Talk about adapting. Companies whose business is providing offices and flexible workspaces had to do just that when the coronavirus pandemic shifted people from working at offices to working at home.

Two such businesses in Bellevue, Office Evolution and WeWork, immediately focused on safety and cleanliness protocols, while also ensuring they were connecting with members in the best ways possible and providing the environments they needed and felt safe to visit. As it turns out, the pandemic actually is providing opportunities as work methods shift.

Office Evolution Bellevue South, a locally owned franchise located in the Factoria area, was preparing to open last March just as the pandemic hit and Washingtonians were ordered by the governor to stay home. But Rosemary Mitchell, business center manager, and Lisa Holland, the franchisee/owner, adapted.

“We stayed optimistic and … we pivoted many times,” Mitchell said.

While the pandemic slowed until summer the official opening of Office Evolution — which Mitchell describes as a business center focused on its 54 private offices and with some flexible workspace — it gave their small business a chance to get to know the small businesses that would make Office Evolution home.

You might call it a culture of connection. One small business connecting with others in the evolving world of work.

“Our focus was not just, ‘Oh my gosh; how do we stay in business?’” Mitchell said. “Now our focus was, ‘OK; how can we be in the pulse of what’s going on with all of our local businesspeople and support them?’”

For example, it invited members to one of its conference rooms to participate in socially distanced online Zoom leadership conferences hosted by the Bellevue Chamber.

On a lighter note, Office Evolution helped members before Thanksgiving connect personally through emails that included sharing favorite Thanksgiving holiday traditions, recipes, and thoughts on how 2020’s “untraditional traditional” holiday would look for them, Mitchell said.

“We’ve tried to form a community without being close and touching, and sitting around a table,” she said in early December. “We called it, ‘Let’s share a table,’ but it was more of an e-table,” but as members pass in the office, they’ve been able to follow up from those email conversations, she said. “There’s a touch-point; there’s a closeness.”

Fortunately, Office Evolution’s emphasis from the start was its 54 private offices, each seating one to four people. It has a common area where members can eat, talk, watch TV, and connect with other private office members. That common/flexible space wasn’t meant to be populated with people working, but it does feature an area containing seats separated by Plexiglass partitions, part of the design even before the pandemic, where people can work quietly on their laptop. Office Evolution also has conference rooms seating up to six or 10, phone service, mail forwarding, and virtual office space.

Office Evolution leases 12,750 square feet in the Pacific Corporate Center along Interstate 90, near Interstate 405. Pacific Corporate Center’s foyer was renovated in 2020, providing a beautiful entrance into Office Evolution’s new space on the first floor, Mitchell said.

As stay-at-home restrictions lifted, Office Evolution began to hit its stride over the summer as members began looking for a quiet refuge to concentrate, a change of scenery from home, and the professional trappings of an office. Mitchell, a former critical-care nurse, ensured proper disinfection, social distancing, and other safety protocols.

“From the very beginning, our mission was not to sell a box or a space; it was to build a community of small-business owners like us, and in doing so, we didn’t want to sacrifice — especially during COVID times — anything other than our time with them to be able to make sure that they were comfortable in a place that was healthy and safe to get work done,” Mitchell said.

Rosemary Mitchell, business center manager at Office Evolution Bellevue South, left, and Lisa Holland, franchisee/owner of the business, are seen inside the new workspace located off Interstate 90 near I-405.

Jeff McKee has visited his private office daily at Office Evolution since July. “I’m very comfortable here,” said McKee, who works in commercial real estate as managing director of Premier Capital Associates, providing advisory and commercial mortgage placement services in the hospitality industry.

He called Office Evolution a “very clean environment,” and said Mitchell is fastidious about making sure the public spaces for members stay that way.

He was attracted by Office Evolution’s state-of-the-art internet access; clean, comfortable, new office furniture; and inviting, bright environment.

“The owners here are visible as well, so they’re very aware and concerned and want to make sure that we, as members, are having the experience we need and able to conduct business effectively and efficiently,” McKee said.

Mitchell and Holland know their members, and are creating a culture that, as the pandemic eventually ends and new members join, continues to be inviting, productive, and ultimately as collaborative as people want it to be, he said.

Mitchell believes Office Evolution’s location is attractive as more people look to escape crowded big cities during the pandemic.

“We’ve found that it’s been to our advantage that we’ve been kind of in the suburb, where people can work near where they live,” she said.

WeWork Pivots with New Programs

WeWork — which has three locations in Bellevue comprising more than 173,000 square feet in Bellevue Place, Lincoln Square, and Sunset North — also adapted during the pandemic to meet evolving workplace needs, a spokeswoman said.

WeWork was impacted by COVID-19 in terms of occupancy and number of members coming in, she said.

“That said, what we’ve really seen during COVID is people want to get into the office; they want to get back to work,” she said, noting studies showing people want flexibility to choose when they come to the office, and that they don’t want to stay at home 24/7 or always be in the office.

Responding, WeWork introduced two new products, WeWork on Demand and WeWork All Access. WeWork All Access is $299 per month and allows members to work in any WeWork facility in the world.

“They can go hot desk, have access to space, all the amenities,” she said.

Response to All Access was strong in Bellevue, with All Access utilization quadrupling from June to October, she said, noting the Lincoln Square location had the highest daily average number of All Access bookings.

WeWork on Demand, available in Bellevue’s three sites, was piloted in New York City over the summer and proved popular. It allows individuals pay-as-you-go access to safe, clean workspaces for $29 per day (or meeting rooms starting at $10 per hour). Bookings are made via an app, and users don’t need to be regular WeWork members.

“You could download the app right now and, if you’re five minutes away from WeWork, be set up in five minutes at a space,” she said, calling the service “amazingly received.”

WeWork has seen employees whose companies are remote during COVID and keep pushing back return-to- work dates, but who want to go to an office, need to go in, have an important call they need to make, don’t have consistent Wi-Fi, or have a roommate who’s making noise because they’re working.

“It gives people the flexibility to use office space when they need it and how they need it,” she said. The programs have helped relieve the initial hit from the pandemic.

“I think that probably the biggest key takeaway is the pandemic really accelerated what we were seeing pre- COVID, which was people wanted flexibility in how they are going to work,” she said. “I think now employers are going to be much more flexible, and they’re going to realize that flexibility is really an employee benefit; it’s not just a perk.”

She added, “I think more and more, you’re going to be seeing companies that, even if they have a full work-fromhome posture now, they’re going to be either subsidizing co-working spaces … or they’re going to give them All Access passes, have a certain amount a month. But moving forward, I think people now realize that flexible space is a critical component to their real estate needs of what their employees need for office space and you’re just going to see more and more companies embracing flexible spaces like WeWork.”

She agreed the pandemic could end up being good for business long-term. “People now are realizing the benefits of flexible space, which they didn’t realize before,” she said. “We’re introducing these new products because we’re seeing how people are changing the way they’re working, and we are adapting our products to meet those people at that point where they are and how they are choosing to go to work.”