Coworking and what it means for Northern Ireland…
This week we are over in Poland attending the Coworking Europe Conference 2019. After the success of last year’s conference in Amsterdam, this year the conference is being held in Warsaw with over 600 delegates from Europe and other international countries from as far away as the US and India in attendance.
The Irish delegation is made up of ourselves from Newry as well as representatives from Dublin, Cork and Wicklow.
For those of you who are not familiar with coworking, the concept is simple, people from different working areas, independent, nomad and remote workers, entrepreneurs, employees from SME’s and major corporates find themselves in the same space working on their own projects.
Historically the industry evolved as workers seeking to break their isolation and to find an alternative solution to their home office or to the company office they are used to working from, but also belong to a community of individuals who are open to exchanging ideas and who collaborate to develop their businesses.
The profile of Coworking has risen sharply in recent years following the adoption of the term by WeWork back in 2013 and is now the most popular flexible workplace solution for workers and their employers.
This has translated into increased uptake globally and the number of coworking spaces worldwide continues to increase significantly increasing by 20% during 2018. By the end of 2019, almost 2.2 million people are expected to be working in over 22,000 coworking spaces worldwide and the industry continues to grow exponentially.
KEY TRENDS IN 2019
A number of key trends have emerged from the various presentations and group discussions we engaged in this week. The standout trend emerging in coworking in the growth in the number of Large Companies who now see coworking as key strategy in attracting and retaining talent.
- This year several large global corporations attended, for example, German Industrial giant BASF briefed us on a pilot project they are undertaking in Berlin which is a study to build a coworking satellite office network to ensure their employees no longer have to commute long distances to work.
- This study and similar initiatives by other Companies will eventually result in a greater geographical spread of a company’s labour force as employees choose / demand to work closer to where they live. This in turn creates not only happier staff, but other benefits such as reductions in carbon emissions, increased productivity and improvements in staff wellness.
- Wider society also benefits as workers no longer commuting reduces congestion on our roads and relives the pressure on public transport and will result in coworking spaces opening in smaller cities, towns, villages and rural locations.
- Another trend which is starting to emerge is the blurring of work and home life resulting in the rise of the co-living concept which is attracting individuals who chose to live in a shared community. It is a concept that won’t suit everyone, but an emerging trend worth keeping an eye one.
- Underpinning all this is the availability of fast broadband and innovations in technology globally. This is enabling coworkers to communicate like never before and the growth seen over the last year years is forecast to continue.
Coworking is a young industry and a few years of data needed to be gathered to help identify other trends.
Research is still ongoing but the available data is showing coworking has a high social impact on society and the communities present in each coworking space are helping start-ups and workers be more innovative and succeed in business.
It will be interesting to read the various research papers on this subject when they are published over the next year.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN FOR NORTHERN IRELAND?
I am sure many of you are thinking it is all well a good mixing with the international audience, discussing a global industry, but what impact will all this have on Northern Ireland?
Forecasting is always fraught with difficulty but I will have a go. Summarised below is the main impact coworking could have on the Northern Ireland Economy.
- Commuters with office based jobs will in time be able to work closer to their homes with the support of their employers.
- The reduction in commuters should in time help reduce congestion and have a positive environmental impact.
- Smaller towns, cities and villages in Northern Ireland could potentially support a coworking space if NI employers continue to adopt international employment practices.
- Coworking can potentially help as one of a range of measures of encouraging urban regeneration.
- Jobs that once were geographically out of reach to NI citizens are now a real career opportunity for people with the relevant academic qualifications and experience.
However as ever in NI, these opportunities come with a sting in the tall specific to our shores and unless the following issues are addressed, the above trends may not emerge here.
- Business rates are crucifying every coworking operator in NI and research shows we are carrying a far higher burden of taxation than any other coworking operator in the EU.
- We need to continue to invest in our infrastructure, in particular, broadband and targeted investment in our secondary towns and villages.
- Slow planning processes, endless red tape and high business rates are holding back the development of new coworking offices (and other commercial development) across NI.
- EU Grants which are available to all coworking operators in many European Countries specifically targeted to support small business growth are not accessible to privately owned coworking operators in NI.
- Local Authorities are entering the market putting private sector operators at an economic disadvantage. Their time would be better spent creating the conditions locally that will allow the private sector to take these projects forward and provide targeted financial support where it is required.
Given Brexit and an absent government at Stormont has caused inward investment in Northern Ireland to fall off a cliff edge, coworking is a practical, high impact way of bringing jobs into our communities and reinvigorating our decaying town and village centres which have suffered from a lack of investment and depopulation for decades. It now needs to be placed higher up the political agenda as a method of stimulating economic growth.
There is huge appetite by the private sector to open additional coworking centres in NI, however Central and Local Government have not woken up to these potential benefits and continue to place great hurdles in the way of coworking spaces opening in our towns and villages.
This lack of strategy needs to be contrasted against other European countries where significant support has been provided to bring coworking into towns and cities, in particular socially disadvantaged communities.
We have found that very little support currently exists in Northern Ireland for coworking as government agencies and councils push the responsibility back and forth across department lines resulting in very little happening on the ground. Many of the coworking success stories in Northern Ireland have happened in spite of government support not because of it.
Our politicians / council officials / civil servants need to take a long hard look at where the future jobs in particular for young people in our towns, cities and villages are going to come from and start to understand the role coworking could have in delivering and supporting these jobs as well as the associated economic upside our local communities will benefit from bringing high wage paying multinational employers who use coworking spaces to our towns and villages.
Author – Patrick Murdock
Patrick Murdock is a dual qualified Chartered Surveyor and qualified Tax Advisor original from and currently in based Newry. An independent free thinking liberal at heart, prior to establishing his own specialist consultancy, Patrick has built a twenty year career working for a number of global advisory firms and continues to work across markets in the construction, property and final services industries and has considerable experience and practical knowledge of working day today in the UK, Northern Ireland and ROI markets.
He is also Cofounder of The Hub Newry & Partner of Capsure Tax.