Bricks v Brains – what makes a coworking space special?
In an interview with our partners CoworkingEurope we shared our experiences and stories on bringing coworking to Newry, Northern Ireland and our thoughts on the future of coworking, more recently referred to as ‘flexspaces’.
“Coworking can bring tired workspace back to life”-Hub Newry, Northern Ireland
In 2012, founders Patrick and Suzanne Murdock took a big risk. They decided to develop a coworking space in Newry, Northern Ireland, at a time when the city was still in the depths of the recession. Over 8 years later, The Hub Newry is still standing, offering a community environment for start-ups, freelancers, small businesses and remote workers based on a sustainable and ethical working ethos. With a “combination of hard work, perseverance, the support of the local business community as well as partnering with other European and global coworking operators”, the Hub is now one of the leading coworking spaces in Northern Ireland.
Hi Patrick and Suzanne. What inspired you to open the Hub Newry and can you please tell us a bit about the space today?
Patrick: We had just returned from England in 2009 and I was self-employed working out of our spare room and living a solitary existence where days could go by when the only face to face contact I would have was with family or the postman. I needed to be a part of a coworking space and the only way this was going to happen in Newry was by starting our own.
The Hub Newry was born from modest beginnings, located behind the boarded up façade of an old pub, which had become another victim of the recession. Today the space has evolved into an established city centre fixture, housing a community of entrepreneurs, remote workers and micro businesses who work in partnership with each other to achieve the most elusive of business goals in recent years. We previously won the award for ‘Best Premises’ in 2015 and ‘Best Small Business’ in 2019 Greater Newry Area Business Awards, as well as achieving “Gold” sustainability certification by Green Tourism UK and ‘Best Coworking Space Northern Ireland’ in Build Awards 2019.
What is the coworking scene currently like in Newry and did you need to introduce the community to the concept?
Suzanne: It has not been without its challenges. When we relocated from the UK, which is essentially a pro- business environment, we had no idea of all the difficulties that we would face when dealing with the infamous Northern Ireland red tape back in 2009. Many of the things that we took for granted in London came as a shock in Newry, especially coworking!
It took a good 18 months at the onset of our project to roll out the concept of coworking to Newry and the surrounding areas. Even though there were shared offices, hacker spaces and technical hubs in Belfast, coworking, in the true sense of the word, didn’t really exist in Northern Ireland.
What types of action did you take in order to introduce the public to the concept?
In the early days, a second business helped to fund The Hub Newry as the office was literally empty. The first residents were those who were travelling or who had worked abroad and had already seen the benefits of coworking. But, we were resilient and our ‘can do’ culture helped us to overcome many of the problems we faced. A lot of networking and obscure events including hosting the Oktoberfest Promo Video helped us along the way!
How does the coworking scene in Newry differ from the very advanced community in London?
Newry certainly has some “quirks”. A very strong sense of community and the need to succeed helps to drive the coworking concept here. We seem to attract various clusters of industries, which are successful in Northern Ireland including building, construction as well as creative & digital businesses, which all work together effectively. The central location between Belfast and Dublin couple with good infrastructure also enables a lot of remote workers to base themselves here as it’s within easy reach of clients and bigger corporates.
What are some of the different needs/expectations of your members?
Businesses here seem to have to work harder in order to be profitable. There is far less start-up capital and a lot of the local government money is allocated to public sector and charitable projects. Despite this, coworking is now very effective and residents have higher expectations. Desks are far cheaper than in London and our businesses feed off each other well with regards to referrals, contacts and shared expertise. There is also the need for connections, be it for niche industry businesses or partner ventures and expertise, given our network of global coworking partners this is enabled through a very wide membership base.
In your opinion, is coworking self-sustainable and why is that? What do you think can be done to increase sustainability?
Yes, very much so. The local government has recognized the benefits of coworking and also sees a need to lower local taxes, which applies to coworking spaces. There is also much more collaboration between coworking spaces and local traditional businesses, but there is still work to be done with regards to solidifying partnerships between these businesses. Overall, coworking is certainly more sustainable when operators partner as European and global bodies so to benefit from expertise, connections, economies of scale, programmes, workspace, leading edge practices and innovation. Examples of this include GCUC and the Coworking Europe Hub .
The Hub is delighted to have been a founding member of “The Irish Coworking Assembly”. We have basically mapped our growth to that of our residents and constantly listen to feedback that we receive from both members and partners.
Can the open workspace/coworking model play an important role in regenerating communities?
Definitely. Tired workspace can be brought back to life for low cost and in a very sustainable way.
We now have a huge expertise to tap into when engaging with local colleagues, communities and businesses. This not only works from a business perspective but also allows us to mobilise members to work on voluntary and community projects such as the “urban garden scheme”, “Canal Cleanups”.
Recently two of our sites have become a pilot location with Newry Business Improvement District (BID) and Newry 2020 for the new ‘Smart City’ project. The Smart Newry initiative will use low-cost internet-enabled sensors to collect real-time environmental data from across the city centre, and will make that data freely available to the public via the project website.
Why is this innovative model of work important in regards to how we understand the future of work?
Coworking plays a vital part in giving work experience placements, interview practice, coaching and assisting the resident businesses as well as the coworking business. More recently it has evolved into ‘the future of the workplace’ giving remote workers and freelancers the options and flexibility of less commuting and a more cohesive balance of work / life.
The Hub Newry is very community driven and also a big champion of green ethics, sustainability & culture. We’re very involved in community initiatives for both local businesses and social groups and also really keen to participate in wider geographical areas with other coworking groups, businesses & community groups both Irish, UK & European.
Had you been to the Coworking Europe Conference before?
Yes we’re seasoned veterans now! We gained an international taste of what’s happening in the world of coworking as well as sharing experiences and ideas while simultaneously promoting our country and city to an international audience.
What did you speak about at the conferences?
We’ve discussed establishing a coworking space in an economically disadvantaged area. Debated the challenges of bringing a new concept to a traditionally conservative audience, and how our space has helped resident businesses succeed.
We also spoke about what it takes to establish a coworking space on a budget while still being able to remain sustainable and achieving design excellence on a budget and more recently how coworking has evolved in the suburbs and more rural areas and debated as to whether there will be an exodus with workers moving away from the cities.