As the world moves away from the model of a traditional workforce, coworking spaces are on the rise. These offices are designed to suit small businesses, freelancers, or even larger companies that work remotely but need to take advantage of physical meeting spaces.
As of mid-2019, there were around 35,000 coworking spaces worldwide. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic is sure to have impacted this sector’s short-term growth, it’s likely to lead to interesting long-term effects. As more companies have moved to working remotely – and have even hired new remote staff – we can expect to see employees choosing to access a more social space rather than remaining at home.
This continued growth brings new technology, and with that, new challenges for IT teams! The best way to prepare for these challenges is to have a solid infrastructure to work from.
Unlike conventional offices, coworking spaces require a lot of flexibility. Whereas traditional office buildings will either host a single company, or at least a few split over multiple floors, coworking spaces can have a lot more. You’ll have to deal with more traditional firms occupying a floor, individuals renting a single desk for a short period of time, and everything in between.
Expecting a one-size-fits-all approach is the quickest way to find yourself in trouble. Instead, concentrate on having infrastructure in place that allows you to meet a variety of needs. Many teams will bring their own technology – so you can’t control what operating systems they run, or what devices they bring. They’ll also have different expectations. Some start-ups might need a lot of processing power, access to a large amount of data, and the ability to use remote machines. Others firms might only need a reliable internet connection. Some will want dedicated phone lines, whilst others will be happy to use VoIP systems for small business.
If possible, canvas opinions from potential and current members of coworking spaces. Whilst they won’t necessarily cover everything that comes up, they’ll give you a good idea on the range of expectations members have.
Reliable Internet is crucial for coworking
This may seem obvious, but it is one of the most important things to ensure you have in a coworking space. Rather than relying solely on wi-fi, invest in a comprehensive wired network. This can involve a lot of upfront cost – you may need to fit an old building with new cabling, or replace pre-existing wires – but it’s worth it. Every single client that uses a coworking space will need internet access, and if yours isn’t reliable, they’ll look elsewhere.
Once you’ve got an excellent wired network in place, you can build your wi-fi capabilities from there. There are a few ways that you can set this up.
- Everyone on the same wifi network
- Network segments
- A combination – network segments for business needs, but a shared wifi for the building.
Hosting everyone on the same wifi network certainly has benefits. It’s easier to set up initially, and you also don’t have to keep adding new segments as new members come and go. However, it has a lot more security risks and it’s harder to ensure fair sharing of bandwidth.
Splitting your network into segments is harder to set up, and you’ll need to set up new segments for new members, but it is more secure. You can also manually control how much bandwidth companies can access, and apply different restrictions depending on their needs. However, when you have members who may only be using the space short term, it can be more hassle than it’s worth.
Using a combination of the two will give you the best of both worlds. Having a shared wi-fi segment for the building allows you to give internet access to short-term members, one-off meetings, and visitors. That’s all without compromising the security and reliability of your more long term members.
Whatever you do, there’s one important rule to follow: don’t let members set up their own wi-fi systems. Having multiple wi-fi networks in one place can get messy, so make sure the only network in use is the one you’re in control of. This is especially important if you’re offering virtual offices alongside physical ones.
Make security a priority
When you’re managing the internet connection of multiple companies, you need to make security a top priority. As mentioned earlier, having network segmentation in place makes this easier to enforce, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you rely on.
Two Factor Authentication
Two factor authentication is growing more common, and with good reason. Most people will be familiar with it – many email providers and social media platforms offer it. It’s a quick, efficient way to add an extra level of security to any login. Making two factor authentication a requirement for accessing your networks will go a long way towards preventing freeloaders or malicious actors impacting your wi-fi.
Avoiding Malware and Viruses
If you have a ‘bring your own device’ policy in place, there’s an increased chance of people bringing in otherwise avoidable malware or viruses. No matter how secure your work network is, if their home network isn’t, you’re at risk. There are a few ways to mitigate this.
Firstly, you could remove the policy. This is the quickest way to remove the problem, but also the most inconvenient – for you and your members. You’d have to be able to provide equipment for everyone, and this would remove a lot of the flexibility people appreciate in co-working spaces.
More practically speaking, you could enforce certain programs to be downloaded before members can access your network. If you have a favored malware or antivirus program, this is ideal. You may find yourself limited by what’s available for free, or you could invest in copies – again, expensive, but less expensive than providing computers. If you have order management software in place, you could also sell copies, but there’s no guarantee every member would be willing to invest in a paid version.
Alternatively, you could require a scan of each machine before it’s allowed to connect to the network. This requires an investment of time, rather than money.
If you don’t have the ability to do this, network segmentation will make a huge difference here. It will allow you to quarantine anything that is brought in before it infects the whole network. By doing this, and providing training, you may be able to avoid any major issues.
As mentioned, it’s worth providing training to new members. When people sign up to operating in a co-working space, you can require that they attend basic IT training. Whilst much of this will involve introducing them to how the wi-fi works or how to use any internet phone services that you host, you should also focus on security.
When running these sessions, you shouldn’t assume a certain level of knowledge. While many startups are technologically inclined, that doesn’t mean every new member of a coworking space will be! Aim your sessions to suit people with no knowledge, and ensure that they’ll leave with a basic understanding of how to avoid security issues.
Don’t discount people skills
It’s easy to focus on what technologies you need in place, but your team is part of your infrastructure too! In a more conventional office, you’ll often deal with issues via email or a dedicated ticket system. However, with the variety of members in a co-working space, you should expect much more in-person interaction.
Your team should expect to be regularly introducing new people to the space. This will involve training sessions as mentioned earlier, but also less formal sessions. That means introducing them to what technology is available; especially if you have things like projectors or smartboards in shared meeting spaces.
This should affect your hiring practices – people with a background in customer service are worth the investment, even if they might need a bit of training in the tech side of things. Your customer experience is something that potential members will consider, and this includes IT. This is even more worthwhile if you can find people with teaching experience.
You will need to set certain boundaries on how members of the space can access your services, or you may get swamped. You’re likely to be based in the same building, rather than remotely, so it’s easy for people to come and find you with their problems! You may want to restrict this to happening within set hours, or have a distinct front-facing team designed to deal with these enquiries. Alternatively, you can aim for a more traditional approach, where communication is done via email first.
You could also provide optional training sessions for members to reduce the amount of random enquiries. We’d recommend offering sessions on topics like:
- Remote communication (how to screen share, how to use automated subtitles, and similar common questions)
- How to back-up and store your data (an introduction to digital asset management, how to use the cloud effectively, etc)
- Software-specific training (especially for common programs like Excel)
As mentioned, you may have technology available in shared spaces. Many coworking spaces offer the ability to host meetups, and the meeting rooms available vary greatly in scope. Some will be small – often only big enough for two people – and best suited for interviews or introductions. Others will be large enough to host a full team, and these rooms may need extra hardware installing. You should expect requests for:
- Audio systems
All of these are going to be linked to your network, and will need to be accessible by whoever has booked those rooms. You could provide tech support for every meeting, but it’s far more effective to make them accessible to members. This may involve providing laptops specifically to connect to that technology, or ensuring they’re universally accessible regardless of what operating system a member is using.
When it comes to printers, you may want to add restrictions on how much can be sent at once by each team. And, depending on how frequently they’re used, it could be worth charging additional fees for print jobs.
As well as the infrastructure needed to support individual members, you’ll also need to support the building as a whole. This is where network segmentation is going to be most important – you don’t want issues caused by members to impact the building itself. Things to consider here include:
Do you want people to have physical keys to enter the building and offices, or are you going to enable a smart system? Some coworking spaces have moved towards allowing people to use their smartphones to access areas. This makes it much easier to track how the building is being used, but also increases security risks. You may want to implement a hybrid system – have a physical lock on the external entrance, but use smart technology for internal entrances.
Where is security footage being kept? Will it be on physical servers in the building, or hosted in the cloud? Are you hiring an external contractor or will your IT team be responsible for some of the security technology? There are a lot of questions to consider here, and we recommend consulting with a security expert to decide on a solution that suits you best.
Are you providing phone systems to some of the offices, or is this something members will have to provide themselves? It may be worth providing them so you can control what is installed on your system, but as an optional extra rather than as standard. A VoIP server may be easier to install than physical phone lines.
You’ll need to have an easily accessible way to book conference rooms, that both members and building staff can access. It’s worth investing in dedicated scheduling software for this and including its use in mandatory training sessions for new members.
What DON’T you need for coworking?
Finally, it’s worth spending time working out what you don’t need. Coworking spaces have particular needs but there are things that conventional offices need that they don’t. It’s worth making sure that you’re not investing in something that will go unused.
It’s worth investing in a back-up solution for building staff (ie, your team and the reception/bookings team), but with it being a much smaller group than a whole office, you can scale down. This applies to email servers, too. You might choose not to host one at all!
Scaling back here will allow you to invest more in the aspects of infrastructure that you do need, and save you time in the long run.