Rural Co-working — a conundrum
(and a pilot)
The current urban model of co-working is incompatible with rural needs and resources. The bullet train that is mainstream co-working is fuelled by BIG business and unprecedented scale, and it isn’t stopping in small towns (Part 2 of this series.) We simply don’t have the capital (human or financial) or the need to make the existing model work.
The speed at which change happens often feels like a disadvantage for small communities, but it’s only a disadvantage if we try to catch up by following closely behind in urban footsteps. We can’t fix rural problems with urban solutions. We can, however, look at global trends and human activity like co-working and urbanization through a confident rural lens and respond wisely. Contextualizing any opportunity or threat is a critical first step.
1. Co-working is a Millennial driven initiative — reducing youth out-migration and attracting millennials back is a strategic imperative in rural communities.
2. The gig economy is set to dominate our workforce in the coming years. With predictions that more than half of our workforce will be freelance, rural communities need to be able to find ways to identify and support this group.
3. Business expansion and retention has never been more important in rural communities as our tax base and workforce continue to decline.
While there isn’t a lot of data on “rural” co-working, we can glean insights from the Global Co-working Survey:
· The average age of coworkers is older in towns with a population of less than 20K (43 compared to 32 in cities.) This isn’t surprising considering the increase in rural out-migration of youth.
· Daily usage of co-working space by members is significantly lower in small communities.
· There is less business benefit leading to an increase in income from networking collaborations in rural co-working spaces.
· Rural coworkers tend to drive to their co-working space where urban coworkers do not.
· The majority of rural co-working spaces are not profitable.
Urban Freelancers are younger. They don’t own property (house or vehicle.) Their financial debt is from investment in their own education. They rent, take public transit, and eat out. They have fewer family responsibilities at this point in their lives, are flexible and eager to experience as much as they can. They were raised on collaboration and group work and prefer active, social environments (work and play.) In fact, they are creating environments that integrate work and play into one seamlessly blended life. Being part of a “sharing” culture is important to them. Exploring business opportunities with other entrepreneurs is a natural extension of this. Co-working environments offer cost sharing, collaboration and convenience.
Rural Freelancers are older. They live in houses and drive cars (out of necessity and preference.) For rural freelancers one of the main benefits of working for themselves is NOT paying for an office. Working from home IS the financial incentive. This group has greater family responsibilities and tends to make “practical” decisions. Convenience is, not leaving the house to go to work, and not paying extra for meals, coffee and snacks. Having the ability to throw a load of laundry in between conference calls is, in fact, a convenience. As a rural cohort, co-working cannot offer the same diversity of networking and collaboration opportunities that urban centres can as rural freelancers tend to already know most of the people in their communities.
If the benefits of co-working are Cost Sharing, Collaboration and Convenience, there is ZERO gain for rural freelancers.
So what does that leave?
· Social Time
· Interaction with others.
How important are these benefits to rural freelancers?
Rural freelancers are at least as interested in co-working as urban freelancers according the Global Co-working Survey. Loneliness and isolation are real issues for rural entrepreneurs.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General of the United States, warns that loneliness is a health problem “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” He goes on to link the growth of the “gig economy” with a “loneliness epidemic.”
A lengthened lifespan is a pretty potent rationale for co-working. Working for yourself is lonely. We also know from studies that happiness and connection are directly linked to productivity. It is important for the wellbeing of the rural freelancer that they get out of the house and socialize occasionally.
Understanding that the motivation for co-working in rural communities is connection and community and NOT financial savings, time savings, or convenience is the critical first step in curating new and viable experiences.
How do rural economic developers and community builders leverage Co-working in their communities?
Co-working for local residents
Rural entrepreneurs — particularly freelancers, contract workers and remote knowledge workers are interested in co-working for the purpose of social interaction and community.
One of the biggest issues economic developers have with this group is that they have no idea who they are.
They are not visible with a storefront, they don’t seek out business expansion money or support, they don’t have employees, they don’t attend public meetings; they generally stay under the radar. How do you grow your local economy when you are blind to an entire group of people participating in it? How do you get ahead of one of the biggest workforce trends, with reports that within a decade the majority of our workforce will be freelance? Over-regulation only pushes them further underground.
Supporting this sector and making it easier (not harder) for them to do business and connect with each other will do two things:
1. foster a positive culture around freelance work that strengthens the local economy
2. attract a younger demographic that rural communities need — millennials (drivers of the gig economy)
While younger millennials may be more interested in the urban co-working benefits, older millennials who are starting families will be looking for locations that reflect a shared skills economy and an open (not hidden) freelance community.
A small co-working space called The Village opened in Yaba, Lagos to give freelancers a place to do business with reliable Internet and an office to meet clients. A barrier in this part of the world for freelancers is the requirement of customers that they meet face to face with the person handling their job. The Co-working space solved that problem and increased the amount of business being done in their community.
Most home-based workers have a need for physical meeting space from time to time. Providing this service alone would be well received in rural communities.
WSquare in Chennai India is a women only co-working facility allowing women to focus on work without having to worry about domestic chores or their own safety. It is an example of a co-working space built around a specific population with unique needs. Services like grocery delivery and ergonomic chairs for expecting mothers, and life coaching are made available. It serves an important sector as 14% of Indian businesses are run by women WSquare signed up 150 women in 8 months.
Jelly is an informal co-working event where freelancers, home workers and small/micro business owners bring their laptops or other work and work, chat and collaborate with other small business owners. These events are local initiatives and are offered at various locations around the world. Anyone can apply to run a Jelly.
Co-working as an Add-on
· We know that most rural co-working facilities (worldwide) are not profitable. Economic developers typically don’t support startup businesses that have statistically little to no chance of success.
· Business retention - finding ways to support existing businesses struggling to maintain consistent year-round, full-time revenue is an ongoing challenge in rural communities.
Rural communities have an opportunity to explore adding co-working options to existing businesses. The possibilities are endless. You need space and services that a remote worker would use (consider a restaurant that is only open for breakfast or dinner, or a café that is empty for hours every day, a ski lodge in the spring, summer and fall) Remember that rural freelancers are looking for occasional opportunities to co-work and don’t require the endless amenities that urban co-workers do. By adding co-working as a secondary or additional income stream you are strengthening a business and supporting an ecosystem of freelancers — with no additional risk.
Co-working for Visitors
While the news is dominated by stories of International expansions and unicorn valuations of co-working companies in the largest cities in the world, the industry is also expanding in another direction — co-working travel experiences. The benefit of remote work is the ability to do it anywhere. More and more remote workers are becoming digital nomads and combining travel and experience with earning an income. Large companies are staking territory all over the world and are becoming a new kind of travel agent for millennial gig workers.
Companies like Outsite, with nine locations ranging from coastal towns to mountains, including Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Lake Tahoe and Lisbon, and Selina with 13 locations, offering sites with permaculture gardens, yoga decks, surf camps and language schools are leading the charge.
There are also prominent single players setting the bar and making a name for themselves in this industry like Mokrinhouse a rural co-working and co-living space located in the north of Serbia. It is a facility entirely dedicated to digital nomads looking for a rural experience. Their tag-line is “The meeting place of progressive ideas and the people behind them.”
Pandorahub offers a network of startup-friendly villages in rural Spain that they have scouted and curated for the most unique, authentic co-working travel experiences.
As this trend grows and co-living freelancers are looking for more experiences away from the city, rural communities should be looking closely at this new industry. Tourism is a big economic driver in many rural communities and while there is opportunity to start new businesses in this space, existing businesses could also differentiate themselves and pivot to service this group.
There is, as well, a huge opportunity to form rural/urban partnerships that could jumpstart this new industry in small communities and open up many other channels between rural and urban. I’m only touching on this because the topic of rural/urban partnerships is a big one that absolutely requires careful consideration and a Rural on Purpose lens. I will be exploring partnership opportunities in a future series.
Co-working friendly communities attract startups and young people. Building a name for yourself as a travel co-working destination is the introduction and lead generator that you want when trying to attract a younger, tech savvy demographic. The problem with using tourism as a tool for resident attraction is that there is a natural disconnect between vacation and work. You get tagged as a vacation spot only. By becoming a travel co-working destination, that connection is made between lifestyle and work. What better way to fall in love with a place than when travelling and learning that there is a supportive, vibrant ecosystem in place that also services local freelancers. They will come for the experience but will come back for the community.
I love conundrums
Change can be scary for rural communities particularly when it appears to threaten our chosen way of living. It doesn’t have to be scary and it doesn’t have to be a threat. We can choose to be reactionary or broad-minded, progressive AND practical. Living Rural on Purpose means viewing everything through a confident rural lens. When we do, we have the ability to turn an urban industry full of billion dollar valuations into a RURAL economic driver.
Are you living Rural on Purpose?
Are you an Economic Developer or Community Builder in a rural region?
Are you struggling with millennial attraction, business retention or how to better support your freelance/remote workforce?
Learn about the upcoming Rural on Purpose Co-working Pilot and how you can participate.