The list of issues facing freelancers could easily fill a novel, and that’s before we get to COVID-19. Flexibility is a double-edged sword; for many, freelance work “fixed” the undesirable parts of traditional employment, and as the freelance economy has grown, so too have the options to support living, working, and traveling as a freelancer.
More recently, it’s become common to find stories of freelancers slipping through the cracks — often despite systems designed to sustain vulnerable economic sectors — as the world experiences a downturn precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the fifth edition of European Freelancers Week we sat down with freelancers, coworkers, and coliving professionals to discuss what coworking and coliving spaces can do to support the expanding freelancer economy.
Marc Navarro is a coworking and organization consultant, Content Director of the Coworking Spain Conference, Chief Curator of the Coworking Academy at CU Asia, and an advisor to the Latam Coworking Summit.
Caterina Maiolini is the London Mayor of StartupHome which is a social enterprise coliving in Islington. She is also the UK and Head of Ambassadors for Co-Liv, the largest non-profit association of coliving professionals.
Yann Heurtaux, a freelancer since 2010, discovered coworking at Betacowork in 2012 and contributed to his first Coworking Europe Conference in 2013. He’s been a space operator in 2 countries and 3 cities, and contributed to more than 50 communities on 3 continents.
The Year So Far
Discussing how freelance occupancy has changed, Marc described the difficulty some community managers have had in offering flexibility to their members during lockdowns. Discounting memberships was often not an option available to bootstrapped operations, while for freelancers now looking after children whose schools had closed, affording a membership took on new meaning.
In Greece, Maria shed light on a different situation. Many freelancers and digital nomads joined The Cube during the pandemic as they opted to stay somewhere warmer, with fewer restrictions, for the pandemic. Greek citizens made up most of this group, reversing what’s been described as brain drain, and jumping on the opportunity to work remotely from “home” in Athens.
“Working remotely and working from a lockdown are not the same thing,” as Maria sagely put it. It’s something Yann is all too aware of in the Swiss context, where corporate remote workers are starting to become the majority. DeskMag surveys have demonstrated that “the demographics changed a lot for the past five years, at least in Switzerland… we see more remote workers, some of them who didn’t really choose neither to work remotely from their company, or even the space they are allowed to be working from. So that’s terribly different from freelancers choosing their communities.”
Freelancers, digital nomads, independent workers, and remote workers are all looking for a different coworking or coliving experience. In addition to shifts in what the “suitable” in “suitable location” means, Marc has also seen a growing distinction between “two different worlds” of community-oriented freelancers and perk-and-security-oriented corporate remote workers.
As the freelance economy has grown, and the wealth of community-focused working spaces along with it, coliving has also adapted to provide more social infrastructure. Cate anticipates the role of well-being will continue to take center stage as it overlaps with the coworking sector.
Understanding Freelancers’ Needs
Workers worldwide have had tremendous incentive to work remotely for most of this year, and it’s hard not to imagine how this will bring a tidal change in positive perceptions of coworking and related growth of the coworking and coliving industry. However, there’s also reason to be cautious that flexibility seems more synonymous with precarity than before.
Yann articulated the sobering reminder that “the demographic that needs coworking the most, that feels most lonely at the moment, are the freelancers who can’t afford a coworking space or a desk… People need to gather and get some human link and they can’t afford the commercial part of it anymore.”
He cited the Power Coders project in Lausanne, and suggested that giving away even as little as two hours in a coworking space can change someone’s whole week.
“It won’t bring more revenue, but is it worth doing? Yes, because freelancers need that. If you have a window to open to do it, do it! It changes their lives, even more than work.”
It’s also about building loyalty, as Marc suggests. The folks who you help out when they need it, will likely be the people who take out a membership when they can afford one because they already know they have an affinity with the space and its values.
Marc also suggested that a lot of companies will consider a “hub and spoke” arrangement going forward, continuing the success suburban locations have seen. His advice for thinking about business models going forward? Anticipate more employees — not companies — making the decision to cowork locally.
More Inclusive Business Models
As a private business, there are several options for championing inclusion in a coworking space. Among them, the option to offer plans that subsidize access for those who would otherwise not be able to consider joining a space due to cost.
There is a premium associated with membership: coworking is not just about WiFi and desks, or 24-hour access, but about being a part of a community. These aspects of belonging are often associated with premium memberships, and are sometimes not even a part of first-tier plans.
In addition to the economic exclusion that membership fees can contribute to, participants in the chat discussion were wary that new modes of commonality may end up being tomorrow’s modes of exclusion, where belonging becomes the next culture fit. From her experience with coliving, Cate expressed that often times the people “who just get it,” who just get you, could also have little in common: a programmer joining a community of musicians may have identified a common value in the absence of similar professional work or appearance. Cate was also emphatic that belonging is a necessary experience, and worth protecting from commodification.
For Maria, considering how education can secure the future will be decisive. At the time of the call, the Greek government had just announced entrepreneurship as a topic included in the syllabus for public schooling. It’s not only about cultivating skills from a younger age, but also making early access to those skills available regardless of economic standing and a school’s locality. The Cube runs teen hackathons and other events with young children, including refugees, in efforts to foster the urgency of these concerns with community members.
Across the board, panelists acknowledged there’s still a way to go for policy to support the efficiency and security of freelance operations. It’s not by luck, however, that all of our panelists have experience collaborating with local and regional councilors and officials in both coworking and coliving. We collected their experience-based actionable insights and reflections below.
There are several ways [that private coworking spaces can support freelancers] that works better than others. In my experience, corporate remotes workers are maybe in a position to sponsor some freelance discounts. That should be a discussion, if you’re an operator, with your customers. Like, talent-hunting-wise, or image-wise: do you want to be the company that just consume what is available; that is, space and community? Or, do you want to be seen as the people sponsoring access to others? Because, at some point, those feeelancers that lost all their revenue, they might be your next employees, your next cofounders. So, you have a personal, private deep interest to let them in, and to help finance sustainably the business model that will allow that. That’s one first answer.
Talk to your local authorities, bother your mayors, bother all the elected officials. I mean like, bother them! Every week talk about that. Access to entrepreneurship: that’s fancy on a political program. What are those people actually doing to make that happening? Those are the two ways that works, at least a bit.
The thing is, okay, people need spaces to gather and work from, and do way more things than just work. Most of the time coworkers, coworking operators, freelancers that desperately need a space — and an affordable one — they are aligned with people doing music, doing (when it’s possible) events, cultural ones. Yeah, you need to talk to your city council as a group of people, not just you. “Oh, I would love to have some free rent to open a coworking space.” That’s cute, but that won’t work. Most of the time there are several festivals, association’s events that need a space for two months a year. So, I mean, the old-school way, I’m sorry to be the old fart here, but, gather your community needing a space before getting a space. Once you’re a big enough group needing that, go to the power in place that can help you or might help you, because that’s their mission. You’re in the city, you’re contributing, they are there to help you if you have a solid case and you are a big group enough.
Yeah no sure, so what’s happing in — I cannot say what’s happening everywhere around the world — I can tell you Italy and UK. Especially UK, cause I’ve been here for a long time. I can tell you that in the UK, in England especially more than the UK, in England until maybe last year everybody was kind of wary of coliving, of what it was all about etc.; and in the last five-six months a lot of the local authorities and councils around the country have been supporting coliving. So, I mean, there’s been like a fantastic — just recently there’s been three fantastic schemes alone, that have been approved. One was approved just a few days ago and that’s 200 rooms in South West London. And that was approved through planning permission in collaboration with the council. The same thing happened for one of the coliving schemes in Birmingham, which was actually supported by the whole Birmingham council. We’re gonna have the collective opening, another one, which is about 310 rooms again in an area of London, and there’s another one in Manchester which sailed through the planning and was really supported by the local authorities for about a 45 story building which is roughly around 2000 units. So, we are talking about a massive development.
I think that — I mean, I’m obviously part of Co-Liv as well which is a global association, but I’m also looking to expand on a more local association, so I definitely think that, you know, an industry body that really works very hard for what is happening locally and not just globally, because what happens is the UK is different than Spain, is different than Greece, is different than Italy, is different than anywhere else. Just really locally: they really understand rules and regulations and needs of people; they could be freelancer, remote worker, entrepreneurs that are forced to work from home and really fight in a way for making us heard. It’s very important and it works in both ways. I mean, I collaborate a lot with the UK Coworking Assembly; I think they’re doing a fantastic job. I know they had some meetings with the GLA as well, which is the London authority. They’re tackling these sorts of problems moving forward. Startup Home was started as a social enterprise also for that reason, because we understood the importance of, as much as possible, keeping the price for coliving, in this case, as affordable as possible so that everybody can afford this sort of experience. Because there’s a lot of people that maybe want to stay in a coliving place, like some of the ones they are building right now which are super cool, very trendy and everything, but the price is about 20% above market price if not more, because of everything that they offer you, and not everybody is able to afford that. And it’s the same thing with the coworking, right? There are so many coworking spaces that are so fancy and they come in with a very high price tag that then push people away, and I think this is also why we’re seeing the [insurging] of certain coworking spaces which are not really coworking spaces, but which then become more affordable and then people are able to do that.
There are different approaches, I agree with that: it’s nice and there are some spaces in Spain that have that experience coworking with public servants working from the space. But on the other hand for example, it was not widely known but the Barcelona city council, for example, many years ago, they subsidized coworking space: they helped members to pay for the membership, which was cool. So you have to meet certain conditions, but if you do you can ask for a certain amount of money, which is cool.
I wrote an article many, many years ago which was not translated to English, which was Coworking Hybrid, the thing I came up with was doing something like that. Why they have to build public coworking spaces when they can instead subsidize the members — not the spaces — so you don’t lose your freedom, and they can make something equal or based on the income of the people who needs that? Because we know that coworking accelerates a project, it works: it makes entrepreneurs success earlier, so they can pay taxes earlier, pay more taxes; everything goes better much faster. So, I mean, it was so nice but the problem is, at least here, they are so attached to cutting the inauguration band that it’s difficult for them to apply a system like this. But, I think that that works. The problem also with public subsidies and this kind of stuff is that sometimes it’s not known by the users. So I came up with, because someone told me, that was something which exists, and I was like, “No way! I mean, I never heard about that!” And then I stared searching in the Barcelona city council website and I found it. So, sometimes there are ways of getting help, as entrepreneurs, but you are not aware of them. And that’s a shame because that money is lost. And maybe they are like, “Oh, this is not working, so we are not going to do it next year, right?” And indeed, I know people that work in policy that emphasize always that it’s really important for public authorities to inform the citizen about the tools they have available to help themselves.
I would say that both Yann and Marc, you both made a very good point there. We haven’t yet seen a lot from the Greek government when it comes to subsidies and support on entrepreneurship and coworking. I mean, our space is privately owned and we started the first coworking space ever in Athens years ago. After that it became a bit of a hype, and 10 of them popped up, until the government decided to compete with all 10 of them, and instead of being there to support the community — who knew what they were dealing with and how they were dealing with, and they were close to the community — they competed. That caused a lot of the private spaces to close and brought a bit of a friction between the government and the policy makers and between the public, the spaces, that were run by public initiatives.
I agree with you there Marc, it’s very important that the message is put through well, and it’s also very important when we learn how to collaborate, and when we can use the resources coming from the government, to support as we mentioned before with the policy makers, with the government, with these kinds of initiatives on the legal side of things to make the process a lot easier. But, at the same time, it’s also very important to allow the local representatives and the local coworking communities to embrace and to support the entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurship community, startups, the innovators, because they are the ones who know better. It’s good to allow each one to do their work in the field that they know better, but at the same time to come together and connect. This way, we will both move forward a lot faster and a lot easier. That would be my point there.
Forward to Freelance Success
Some discussions are a real pity to end. This was certainly one of them! The event was electrifying, and we want to once again thank Marc, Maria, Cate, and Yann for lending us their company and ideas so generously. If you don’t want to miss a word, listen to the unabridged recording on the Coworking Values Podcast. Thank you also to the organizers of European Freelancers Week, who gave us the impetus and organized an unmissable conference.
We hope to catch you there again in 2021! In the meantime, happy coworking.
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