As the world returns to work and the current COVID crisis slowly passes interest in coworking spaces is on the rise again. Certainly, more of us will work away from a traditional office environment more often. For some, after lengthy lockdowns, there is also the desire for added separation between home working and home life.
Politician and local authorities have eagerly embraced the idea of shared workspaces as part of their ‘building back better’ programmes and economic recovery plans. Here in Wales, the Welsh Government have swiftly adopted the policy of 30% of people working closer to home. And almost every town centre strategy or economic recovery plan we have read mentions coworking, hubs and reuse of empty property in the same paragraph.
Gwagle started in 2019 when we decided to take on our own empty town centre property to create a social workspace, establishing a new co-working community and helping to bring people back into our local town centre. We had a tiny budget but enough to buy some chairs and desks, install the broadband, equipped the kitchen and opened the doors. And 12 months later there was a community of 14 freelancers, consultants and creatives. The diversity is incredible with journalists, filmmakers, techies, designers, consultants, coaches and all sorts of creatives.
There were several reasons for launching Gwagle (in case you are wondering it’s Welsh for ‘space’ Gwag + lle), the first curated co-working community in Abergavenny.
- We wanted to do our bit to help regenerate the local centre through repurposing a long term empty property whilst injecting some new people back into the town
- To prove the concept worked in a small market town;
- To convert ideas into action. Our regeneration consultancy doesn’t only write strategies and draw up impressive looking plans, we also invest our own time and funds to deliver the kind of schemes we encourage others to go and do; and
- We wanted to create a community of like-minded freelancers, consultants and creatives eager for somewhere to work that wasn’t a quiet home office. Somewhere you can meet others, network, schedule meetings, and most importantly get your best work done.
How we did it? Here are our 8 tips for launching your coworking space:
- A great property and location – we spent over a year looking for good quality and affordable character property in the centre of Abergavenny, and we’ve learnt how important it is for our members to have the shops, services and hospitality venues on our doorstep.
- Superfast – We always get asked; do you have great broadband? There’s no compromising on this and in many cases our members use us to get away from the unreliable connection they experience at home.
- Nothing flashy – you can be a professional workspace without being flashy, and an ordinary and organic interior design is enough as long as there’s a big desk, comfy chair and it’s well-lit. Our focus has been on curating the working spirit that connects people and the social factors that make Gwagle different from staying at home.
- Flexible – it seems obvious but there are no clear work patterns nowadays so we are open 24/7 and 7 days a week and our users can come and go as they please. Having a flexible booking system and fees structure is essential. We’ve seen more interest from people wanting to use Gwagle for one or two days a week as part of a blended work pattern than those wanting their own full-time desk.
- Meeting room – our workspace is social with the background noise of activity. However, co-workers are asking for more opportunities to use private meeting spaces because considerably more work is taking place online through Zoom or Teams.
- Amenities – a well-equipped kitchen, ‘help yourself tea and coffee’ are a given. However, we have been surprised at the popularity of our bike storage area and having an office shower is a huge bonus and encourage cycling.
- Networking – There is nothing else like it; sure connecting and collaborating online is great, but you can’t discover and forge the same relationships through a screen as you can when you’re sat side by side with real people. Our workspace is relaxed and unassuming, creating the perfect breeding ground for discussion and ideas to be shared during those spontaneous chit-chats that occur in the office. However, it’s usually in the kitchen when the kettle boils that we most often get together and the creative conversations occur.
- Hosting – the workspace shouldn’t demand much day to day management but there must be an individual or business that plays the host, helps curates the space, makes sure new members are introduced, animates the office discussion, and keeps an eye on everyone being happy.
And what about the future?
We celebrated Gwagle’s first successful year in March last year with 14 co-workers and the week before lockdown. And despite facing huge strains whilst we were all instructed to work from home, juggling uncertainty with landlord negotiations and support grant applications, we can already see the sector bouncing back stronger.
Recently we’ve experienced freelancer retreating to working from home that has decided not to return but at the same time demand from newcomers that have recently moved to Abergavenny as part of the “reverse brain drain” away from cities as a result of COVID-19. There’s also greater interest from commuters looking for new hybrid working options closer to home as part of a blended work pattern.
We are interested in growing our space, taking on additional empty building and exploring the potential for the public sector and corporate occupiers seeking greater flexibility in the post-pandemic era, looking for on-demand office space that feels safe for employees. And with a growing interest in technology-enabled SMART towns we want to explorer how we incorporate IoT (internet of things) technology that enables Gwagle and our community to work better, faster and of course, smarter.
If you want to know more about how we started our co-working space, the impact it has had on our town centre and our growth plans why not get in touch with Owen? And details about our shared workspace www.Gwagle.co.uk
Owen is a planning, regeneration and local economic development consultant – making places more memorable, liveable and viable for over 25 years. With experience across more than 60 towns and city centre locations he was chosen to be a member of the Expert Panel on the government commissioned High Street Task Force in 2020.