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Consider Coworking: why the third sector needs to embrace the concept

With constant cuts & pressure mounting on third-sector services, it's time to explore alternative workspace options

The dogma of austerity is cutting the revenues available to the third sector at a time when the call on its services is increasing year on year. The sector is resourceful and adaptable and is used to making a little go a long way, but one response it has hitherto explored only very little is coworking.

For those unfamiliar with the term, coworking is the name for workers, typically though not exclusively self-employed, sharing office space. Desks can be rented on a pay as you go basis, part-time or full-time and typically desk usage may vary from month to month to reflect varying workloads or changing circumstances.

Indycube, a Community Benefit Society, started providing coworking spaces in south Wales in 2010, but it rejects many of the aesthetics and received wisdoms about coworking: that it is only needed or is only viable in large cities; that it is only for creative industries; that it is only for tech industries; that spaces must accommodate dozens of desks; that it is for only the self-employed, and so on.

Indycube now has almost 40 locations across Wales and England and though, yes, we have spaces in the likes of Cardiff, Swansea and London we are also in locations such as Porth, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Pembroke Dock, Rhyl, Chepstow and Bridgwater in Somerset. Some of these have as few as 3 or 4 desks available to rent and in buildings run by social enterprises, rather than in large commercial property developments owned by hedge funds.

So with an increasing number of social enterprises and charities considering how they use their physical assets to maximise income, Indycube’s network of coworking spaces would allow the third sector to directly support social enterprise by paying a desk rent to them rather than an office rent to a remote or absentee landlord. The third sector has had to fight for so long for legitimacy in the design and provision of services traditionally delivered by large public bureaucracies, or ideologically preferred to be privately delivered. A headquarters, perhaps in a prominent urban centre, has helped bolster this legitimacy. Or it has perhaps enabled the centralisation of staffing overheads, but the combination of digital technologies and austerity is challenging traditional delivery models and the pressure to remain accessible to communities and their service users is increasing. Coproduction values routine, ‘hard-wired’ engagement, rather than ‘windows’ of consultation, with service users. Third sector organisations that can act flexibly and footloose, or less tied to a notional ‘centre’ or a hub and fixed-spoke arrangement are better-placed to grasp the benefits of the coproductive approach.

The third sector has been at the forefront of progressive employment and working conditions for many years: flexi working, family friendly hours, home working, special leave for care-givers and so on. The sector has also advanced many of the environmental causes that have shaped our behaviours and informed our understanding of important issues such as recycling, sustainability or protecting wildlife. By embracing coworking, it allows the sector to remain progressive in helping people work closer to their homes and to kill the commute that is harming our health and the environment; which is so time-consuming and inefficient; and which sucks social capital out of communities particularly in the hinterland of urban areas. These causes matter to the third sector and by considering coworking it can, in the words of Ghandi, be the change it wishes to see.

Speaking of which, one of our icBarry desk users was so struck by the disadvtanage he sees in Barry, his hometown, that he has started volunteering with FairShare that supports people to access affordable food. So coworking spaces may expose the third sector to new volunteers, trustees and advocates; in this way, the potential for the third sector to increase coworkers’ understanding of social issues should not be under-estimated.

Lastly, unlike some coworking spaces and providers, Indycube is sector agnostic; for instance, we don’t think the coworking environment is only for people in the creative or tech industries. At our desks we have architects, theatre producers, prison educationalists, nutritionists and statisticians. Many readers of this will have expressed frustrations over the course of our working lives at the silos that exist in large organisations and institutions. Or we will talk of different cultures between different sectors. What would happen if working environments could create more serendipities and opportunities to see and hear different perspectives? Might we uncover new solutions to old problems? Might sectors generate more understanding of each other by rubbing shoulders more often, and away from the conference or networking circuit where we so often put on a game-face and conceal the realities of our working lives?

So there are several ways in which coworking can benefit the third sector, and these haven’t focused on the bottom line. In turn, the coworking environment can benefit from a greater third sector presence in its midst. Coworking is at the heart of debates about the future of working practices. The sooner the third sector is part of this discussion and embracing change, the better for all of us.

Oxfam in Indycube
Coworking and The Voluntary Sector: a Chat with IC Member Gareth Coles