Imagine a state-of-the-art community workspace within walking distance of home. A space that you share with people, not because you are employed by the same company, but because of the proximity. A professional atmosphere, but no office politics. Connection, well-being and professional development are fostered through yoga classes, mentoring programs and evening events, and an on-site day care center supports parents of young children. Space is central to local life; revitalize relationships and boost business. Your community has been reborn.
This is collaboration 2.0.
For the remote working revolution to thrive, we need a viable alternative to the office – one that provides a strong life-work barrier, meaningful social connections and professional benefits, without forcing employees to sacrifice flexibility and autonomy that they found at home. Recognizing the potential of this next generation of coworking spaces, we can have the best of both worlds.
Rewrite the rules
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About three million people use coworking spaces today; a fraction of the 3.45 billion employees worldwide. That’s why the debate around remote working has been fixated on a home versus office narrative since the beginning of the pandemic. Non-isolated alternatives to the office, lockdown-imposed home working have received little attention.
If we can take away one positive from the past two years, it’s that it has forced companies into an era of hypertesting. For the first time in generations, our inherent beliefs about where, how and why we work are being questioned. Two hundred years since the erection of the original dedicated office buildings—when the stagecoach was the most popular means of transportation— secure there must be a better way.
And there is. Before the pandemic, most people couldn’t imagine a world where coworking was mainstream, let alone treated as a public good. But as the pandemic has broken down the cultural barriers that prevented remote working for many people, new and exciting opportunities are beginning to emerge.
Perhaps the problem lies in the term “coworking,” which conjures up images of tech bros and disastrous IPOs. But as the concept grew in startup land, the applications of local, shared work hubs spread far beyond the borders. The digitization of the workforce is rapidly increasing, making remote environments relevant to a wide range of workers.
As we move into the next phase of the coworking industry, I think the term “community workspace” better reflects the wider range of uses and benefits.
What would the workforce look like if everybody have access to these fully equipped communal workspaces? Instead of organizing our lives around where our employer’s office happens to be, and having to take a soul-crushing journey to get there, we could work among our families, friends, and neighbors, all just steps from home. What would this mean for our relationships, mental health and local economies?
We don’t need abstract guesswork for an answer; there is evidence that a radical restructuring of where and how we work can help combat loneliness (by providing a space to meet and connect with our community), our cost of living (due to a reduction in commuting and energy costs), the approach burnout epidemic (by providing a work-life barrier), supercharge professional networking (through new contacts and guidance opportunities), and even help regenerate local areas (by spreading purchasing power over a wider geographical area).
If you think this sounds like a utopian vision of a long-haired, bracelet-jangling digital nomad, you’re only half right; my proposal is far from elusive.
In Madeira, Portugal, entrepreneur Gonçalo Hall partnered with local authorities to launch the world’s first digital nomad village. Founded as a haven for home workers to live and work together, Ponta do Sol attracts thousands of visitors each year, contributing more than €30 million directly to the local economy to date.
Originally a dynamic tourism program, the project attracts talent and innovation. “The coworking space is the epicenter of the community and the whole concept of a nomad village, where people work, connect, organize events and share their knowledge,” explains Gonçalo.
Ponta do Sol is not the only coworking project to demonstrate that coworking 2.0 is the natural next step towards a healthier, more sustainable and inclusive future of work.
Over the pond in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tulsa Remote is transforming the local economy by attracting thousands of digital workers to move to the trendy riverside city. Central to the success of the program 36 degrees north, a 70,000 square foot coworking palace, with a high-quality workspace, helpful resources and a diverse community. This has generated a whopping $572.5 million and thousands of jobs in the local community.
Meanwhile, in rural Germany, Frederik Fischer responds to the wave of independent work and a widespread desire for a better quality of life with Neulandiawhere he wants to “start a citizen-led movement that will last for years to come” and “create the culture of collaboration, participation and sharing that we so desperately need to meet the challenges ahead.”
Neulandia achieves this by connecting remote workers with future-oriented rural communities, housing them in ‘KoDörfer’ (CoVillages); sustainably built homes that transform existing infrastructure into coworking spaces. For five years, participants in these communities have helped revitalize cities across the country.
In addition to their shared focus on building meaningful communities, these initiatives all share the support of local government agencies, which have recognized the use of community workspaces to drive positive local impact.
This support needs to be reflected at the highest levels of EU and national governments if everyone is to experience the transformative power of Coworking 2.0.
Ahead of the trend is the Irish government, which is creating a platform called Connected Hubs to simplify and streamline the process of sourcing desks and offices in coworking spaces. This initiative provides a means for coworking providers to come together under a shared identity and build a powerful peer-to-peer community, sharing knowledge and best practices.
Within 18 months of launch, they had nearly 300 hubs on board — a rate that was almost unheard of by government standards. George Bullman, a coworking space provider and member of the ConnectedHubs network, says the initiative has “connected many rural and urban communities and created a sharing environment where support and help are always available.”
A space for everyone
While the benefits of remote working are widely recognized, it’s important to remember that it’s not always the best option – it’s the only option.
For some displaced people, remote work is the only way to generate a legal income. For people with physical and mental disabilities, a desk job from nine to five is not always possible. The same goes for parents who can’t afford childcare, and caregivers, such as a good friend of mine who cared for her terminally ill mother for two years.
In the UK alone, hybrid working could bring back nearly four million people previously out of work (including 1.5 million disabled people, 1.2 million parents and 500,000 carers), according to a report from Virgin Media O2 Business and the Center for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).
And that is why communal workspaces should be considered a public good. The reality is that the traditional office model is highly exclusive, while remote work is fundamentally inclusive, and shared workspaces – by enhancing the remote work experience – amplify the associated benefits. But for this to work, these spaces must be geographically and financially accessible to all, otherwise only a small, relatively privileged group will continue to reap the benefits, exacerbating already existing inequalities.
The next generation of collaborative workspaces, with top-down support from governments, can benefit all technology-enabled workforces and society as a whole. Of course, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution. No one is suggesting that coworking should completely replace work at home or in the office. Ultimately, our goal should be to empower all employees to work where and how they work best.
Now for the first time there are no technical obstacles in the way. So what do we have to lose?