Coworking in the country: sign of a healthy rural economy?

6 December 2021

Amidst changes to working practices driven by the pandemic, emerging evidence suggests that significant numbers of people want to continue to work away from the office, at least some of the time.

This brings into question whether central-office based work will ever take precedence again and whether new models of hybrid-working will act as a catalyst for the expansion of rural coworking spaces.

Pre-Covid, the growth of coworking – where people work in flexibly rented, shared spaces rather than at home or in fixed offices – had been enjoyed primarily by the self-employed, entrepreneurs and start-ups, largely within major business districts and hubs. However, the Digit-funded urban coworking project recently identified a growth in coworking outside of major metropolitan cities.

Related to these findings, our research has identified a parallel expansion of rural coworking spaces in smaller towns and rural areas.  These spaces can create new opportunities for networking and collaboration as well as support for business start-ups and growth. So how can policy makers and stakeholders best support and nurture coworking as an integral feature of a healthy rural economy?

The future of coworking in rural areas

As part of the project The Role of Coworking Spaces in Digital Rural Futures (RCoS), funded by the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (DIGIT), our researchers conducted interviews, focus groups and online workshops with rural co-working operators and stakeholders. We identified a number of critical success factors for rural coworking.

These included: ensuring a desirable, functional and attractive location, encouraging a good ‘mix’ of users to provide a positive work culture, and promoting an identity that fosters innovation. Connecting with the local community and integrating into rural infrastructure – such as transport – was also important, as was providing access to space that was ‘green’ and connected to green energy infrastructure.

Accessibility to dependable technology and wifi was also critical to success, however, Local Authority policy makers are aware that connectivity can be a problem in rural areas.

“We’re targeting super-fast “not-spots” in villages so that, in effect, we deliver “a fibre spine” to the village hall and allow that to spread to the rest of the community much more cost effectively than with subsidy through vouchers alone.” (Jonathan Harris, Senior Programme Manager, Connecting Cumbria)

A way to level up?

Across the workshops and focus groups, there was general consensus that a coworking venue was not a quick fix for local economies.

Rural coworking needs to be part of a complex mix of transport, digital connectivity, skills and High Street regeneration strategies to satisfy the needs of modern flexible working and living.

If this can be achieved, higher-level policy goals of reducing the brain-drain of skilled workers out of rural areas (through migration or commuting), raising aspirations of younger people, and attracting more return migrants, are all possible. Arguably, this makes successful coworking spaces more of a bellwether, not necessarily a creator, of a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Short-term buzz or long-term trend?

In the current political and economic climate, Local Authorities have access to ‘levelling up’ funds to invest in new facilities and accommodate the acceleration of changing working practices. However, our focus groups identified that there remains considerable uncertainty about the likely longevity and intensity of remote working trends, particularly away from the most dynamic commuter-rural areas of the South-East of England.

 “…has it got any longevity to it, or after a couple of years are people going back to the offices? … So there’s some sort of future proofing in it as well. You can’t sort of, you know, put all your eggs in one basket and convert everything to coworking spaces.” (Nicola Radford, Senior Economic Development Officer, Lincolnshire County Council)

In more remote rural regions, the opportunity to create and sustain coworking spaces appears to depend upon the range of functions that can be delivered and the “buzz” that can be created. A range of users need to be curated, and in more remote or coastal areas, tourists and second-home owners are an important consideration. In commuter towns and villages, we expect a growing demand from ex-commuter employees.

With coworking venues ranging from big-city drop-in spaces through to rural coworking retreats where “digital nomads” may stay for several weeks, there are opportunities to implement new ideas from numerous models. Distinct from earlier corporate urban models, rural coworking spaces can facilitate new connections, nurture a supportive community, and reinforce the added value of engagement in the locality.

Successful rural coworking spaces reflect their local social and economic context so we can expect significant diversity to emerge. As long as the sector continues to work together, valuing diversity while avoiding fragmentation, we see great opportunities for coworking to strengthen rural economies. We also agree with the Urban Coworking project that coworking spaces can enhance their local communities – in urban and rural areas – by supporting new flexible and hybrid models of work. However, coworking spaces may be best understood not as silver bullets to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship but as desirable indicators of a healthy local economy.

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