Cities are insatiable creatures that constantly need to be fed an ever-increasing diet of commerce, infrastructure, workers, etc. which just isn’t sustainable or affordable. The pandemic however showcased the desire for less travel and the need for rural locations to work, meet and network from – moving the focus away from the cities for some. Have you considered moving to the countryside and working remotely? The benefits of this has proved to be significant over the past year with the opportunity to work closer to home, freeing up time and allowing for a better work life balance.
Rich Mills, Co-Founder of Hatchery is creating urban-quality coworking spaces in rural communities in the UK to help local entrepreneurs flourish. We spoke to Mills about his insight into the need for and benefit of rural coworking spaces for both the UK and Europe.
According to Mills the need for coworking spaces in the countryside existed well before the pandemic as the rural economy is entrepreneurial by nature. With a high rate of micro businesses, freelancers and home-workers, the need and opportunity to open coworking spaces in rural locations seemed obvious to Hatchery. Mills explained that they naturally needed to adapt the urban coworking model to reflect the diverse needs of rural businesses. An important part of developing the Hatchery brand was to consider the common interests of customers – such as enjoyment of the outdoors – as a means to bring together people working across different sectors and different sized businesses.
When asked about some of these needs for a coworking space Mills stated that besides the need for human interaction and sense of community, he felt that the quality of the workspace was extremely important. According to Mills, “commercial spaces in rural areas historically have had less money spent on them than in the city.” Coworking spaces afford members the ability to share a professional, state of the art office space with one another without the huge costs involved in having to kit it out themselves.
Another big trend in cities that highlighted a gap in rural markets: flexibility. Flexibility is very important because, as Mills explains, “if your business changes size, or you need to move location, or there’s an economic downturn… there are a lot of reasons why people would value greater flexibility.” Unfortunately rural areas have lagged behind cities. Until now.
When asked about the ability for members to have access to sister or affiliated coworking spaces in other towns Mills believes that this is a trend that’s gaining a lot of attention lately.
Mills noted that effort is being made to connect independent operators, in places such as Kent, to jointly market a connected network of coworking spaces, including to commuters and London employers. ‘It’s about giving those customers confidence in the quality of space and service they are signing up for, whether that means superfast secure broadband, good coffee, ergonomic furniture… your staff will get looked after whether they’re based in this town or that town’’. When you’re an independent, it’s quite difficult to get on the radar of a huge London employer with 20,000 staff, so there are benefits of joining forces. There’s a balance to be made between this and maintaining a differentiated brand that aligns with customer values, and it’s interesting to see how these ideas are beginning to play out.’
Mills also commented on how the pandemic has affected their business strategy and the market: “The fallout of the pandemic has seen a lot of social trends accelerated or emerge that are very much aligned with our business plan: working closer to home, avoiding the commute, having that increased flexibility. Also, where people may have lost their jobs or businesses may fail due to COVID, coworking spaces offer a good way of bringing people back into the economy because it lets them access a workspace on a daily basis or part time, and doesn’t come with that same overhead. They also start to reconnect people and bring in new opportunities to get to know local business owners and possibly find a new career path.”
“In terms of our business plan, a primary focus has always been existing rural businesses and local people who just want somewhere better to go to work that offers more flexibility and a better work environment, which is ultimately better for their health and productivity. Now, because of COVID, and particularly because we’re mainly focused around the edge of London at the moment, we do see the commuter market making up a larger proportion of our customer base. We’ve thought about how we may allocate more space over to part time desks for those really flexible users, who might just want to pop in one day a week or blend it with working from home and working in the city. Our building design hasn’t changed too much, just how the different spaces are used. Some of them will become even more flexible than we initially expected.”
In closing Mills emphasised the key theme at the heart of coworking and what he hopes to achieve with Hatchery: “in all my research, speaking to people about how spaces are designed and attending seminars about what makes a good workspace, one theme that always kept coming up was consumer choice. How do you look at somebody’s working day or working week and cater to their varying needs?”