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Coworking in the Electronic Cottage

With the spread of the internet in the 1990s it was predicted that we wouldn’t need offices anymore. In fact, Toffler predicted the electronic cottage as far back as 1980. What people failed to grasp though, was that communication isn’t the same as co-operation or collaboration. People can now work from anywhere, but anywhere is not suitable for work.

Demise and Regeneration

In Ireland, the rise of Silicon Dock and the regeneration of urban areas are matched only by the demise of rural areas, both in and beyond the commuter belt. Rising property costs in urban areas are increasing the financial burden on businesses while extended commuting is taking a toll on the work-life balance of their employees. Meanwhile in rural towns, and even in some cities, properties lie unused and businesses stagnate while local talent commutes or migrates to the major urban centres. Potential startups cannot afford the cost and commitment of leases in urban areas. These are precisely the issues that Toffler’s electronic cottage would have solved.  What is missing are cost-effective, local, work spaces that meet the needs of employers, employees and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the time has come to reexamine Toffler’s vision in the light of the recent rise of coworking from its inception in 2005.

Coworking

Coworking has grown quickly in the past number of years. It is still a relatively new service, filling a niche somewhere between working from home and taking on the financial commitment of leasing or purchasing your own space. However, we are missing the point if we describe coworking only in terms of an alternative way of obtaining affordable office space.  Coworking spaces are working communities of people who want to be productive and to contribute. Physical office space, although essential, is secondary to this community.  

They achieve this by being open environments that encourage communication and collaboration between people. Coworking spaces are open to all, from the smallest startup through to remote corporate employees. The multiple disciplines and backgrounds that coexist in a coworking space give rise to unique interactions that can spark new ideas.  People have an innate need to share perspectives, pool resources, share knowledge, solve issues and generate ideas.  Coworking spaces help satisfy this need.

In Ireland, coworking spaces have been popping up a lot around the country.  Dublin was followed quickly by Cork, Galway, Limerick, Newry and Belfast. Some, like Plus10 in Cork, weren’t even aware of the world-wide coworking movement when they opened their doors; they set up their community in response to a perceived need. Others, like Flexhuddle, experienced the benefits of coworking spaces while working abroad and set up their own space on returning to Ireland.  Around the world half a million people work from 10,000 coworking spaces.  That number is doubling each year with no sign of plateauing.

Coworking spaces support over a thousand people in Ireland, providing them with a vibrant community in affordable space. They are usually accessible, which means that it is possible to work in the space without going through a rigorous application process. They are generally founded and run by private individuals for the benefit of the coworking community.  It is common, especially in smaller spaces, that the founders have a separate business or even a job that provides their primary income.

Key Questions

  • What if we were to encourage more coworking spaces, accelerating their growth and spread into larger rural towns, like Enniscorthy, PortLaoise and Sligo?
  • Could this boost local economies and help people create new jobs locally?
  • Could businesses based in urban centres offer key employees a better quality of life by locating them in coworking spaces closer to their home for 2-3 days weekly?
  • Would businesses save money by distributing part of its workforce into and beyond the commuter belt?
  • Would clustering local startups along with small businesses, remote employees and even digital nomads create the kind of innovation that eludes us when we work from home, or with people that are too similar to ourselves?