The pandemic plight of Dhaka’s co-working spaces
Until early 2020, this small but crowded industry was all set to experience growth with their ever-increasing local and foreign client base. Then, Covid-19 hit
When globally renowned companies such as Uber, Metlife and L'oreal first entered the Bangladeshi market, they did not even set up an exclusive physical office. Instead, they operated out of what is known in business parlance – co-working spaces – a general office space rented out in portions where a number of companies share the amenities.
Over the last couple of decades, this cost-efficient method of doing business became extremely popular globally, especially among freelancers and startups who have to utilize their capital wisely.
Although the first reported co-working space in Dhaka was a hackerspace called C-Space, founded in 1995, the capital saw a rise of shared workspaces, setup predominantly in the city's prime commercial locations, since early 2015.
Over the past five years, many co-working spaces have mushroomed around Dhaka city, including Moar, WorkStation 101 and Co+Lab Dhaka. Besides serving as a lucrative source of earning for those setting it up, these shared workspaces have also given many newcomers as well as now-renowned brands the golden opportunity to launch and establish themselves, without the hassle of setting up workplace logistics.
Until early 2020, this small but crowded industry was all set to experience growth with their ever-increasing local and foreign client base.
Then, Covid-19 hit.
As offices made a dramatic shift to 'work from home', organisations like "Moar" were immediately plunged into a financial crisis as they had to continue the upkeep of their premises and pay for amenities, while their clients disappeared.
Situated at Banani 11 and Dhanmondi, things have however started looking up for Moar.
"With the business remaining closed for four months, we were definitely hit hard by Covid-19. But we still managed to serve 650 members before the lockdown, which kept us afloat. We look forward to having all our clients return so we can do better," said Nabila Nowrin, one of the founders of Moar.
"We decided to close off Moar around March 17 but reopened on July 11. The Dhanmondi branch revived as soon as we were back in action, since this area has more residents and people were eager to get out of their homes to work," Nowrin said.
Moar's Banani branch, however, experienced a different fate. "Our Banani space is still getting a low response, since this area is crowded with offices already," she added.
Before the lockdown Moar was one of the most succesful coworking space ventures around town, boasting clients such as Uber and L'oreal.
"My business partner, Nahid Sharmin, and I came up with the idea of 'Moar' after we graduated and realized that many of our friends wanted to start their own companies but were hindered by sky-high startup costs as well as various logistical challenges," she said, recalling how it all started.
Once the entrepreneur duo had completed their master's degrees, they decided in July 2015 to launch a co-working space.
There was another motivation behind providing a fully-equipped workspace to the public. "Since many women cannot just go somewhere and sit down to work, we made Moar a female-friendly space so they can drop by anytime to get work done," Nabila explained.
The name "Moar" was inspired by its Bengali meaning: a crossroads where people often meet and exchange a few memorable words. Nowrin explained: "The name was a wordplay on 'more'. But importantly, the Bengali meaning stands out as people often meet, mingle and share ideas at crossroads."
Most businesses, new or established, have sustained injuries over the course of the pandemic.
With the global and local economy gradually springing back to life, Moar expects to soon attract new clients – ambitious startup entrepreneurs, freelancers and employees of foreign companies looking to plug in to the Bangladesh economy – who will utilise the office space.
Nowrin said that their ambition has always been to expand.
"We want to partner with developer companies with vacant commercial spaces, that are viable as workspaces for small entrepreneurs. Since every branch of Moar is housed in a building, we will be able to serve more clients in more locations if we can increase the number of shared workspaces," she said.
WorkStation 101 and Co+Lab Dhaka are two other shared workspaces striving to add value to the start-up scene.
Eushra Nashmin, CEO of WorkStation 101, shared her experience on how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the co-working space scene of Dhaka.
"Up until March, Workstation 101 was almost fully booked and we were working full-throttle but as soon as the pandemic hit, clients began to cancel their bookings and we had to close our services by the month's end. But we reopened in June and immediately signed up with a French company looking to enter Bangladesh."
She added, "And since the countrywide shutdown lifted, we have been doing better than before and have seen a spike in client responses."
However, not all co-working spaces that have reopened post-shutdown. Siam Sheikh, business development executive of Co+Lab Dhaka acknowledged that business had been much better pre-pandemic.
"Closed since March, WorkStation 101 recently reopened on October 1. Since then, we have only secured eight clients and had to lower our rates to make them affordable. We are not doing better than pre-pandemic days, but we are getting there," Siam added.