Hygiene versus human interaction: make or break for the sharing economy?

So much of our working life in cities is based on a model of shared services. What happens now that coronavirus has cast a shadow over both urban and workplace planning?

Convenience, ease and flexibility are the common factors which have propelled the growth of the sharing economy in recent years. The paradigm shift from traditional models of ownership to shared services has been taking the world by storm since Uber and Airbnb launched their models in the late noughties. Ten years on and we have become accustomed to hailing a taxi with one click and booking into other people’s home through the ease of an app – all part of a ‘no-strings-attached’ lifestyle which makes urban life so fluid.

More recently the sharing economy has penetrated the workplace arena with the advent of coworking spaces and networking members clubs. The trend towards more shared spaces tailored to specific industries to harness strong professional networks was expected to grow exponentially in the next ten years, with many companies turning their entire business model on its head to accommodate for a world where people would prefer to rent, not own.

Now coronavirus threatens the entire sharing business model, as social distancing and hygiene become key priorities for survival. Shared transport and workspaces now look like vectors of disease as more evidence comes to light about how sharing increases the spread of infection and germs. As people plan for a post-Covid-19 city, what does this mean for urbanisation and shared amenities?

Re-evaluating sustainable development

In a world where people will be more reluctant to share space, this poses problems for urban planners who have been working towards creating spaces for human interaction. As urbanisation becomes more intense, densification was considered an essential measure to improve environmental sustainability. Denser cities have been proven to be more energy efficient. Now there is a conflict between public health and environmental sustainability.

‘Tensions between density and social distancing will materialise in urban design…’

This conflict will determine how we interact and work in our cities. One significant impact that has already come to fruition is the dispersal of the workforce. As people are forced to work from home, many companies are considering implementing a more permanent flexible working policy within their organisation. This will have implications on how employees interact and engage with the office building, with evidence suggesting that people will typically do individual work at home or outside the office, while teamwork and collaboration will occur inside the workplace.

Intensification of digital

As employees begin to return to the office, there will also be a heightened sense of hygiene and cleanliness. This may spark a backlash against the typical open plan layout of rows upon rows of packed desks, as people want their own clean space. Not only will organisations have to place thorough cleaning at the top of their workplace priorities, they will also have to ensure that the office does not become too busy to the point where people feel uncomfortable.

In this sense, the implementation of smart technology in buildings will intensify as people will depend on real-time data to understand peak-times in the office and gauge where higher risk areas are in the building. On a wider urban scale, big data can help predict where transmission clusters will arrive next – a strategy which has already been implemented in some cities in China.

The impact on sharing

If we assume that the pandemic will change the interaction we have with our cities and our workplaces, it will no doubt have a significant impact on the sharing economy. In some instances, such as public transport, the sharing economy is unavoidable. But how will it affect how people use office settings and coworking spaces? If people are reluctant to share space, what’s the next step?

At the moment, there are more questions than answers; and as with all uncertain things, there are two sides to the story. While some people believe that this will be the demise of coworking and members clubs, others take a more optimistic viewpoint.

Undoubtedly, people will be hyper-conscious of their personal space and the surfaces they touch when they return to work. While the cleaning process in offices will now have to be more thorough, cleaners will still not thoroughly clean individual desks because they hold items belonging to individual employees, such as important documents in law firms. Therefore, the onus will be on the individual to properly disinfect their space. However, in hot desking and coworking settings, the clean desk policy ensures that cleaners can come in and thoroughly disinfect the area throughout the day to ensure that every individual arrives at a completely clean workspace.

‘People will crave social interaction more than a desk…’

Furthermore, if the workplace does pivot to becoming a hub for social interaction, than this poses a big opportunity for coworking spaces and professional members clubs. As people adapt to a new way of working, it will be the social interaction they crave more than a desk. The opportunity is for coworking providers to reassure their members that they are taking social distancing and cleanliness seriously, while also offering safe ways for people to connect.

Ultimately, the companies that have built up trust with their members will be the most successful in transitioning from business as usual pre-Covid-19 to a new social business hub where convenience, connection and cleanliness can all co-exist.

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