How will the combination of new digital technologies, environmental pressures to reduce work travel and Covid-19 change working life in rural areas?

This Round 1 Innovation Fund project investigated the growth of rural coworking and its contribution to local economic performance, business networks and wellbeing.  As the Covid-19 pandemic endured throughout the project, the research focused on challenges associated with digital homeworking practices and questions of connectivity for a range of rural home-workers and freelancers.

Method

  • Interviews with 16 operators of coworking venues.
  • Workshop with 60 operators of coworking venues.
  • Impact Hub Inverness ran an information workshop for new and planned coworking groups which gave the team further insights into the questions and challenges perceived by operators in the early stages of development.
  • Two policy-maker focus groups

Key findings

The project identified a major shift in the rural coworking landscape with growing interest from commuters, not just self-employed and freelance workers.   As a result, coworking spaces are expected to facilitate new network connections between urban and rural workers, extending the potential for rural entrepreneurs to reach wider markets and to expand their collaboration and innovation activities.

A number of coworking models are emerging. In commuter regions, private sector entrepreneurs are recognising opportunities to develop facilities tailored to the needs of professionals who are expected to reduce their commuting into larger cities.

In smaller, more peripheral rural locations, however, coworking tends to be more community-focused.  These are often not-for-profit organisations either attached to another rural business or established by volunteers seeking to improve their own local working practices and networks.  There is also an increasing appetite from the public sector to establish coworking spaces to enhance local entrepreneurial ecosystems.  The community identity and group dynamics of different coworking initiatives attract different types of businesses/workers and influence the perception of the local area as a place to do business.

Co-working operators play a number of important roles.  Alongside the financial and administrative management, they play a key  community-building role which is important for the wellbeing of their members .  Encouraging social interaction, access to nature and a collective, supportive identity have all helped coworkers to avoid feelings of isolation – especially valuable during the Covid-19 crisis.  Where this has not been possible in-person, coworking operators have developed a range of online skills development and networking activities to help isolated workers to stay in touch.  These online communities and activities are expected to continue as part of the rural coworking model.

Looking ahead, continuing preferences for rural living alongside a desire to reduce commuting is creating new demand for coworking spaces away from traditional big-city locations.  This raises questions about how to quantify coworkers’ contribution to the rural economy if they remain employed by urban firms but it also creates significant opportunities for the wider rural economy to benefit from their skills, expenditure and network connections.  The challenge for coworking operators and rural policy-makers is to ensure that rural coworking is integrated into the rural economy so that trickle-down benefits are created for other local businesses and community groups and coworkers do not exist as stand-alone exclaves of the urban economy.

Research outputs

Rural coworking: “It’s becoming contagious”. By Gary Bosworth, Jason Whalley, Polly Chapman, Anita Füzi & Ian Merrell. Published in Regions:

Rural Coworking: New spaces of entrepreneurship and innovation, presented at The Regional Studies Association Annual Conference: Regions in Recovery Building Sustainable Futures – Global E-Festival Presenter: Gary Bosworth

How rural coworking hubs can facilitate well-being and overcome social isolation through the satisfaction of key psychological needs, presented at the Rural Entrepreneurship Conference 2021. Presenter: Ian Merrell

The Role of Coworking in Digital Rural Futures, presented as part of the Coworking Symposium, 15th April 2021 (Online). Presenter: Anita Füzi

How rural coworking hubs can facilitate well-being through the satisfaction of key psychological needs. By Ian Merrell, Anita Füzi, Emma Russell & Gary Bosworth.  To be published in Local Economy, Jan/Feb 2022

Researchers

Principal Investigator: Professor Gary Bosworth (University of Northumbria)

Co-investigators: Professor Jason Whalley (University of Northumbria), Dr Ian Merrell (University of Exeter), Polly Chapman, Dr Anita Füzi.

Digit team member: Dr Emma Russell