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How this coworking space is reinvigorating their local community


05 Jan, 2022

For the past two years, the world has been shrinking. Not literally of course - but the COVID-19 pandemic has in many cases limited our ability to travel beyond our local area. Where once you might be able to simply book a flight to a far-off place without a second thought, now even getting the bus has become an ordeal. It's not surprising that some have felt stifled by these geographical constraints - though it is true that the pandemic has led to a huge step forward in terms of global connective technology.

But there's two sides to every story, and this one isn't all bad. Our world might be smaller now, but our communities are richer. With most of us being stuck in one place, we were left with no choice but to buy from local shops, interact with local people, and perhaps even apply for local jobs.

Communities came together to support the elderly or shielding when tougher restrictions meant they were forced to isolate. Food banks and donation drives sprung up in suburbs to provide for those in need after job losses, furlough fiascos, and unprecedented tragedies. Strangers shelled out to save local businesses from going under. We started walking more and driving less, the positive impact of which was felt globally as well as locally, as transport emissions took a drastic downturn after the first lockdown.

As global connectivity dwindled, communities were reinvigorated. Now as travel has become slightly easier, local initiatives are being found fewer and further between. But for coworking spaces, community has always been (and will always be) a core value - and we're proud to work with so many wonderful partners that are constantly giving back to their local areas.

The wider impact of coworking

Flexible workspaces are so much more than just places to work. They are communities in and of themselves, which can interact with the wider localities around them. The most recent iteration of the London Coworking Assembly met last year to discuss the importance of such spaces.

Nina Franco, former Community Manager at ARC Club, talked about her experience hosting events in collaboration with local organisations. After finding success partnering with Urban MBA, a charity that puts on employability courses for those out of traditional education or employment, they began reaching out to other groups, offering free space to anyone who needed it.

“By reaching out to organisations that work with young people like Hackney Quest (a youth mental health & anti-racism charity), we understood that they would benefit from having a space to work and study that was free of charge,” she said.

Keeping resources and talent within the community also has its benefits on the local economy. Coworking spaces allow small businesses to thrive at a fraction of the cost, and connect entrepreneurs to a vast network for potential skill-sharing. Did you know, Uber, Spotfiy and Instagram are just a few big brands that were all started in coworking spaces? We don't think we really need to explain how those businesses impacted the economy.
But we're painting coworking with broad strokes. So why not hear how one particular space has made a world of difference in its small community?

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An interview with James Hart, co-Director of The Purple Office

Our Marketing Executive, Holly Pittaway, recently caught up with James Hart, co-Director at The Purple Office (a workspace he recently opened along with his wife in the little town of Poundbury, Dorset) over Teams to chat all things coworking, community and future of work. He told NearU about the impact that their space has already been having on the local area - and it's exactly the news we were hoping for.

Holly: Why don't you start off by telling us a bit about your space?

James: So I'm James Hart from Purple Office in Poundbury, Dorset, and I'm the co-director, my wife's the other co director of the office. I run an IT company called Purple Computing, which is my main job. And Purple Office is a side project that's kind of spun off from the computing company, and we're running that down here in Dorset. And it's the first coworking office in Dorchester. So exciting. 

We opened May 2021. We've sort of been properly running by first of June. You know, once we got all the systems kind of worked out and stuff out. We offered on the premises in 2020 in September, but it took six months to complete the legals on it was an empty, new commercial unit, and it took six months to buy the place. So it was a bit crazy.

What was the building before you opened?

So we're based in Poundbury, which is kind of a model village designed in collaboration with Prince Charles. And we bought into the new quadrant. So it's a new commercial unit. And the idea with the whole town itself is that there's a mix of residential and commercial all jumbled up. It's not like a main High Street where the high street kind of gets a little bit tired, or people leave them all at once, for economic reasons. It's all mixed together. And everything's meant to be walkable as well, it's all designed to be very pedestrian friendly. 

So we moved into a new a new unit, we're not repurposing some old building, unfortunately. But we obviously have other benefits with that, you know, we've got fibre optic broadband, for example, which you probably wouldn't have an a lot of old buildings.

It's kind of like the 15 minutes city concept, I suppose, isn't it where everything is walkable within like a short amount of time? And I imagine because it was built by Prince Charles it's probably quite sustainability focussed.

Yeah, exactly. That and as you say, 15 minutes cities - there's other similar ones in China and Hong Kong, places that are doing these kinds of things. I mean, Poundbury was started in 1987. So it was almost ahead of its time in that respect. But yeah, you'll find loads online. 

We even had a guy from the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian newspaper, come in through our doors a few weeks ago, doing an evening report on on the town just because it was obviously relevant with kind of Prince Charles being, you know, successor to the throne. And yeah, we weren't expecting Australians reporters walk through the door to do a piece on. Yeah, you'll probably find that if you Google it.

How do you encourage socialisation/collaboration between co-workers?

We thought the best way to do that was just to have an event [a coffee and cake morning], we picked something of an arbitrary day, Wednesday but it might have also been because of all the reasons we've talked about. So I guess it's kind of chicken and egg, you know, maybe in our case, we are driving the traffic on that day, because even from day one, we were buying coffee and pastries for coworkers that day. And we've just stuck with it. 

It's one of those things where it takes so much to get someone to go from not using your space to actually getting up and deciding on a particular morning that they're going to book in and they're going to do it and they're actually just going to get on and try it - it's a huge jump from doing nothing to doing something.

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Do you notice that that seeming to have more of a positive effect on people's work after they've had a coffee and a cake and a chat and maybe networked or skill shared?

I think it's difficult for us to say at this point because it's still pretty sparse. There are certain characters that are a lot more sociable than others; some people go in because they want to get away to get some quiet focussed work. 

But I do know that the people that come in for the quiet focussed workspace routinely tell us afterwards, it's great, I got loads done, the change of environment was really helpful, and they will selectively come back when they've got similar kind of work to do. And you can just tell from the other type of person that's a lot more sociable and wants to be there for the social aspects as much as anything else, you know, that they're enjoying it when they just chat.

How does your space help give back to the local community? Do you have any future plans around this?

So there's a few aspects to it. First of all, the community doesn't have anything at all like our space at the moment that we're aware of, so we're offering our own services. The second thing is that we're using local businesses to help us run our business. That's a big one. I'm sure we're not unique in that. We're using a local supplier for teas and coffees, we use a local cleaning company that comes in. That's an every single day contract for a local cleaning firm. We're also looking into events for the community. 

We can also give back advertising opportunities - we've got a big screen in the main room and we've started to get inquiries for people promoting their own businesses on that. It can be easily seen from outside through the window, loads of people come by look through the window, just to see what's going on in there in a lot of cases, not necessarily customers, but they're curious what's happening. So, you know, we've got an advertising opportunity there for local businesses, which we probably will offer to our regular customers just as part of the package. 

We also want to run some kind of business startup mentoring workshops as well. That'll be a big thing for us is just really trying to encourage people into business for themselves and encourage people into just taking the taking the jump and going for it to really drive entrepreneurship and in the in the local area.

That's amazing that you've been able to put so much wealth and work back into the community in such a short space of time!

Yeah, we had a local carpenter that fitted all the furniture too. So you know, the island unit, the booths, the meeting room, you know, we've employed, you know, a general builder, plasterer, local electricians, local plumbers, local flooring supplier. I'd say the I think the only thing that we would have sourced for the fit out that was not really local would have been quite specific equipment for you know, electrical electronics and computer equipment, that kind of thing where you just generally get it from, from certain retailers. But you know, a huge, huge amount of the fit out and the ongoing running of the place is feeding back into local businesses.

And then spaces like yours have helped to give me a job. So it's also sort of a nice ecosystem, which is really lovely. Do you think working-near-home/coworking will have a positive effect on wider society in future? No need to research here, can just be your opinion.

I think we can answer this one quite directly. I know from running my IT company remotely that people don't want to commute every day. It's a huge drain. I've always got 100 times more out of my team by not forcing them to commute to work every day. They go to client sites of course, but that's productive - way better than just driving arbitrarily to an office every day. 

The biggest concern to employers is that they're going to lose productivity from their staff because they're not watching them all the time. And I know, that the employees you have to worry about when they're not in the office, you also have to worry about them when they are in the office. Actually allowing most employees to work on more flexible terms means they'll give more back. You don't have to put someone in an office to get them to be more productive.

And of course you're drawing on 14 years of experience too, so you're the one to ask about this!

Exactly. In terms of wider society, that's probably a bigger question but the answer is probably yes. People don't want to waste time - I've got a young family, one is 18 months and one is 4, and every day you wake up and one might have a cold or there might be problems getting to school. 

Working near home, just from a family/work-life balance perspective alone is such a hugely valuable thing. I think that'll be beneficial at a really deep level - just families being able to spend more time together. Having to work morning till night every day, that impacts kids and parents, so working near home is really important.

Want to check out The Purple Office for yourself (and help support your community at the same time)? Download NearU from the App Store or Google Play and book in directly via our app today from as little as £5 per person.