Mesh Cowork created a new floor plan to account for social distancing. [Credit: David Latchmann]
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Long before COVID-19 turned the modern workplace into a ghost-town, many American workers were already working remotely. Freelancers, contract workers and scores of others in the so-called “gig economy” made their livings from their laptops, often at home. And, as so many are realizing now, it could be lonely.
Fresno native Tabari Brannon, 37, started his career as a hospital chaplain in 2009 at Adventist Health, according to the website for his company, Mesh Cowork. But what he was really interested in was entrepreneurship and bringing people together. In 2014, he saw a message on the Bakersfield sub-Reddit asking whether any coworking spaces existed in Bakersfield. That sparked a discussion with Bakersfield native Scott Burton. and one year later, the two opened Mesh, the city’s first coworking space.
Mesh was conceived as a coworking space for entrepreneurs and tech workers. Both Brannon and Burton had been running Meetup groups and decided to combine their resources and rent a space in one of Downtown Bakersfield’s historic buildings. They had an entire floor and built a vibrant community of remote tech workers, business owners, and artists – people who don’t work in the city’s dominant industries of oil, retail and healthcare. By the beginning of 2020, approximately 25 workers rented space with Mesh, which held monthly community lunches to encourage sharing and problem solving.
All that changed in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the state and Gov. Gavin Newsom closed all non-essential businesses,
“What we do is about connections, and most of that happens face-to-face,” said Brannon.
But the virus has made that face-to-face interaction frightening, and slowed the community building that is central to Mesh’s goals.
Brannon and Burton haven’t given up, however. The coworking space is no longer full, but Mesh sponsors monthly meetings on Zoom, and they’ve renovated to better facilitate social distancing. Rooms that once had flexible seating—areas where anyone can work out of as long as the seat is unoccupied—are now filled with single desks designated for a specific person only.
Despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic, Brannon says he anticipates a positive future for coworking in Bakersfield. He thinks that as businesses move away from working out of large facilities, employers will find dedicated desks in co-working spaces attractive — they keep employees from getting bogged down with the distractions of home, but don’t require long-term expensive leases.
That said, Brannon says he thinks the pandemic will spur a shift from the open environment that had characterized coworking spaces to something more closed off, so every person can have control over their environment.