Whether you’re a remote government worker or a side hustle magnate, working outside the traditional office is more commonplace than ever. Self-employment has been on a steady incline since the early 1980s with almost 10 per cent of the national population working for themselves. It’s estimated 45 per cent of Canada’s workforce will be generating self-employment income by 2020, whether it be through full-time freelancing or weekend side jobs.
The downside of being a lone wolf is just that: you’re working alone, often in a forgotten corner of your house (loosely defined as your “home office”) or taking up space at the local coffee shop, shamefully sipping cold brew to lengthen your workday. That used to be me.
When I moved back to my hometown of St. John’s after seven years living away, I was happy to be near friends and family but my freelance writing took a nose dive. I had no business contacts in the community, I wasn’t in on the local scene, and frankly, getting half-dressed for Skype meetings (the top half) with editors was getting downright degrading. Then an acquaintance told me about the local coworking space. On my first day at Common Ground, I was introduced to a web designer, an event planner and a PhD student all trying to make a go of it in a province that is supposedly in an economic headlock. Not only did I see hope in the entrepreneurs and small businesses clustered at the coworking space, but I also got an inside look at all the cool things happening in the city.
Think about it like a gym membership for your business: for a monthly fee, coworking spaces provide unlimited coffee, fast Wi-Fi and the friendly company of other freelancers, entrepreneurs and remote government workers. The 2018 Global Coworking Survey predicts a surge of coworking offices in rural areas, and Atlantic Canada is trending. More than 20 coworking spaces are operating throughout the region, providing the dose of entrepreneurial spirit our dying communities need like a vaccine. Coworking spaces in rural areas operate as community centres and incubators providing business development support. There’s no region in the country with more industrially desolate rural communities than Atlantic Canada. Can coworking save these economically strangled towns?
I dare you to Google “how to work from home.” There are 9-billion hits outlining strategies to be productive in the home office, but few people can avoid the pitfalls. There’s always another load of laundry to fold, another meal to prepare, and who can get any work done when Netflix is calling your name?
“A week would go by, and I would barely leave the house,” says Shannon Pratt, the interim CEO of Startup Zone, Charlottetown’s coworking space and incubator. Free coffee and Wi-Fi are great perks, but people join coworking spaces for a plethora of reasons, such as to immerse themselves into a new city, meet like-minded people or create daily structure in a freelance (sometimes freefall) work life. Those water cooler chats are more important than you think.
“Solopreneur isolation is a big thing. The novelty of having somebody to have coffee with, or even sitting with someone while you’re having lunch, it’s something you don’t realize you need. It’s always something that, at school, we just had,” explains Kayla Walters, owner of two businesses operating out of Common Ground coworking space in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In other words, most of us have been conditioned to work in rooms full of people our whole lives.
In bustling corporate offices, employees are often grouped together based on their job: accountants sit next to other accountants, marketers with marketers and so on. At a coworking space, you may find yourself sitting between a website coder and an artist. These unique situations can result in unexpected collaborations, and the professional help you need may be mere feet away.
The day before the online launch of Walters’ company, St. John’s Beer Tours, the website wouldn’t work. Another member, who happened to be a coder, saw that she was upset and offered his help—he and another fellow member went through the site to find the errors just in time to launch the business. “It’s a defining moment of why I’m in that space,” says Walters, who has also recently become the Social Coordinator at Common ground, in charge of organizing events for the members from recess-style coffee breaks with Dunkaroos to bowling nights.
The fishbowl effect
Not all coworking spaces were created equal: fancy industrial printers and conference phones aren’t a necessity, but the space needs to be conducive to work. The HUB South Shore has flexible workspace in their Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia coworking space and the furniture is in constant flux. “We want people to find their most productive mode and we do what we can to support that,” says Matt Hall, a British expat and co-owner of The HUB. Hall explains that he’s heard of other coworking spaces in Atlantic Canada closing because all they provided was a desk and coffee and didn’t think about how people would work in the space. “You’re asking people to step out of their homes, where they’re pretty comfortable. There has to be some sort of hook.”
When Shannon Pratt took over at Startup Zone, she was shocked by the deafening silence. Her solution? A badass playlist. She brought in soft elements like plants and blankets to make the place feel homey and rearranged couches to spur collaboration. These creature comforts are important—Startup Zone even has a shower. Workspace Atlantic just opened their third location but all three offices (one in Moncton and two in Halifax) have state of-the-art office furniture like ergonomic chairs, standing desks and smart technology in the meeting rooms.
Visibility and access are also integral for spreading the word about coworking and encouraging membership in rural areas. The North Queens Business Centre & Innovation Hub in Caledonia, Nova Scotia sits in the same building as the town fire hall, so there’s no mistaking where it’s located. Startup Zone sits on a street with major foot traffic, especially during cruise season. “The space has got a bit of a fishbowl thing because we’re the corner of a building,” Pratt recounts, noting that dozens of people walk off the street to ask questions about the space and learn about the community working there.
Coworking spaces establish communities of people working off the radar and become a microcosm of their town. “We started referring to it as the hidden economy,” Hall says, recalling that before The HUB opened, the perception was that Mahone Bay was a tourist town. “I was working out of my boatshed before The HUB. People were coming out of their spare bedrooms, attics, kitchen tables.” The HUB now buzzes with workers doing everything from writing for national newspapers to geophysics. The coworkers and residents of Mahone Bay soon realized there was already an entrepreneurial spirit swirling around; the coworking space maximized their potential. “There was a hidden global face to the economy people didn’t appreciate at all,” says Hall.
In some rural areas where there is no Starbucks or an abundance of office rental space, coworking spaces have become the entrepreneurial and professional centres bringing the whole community together. Many of the coworking rooms are available for booking by outside community groups—CO3 in Bridgewater hosts more than 12 events per month, including a weekly coffee meetup and a monthly “wisdom of the crowds,” where three people present their business challenges and the community breaks off into small groups to come up with solutions, whether it be feedback on a poster or financial advice. In New Brunswick, Sackville Commons & Coworking hosts free yoga classes every month, along with writing workshops, art classes and album release parties.
“The thing to remember about coworking spaces is that they are all very different, not just in terms of the look and feel, but also the market that they serve in a community,” says Andrew Button, owner of CO3. While Pratt also evangelizes the importance of events (like hosting weekly coffee chats with local entrepreneurs), Hall prioritizes members’ work at The HUB South Shore. Members of The HUB found daytime events disruptive, but because the town is small, there’s still a lot of time for socializing. “If I go down to the brewery tonight, there will be three HUB members there,” says Hall.
Collaborations at coworking spaces happen organically—how can they not when there’s a room full of eager entrepreneurs? Matt Hall recalls two people who met at The HUB South Shore and started Woods- Camp, a digital marketplace dedicated to the forestry industry. “There’s something really contagious about people around you doing awesome things,” says Hall.
Button caught the entrepreneurial bug while working out of The HUB before launching CO3. He had spent more than 15 years working in economic development in rural parts of Eastern Canada and observed a lot of activity in Halifax, Moncton and Saint John in the tech startup sphere. Button was inspired by how quickly good companies were developing in these incubators and contemplated how the same format could be adapted to non-tech enterprise. “How does that apply to a t-shirt shop? How does that apply to a flower shop? Or a brewery? How does that apply for the other 90 per cent of businesses that I work with in rural parts of Atlantic Canada?”
The coworking space becomes a common ground between entrepreneurs and the community, but it’s not always a natural fit. “Sometimes you are fighting against 20 years of culture that has squashed entrepreneurship in some communities, so it’s not going to be an overnight thing to build those things up,” says Button. Walters, who trained as a teacher before opening her businesses in St. John’s, tried to open a coworking space in her hometown of Marystown, N.L. in 2016 but the concept wasn’t well received and never took off.
“It was really difficult to get people in the mindset of what a coworking space was and why it was necessary. It seemed frivolous to them, because there is very little entrepreneurship in the area. There are people who owned their own businesses, but not anymore,” says Walters.
Traditionally, coworking spaces have thrived in giant cities, but coworking space owners in Atlantic Canada see major potential for increased business development in rural locales. In faltering communities where reinvigorating the fishery is just not an option, people need to look outside the box for career options.
“The communities that don’t figure out a way to make these things happen are going to struggle because our biggest competitive advantage in rural Atlantic Canada is that we may not have jobs for everybody, but we’ve got a ton of assets and people who want to make their own jobs,” says Button. Walters says she’s seen teachers from her graduating class at Memorial University become self-employed, choosing to work in the coworking ecosystem in the early days of entrepreneurship. “There are no permanent jobs anymore; everything is contract- based or temporary, especially on the Burin peninsula. Even a teaching job, you were never guaranteed, you had to fight for it.” Coworking spaces normalize entrepreneurship and give a local boost to those who may be intimidated to start out on their own.
“I describe it as accelerated serendipity. Even though there isn’t a direct or intuitive link to revenue or business development, I can say without a doubt, I have experienced exponential growth in my business by being connected and plugged into my community,” says Button. Coworking spaces make entrepreneurship affordable, but the economic effects of coworking spaces in rural areas extend past communal desks and free printing. “You’re going for coffees downtown or you’re going to the deli around the corner, spending bits and pieces that you wouldn’t necessarily spend in that way,” says Pratt. The trickle-down effects can have a big local impact. Common Ground in St. John’s provides coffee from local roaster Jumping Bean Coffee, and CO3 brings in sandwiches from local cafe, Fancy Pants.
Ironically, while entrepreneurial spirit billows out of the coworking smokestack, the business model isn’t always a successful money-making scheme. According to the 2018 Global Coworking Survey, only 40 per cent of spaces are profitable. “Ours is stable, but it’s not a retirement package by any stretch,” says Hall. Button agrees, emphasizing that while it’s hard to see in the bank account, the buy-in to the coworking philosophy has exponential benefits for the community and local economy.
Workspace Atlantic, on the other hand, in investing in coworking across the four Atlantic provinces. “We plan to open an additional 20 Workspace locations in the next five years. The flexible space industry is in its infancy, but we have a proven formula that is ready to roll-out through our creative licensed and partnership formula,” says Tanya Matthews, Workspace Atlantic’s president.
Coworking spaces are not miracle cures for every rural community, but they don’t need miracles. In small towns, even tiny companies can make a big difference. Coworking spaces provide opportunities for disparate entrepreneurs to come together and do more. With outmigration being one of the biggest problems in Atlantic Canada, having an ambitious, young entrepreneur discover a group of like-minded people in their community might make the difference between leaving and staying.