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New trends in Rural Co-working

29th June 2021

A recent online workshop hosted by Northumbria University and attended by over 50 coworking operators, policy-makers and researchers has revealed a number of interesting working trends that are likely to shape the future of rural communities. 

The findings come from research by the RCoS Project team of Professor Gary Bosworth & Professor Jason Whalley of Northumbria University; Polly Chapman, Impact Hub; Dr Anita Füzi, Private Consultant; Dr Ian Merrell, Newcastle University and Dr Emma Russell, University of Sussex.

Coworking, the practice of working from a shared office space, can reduce commuting while still allowing people to separate work and home life.  Venues provide access to reliable, fast broadband connections, printing facilities, meeting spaces and other features that we might not have in our own homes. While these functional values are relatively easy to provide, the softer and intangible features that build a sense of community are also critical success factors for rural coworking.

Traditionally, coworking has been associated with freelancers, often in the creative and digital sectors of the economy, and usually based in bigger cities.  Professor Bosworth explained that, “rural areas now host a great diversity of coworking venues with a range of business models.  Some are small, community-run groups with spaces designed to feel homely and relaxed; others are more outward facing, trying to capture new professional in-migrants or visitors to rural areas”.  Public sector models are more likely to incorporate business incubator services and training events while community models include mixed uses from cafés and art galleries to music lessons and wedding fairs.

This diversity can be a real strength for rural areas as coworking will reflect the needs of local people and stimulate new community-oriented networks.  Coworking communities can strengthen the external identity of their towns or villages too.  However, diversity could become a weakness if it results in a heavily fragmented rural coworking sector or if some people feel their needs are poorly served by a distinctive local venue.  Furthermore, if homeworkers as well as freelancers increasingly engage in coworking, employers’ expectations for a certain type of workspace with particular facilities might lead to greater pressure for standardisation.

A common benefit of coworking is that it can reduce the need for travel, reducing carbon emissions at the same time as reconnecting rural communities.  Professor Whalley observed that, “while it may seem ironic that the demand for superfast broadband connects people within a place, this is one of the results of coworking – people coalesce around shared needs.”  Coworking saves money and time through reduced commuting while maintaining social interactions and creating new network links.  Dr Emma Russell, an expert in work-based wellbeing, explained how “Coworking has the advantage of promoting a healthier work-life balance allowing the separation of home and work spaces.”  The opportunity to interact with nature during a lunch break or to work flexible hours to accommodate family responsibilities or leisure demands can enhance users’ wellbeing.  In particular, the flexibility for parents to work around childcare commitments can help those returning to work after maternity or paternity leave.

While the Covid pandemic has hit the sector with reduced occupancy and a suspension of in-person events, those that have weathered the crisis and upgraded their online presence are now well placed to support new rural working practices.  The extent to which these become inclusive, dynamic and entrepreneurial spaces will depend on the make-up of the community that comes together and the efforts of coworking operators to reach beyond their own four walls to stimulate exciting initiatives and venues with a broad appeal. Hopefully our workshop has laid some important foundations for collaboration among academic and industry stakeholders that goes the heart of the new ways of working emerging from the pandemic.

Jane Sartin, Executive Director of FlexSA, added to the optimism, commenting: "Coworking was already growing in popularity before the pandemic, but the changing nature of how and where people have since been working is increasing interest in it.  As new models of coworking emerge across rural areas, we look forward to being part of continuing collaboration with researchers, operators and policymakers to support sustainable growth across the sector"

The research was funded by the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, supported by a grant from the ESRC.

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