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Coworking in rural America

COVID-19 has upended the once simple idea of sharing space with others. As the pandemic has spread and shutdowns have been needed to stem the health crisis, many industries have been hit hard across rural America. One of those industries is the rural coworking space. Getting together for a meeting or collaborating for a whiteboard session simply hasn’t been possible, and the significant uncertainty around health guidelines have made it hard for coworking space to figure out how to re-open — and do so safely.

However, COVID-19 has also created the conditions where rural coworking could really catch on. With remote work now rapidly on the rise, and with workers everywhere reconsidering where they want to do their jobs from, many people might choose to set up shop in small towns — and want to join a coworking community once they’re there. So, rural coworking spaces might be primed for a win-win: gaining an influx of new members, while also being places that support the new resilient tech economy that will power rural America into the future.

To make that potential a reality, rural coworking spaces will have to know how to thrive in this pandemic-shaped environment. So what will it take to succeed? CORI partners with coworking spaces all across our Rural Innovation Network. Our network members have access to a wide range of programs and resources that help them build capacity while they develop and advance digital economic ecosystem strategies that focus on educating and training local residents in digital skills, employing them in new economy jobs, and empowering them to launch the startups that will drive a prosperous 21st century economy.

We interviewed seven Rural Innovation Network community leaders to learn how they’ve been making it work. You can find our full report here.

Here are the five best practices we found:

  1. Clean, clean, clean (and tell people you are cleaning). The spaces that succeed are the ones that not just are sanitized, but also communicate that they’re safe places to work. Keep cleaning supplies like masks and hand sanitizer on hand and readily available, frequently clean the space professionally, and make sure members and guests know (and follow) the health protocols.
  1. Redesign the physical space for flexibility. Social distancing-compliant spaces have to be the new normal. Spread out your space’s seating areas, and prioritize dedicated desks over a choose-your-own area. Local architects can help map your floor plan to see what you can fit in the space you have.
  1. Adopt remote and blended programming. Coworking might seem like an in-person endeavor, but success can come creatively. Events like entrepreneur interviews or networking gatherings can take place online — but remember to tailor your programming to the local context, else you’ll get lost in the national remote event shuffle.
  1. Understand community context and needs. A coworking space can only succeed with community buy-in, and that’s especially true during this pandemic. Make sure to tailor offerings to what your community members need in these uncertain times—not just what you think they need or what you want to provide. These deeper learning relationships will also help you learn what role your space can play in the future.
  1. Diversify current and future revenue streams. There’s no denying that COVID-related shutdowns hurt many coworking spaces’ bottom lines. Spaces can mitigate against future challenges by renting out private office space, which is a more sustainable form of revenue. And to meet the needs of workers who may be struggling right now, spaces can also consider temporarily lowering membership fees.

Operating a rural coworking space in the time of COVID-19 is no small task. But as we’ve seen from leaders across the Rural Innovation Network, there are ways to move forward safely while providing communities with an important space for resilient growth. If you would like to learn more about the Rural Innovation Network and the resources we make available to our members, sign up for our newsletter.  To read the full report, click here.