure to others who were like-minded?
  • Would they be able to work more efficiently?
  • Would organizations that came to work in the same place end up working together?
  • Would social innovation actually emerge?

Through a member survey, they found that over 70 percent of organizations expressed access to better facilities, being able to do their work more effectively, improved reputation, expanded personal and professional networks, and greater collaboration.

Again, the image of “home” emerges: “You’ll always have a home at CSI,” reflects Allanah Scott, project manager at independent film company Coptor Productions. “The spirit here is fantastic, and there is such a sense of belonging.”

With so much accumulated experience, nonprofits willing to take the shared space approach do not need to start from scratch. Consulting services such as the Nonprofit Centers Network provide nonprofits with multiple tools and resources on the first steps to take to open and expand a shared space. One can even sign up for COVID-specific free webinars that provide step-by-step recommendations for managers that need to navigate these unusual times.

Still, we wouldn’t do not want to imply that the nonprofit center is the answer to this crisis-slash-opportunity. In many cases, the right shared space solution might be more informal and based on similar missions and facilities needs.

Commercial Real Estate’s Disadvantage Is Your Advantage

The health and economic crisis spells trouble for the commercial real estate industry, as more companies end their leases and seek to downsize their physical space. Moody’s Analytics forecasts that one-fifth of office space will be vacant next year and that only 20–25 percent of workers in New York, for example, will return to the office. Rents in central business districts are expected to fall by 14–15 percent.

In other words, those who aren’t heading for a lease’s natural conclusion may wish to prepare to offer up unused space, and those who can move might find this the time to seek space with others. Even if you don’t want to move, however, the current commercial market may offer more flexibility. In an analysis on PropertyShark, commercial real estate agents in New York say tenants currently have the upper hand if they need to renegotiate their lease. Many have ceased paying their rents as well as costs associated with building maintenance and repairs, cleaning, security, landscaping, etc. For new contracts, commercial landlords are willing to talk and sign shorter, one-year leases instead of the usual 5–10 years.

Science experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci expect that with an effective vaccine, the pandemic could be under control by the end of 2021. However, a year and a half is a very long time of uncertainty for commercial real estate brokers, who are open to repurposing spaces to make them more palatable to their clients.

“In this uncertain environment, cities may be more open to supporting zoning changes that would allow adaptive reuse rather than seeing buildings remain vacant,” Angela Hunt, head of Munsch Hardt’s Zoning and Land Use in Dallas, Texas, told BizNow.

The pandemic has also hit shared spaces, but as the Center for Social Innovation continues to show, they always manage to find strength in their expanded community. Their COVID-19 response has included online workshops, peer-to-peer support, resources, and even a “community rent pool” to help those members who can’t afford the membership fees. This pay-what-you-can model has allowed to build communal cohesiveness and shared purpose.

“When we brought the idea of the community rent pool to the board, they were incredibly supportive, and they actually gave me permission to be more bold. They told me, ‘Take the moon shot. Live your values. Step up,’” reads CEO Tonya Surman’s statement when making the decision.

Indeed, the most significant value of shared spaces, for those that live up to their mission, is the ability to rethink our communities beyond individual profitability towards the common good.