Gravitate Coworking is expanding to two new communities. The timing, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, is unexpected, Gravitate owner Geoff Wood said. But opportunity knocked to set the coworking space up for the post-COVID world in Jefferson and Cedar Falls.

“On the one hand, we’re in survivability mode to get to the end of the pandemic, so we can welcome people back. But on the other hand, we’re setting the table,” Wood said. “We know there’s going to be a bigger need for us than there was pre-pandemic.”

Gravitate announced it would be taking control of Mill Race Coworking and Collaboration in Cedar Falls this week, now known as Mill Race by Gravitate. Launched five years ago by the nonprofit Red Cedar, Mills Race has more than 10,000 square feet with coworking floor space, 26 office suites and two outdoor workspaces. About 60 existing members use the space at Mill Race.  

The Jefferson location has been two years in the making after a local economic development task force contacted Gravitate about opening a coworking space. The coworking floor, conference room, kitchenette and two private office spaces take up about 1,300 square feet and can seat about 15 people at full capacity once social distancing measures are no longer in place.

At a national level, the trend of companies announcing permanent remote-work options for employees leaves the door open for coworking spaces that survive the pandemic, Wood said.

“I think a lot of those people are going to join coworking spaces wherever they wind up, and we want to be the place where people come,” he added.

It has been a challenge.

Members are back to commuting to Gravitate for work, but its offices in downtown Des Moines and Windsor Heights have not recovered to pre-pandemic practices of February 2020, Wood said. Gravitate purchased barriers to place between desks and spaced seating 6 feet apart. Masks went from voluntary to required wearing when Polk County required masks in public spaces. Gravitate received Paycheck Protection Program funding in spring 2020 and plans to apply for the second round that opened mid-January.

Wood estimates Gravitate memberships are down about 50% since March 2020. Gravitate’s locations maintained mostly stable member levels in the first few months of the pandemic, then levels declined about midsummer as people settled in to working from home long-term. Event and meeting space rentals dropped immediately and have not rebounded, but members are returning slowly for individual coworking.

“It’s been extremely stressful and rough on a business like ours,” said Wood. “Part of what made coworking thrive was a dense office environment, and obviously that’s not COVID safe to do.”

The close-knit startup scene that Gravitate Downtown hosted has disconnected from some pre-pandemic events, although Wood pointed to Des Moines’ 1 Million Cups chapter as successfully carrying over events for local entrepreneurs. Techstars Iowa, which held its inaugural cohort virtually in 2020, plans to return to Gravitate Downtown to host cohort startups this year.

“Coming out of the pandemic, our outlook is that what we do will be more important than ever,” Wood said. “Since we have come up with how our business works, we think we’re a good potential candidate to do this in more places.”