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Summary:

Inspired by my co-bloggers here at WWD, I’ve been thinking about the ins and outs of coworking in very rural locations. While I do travel more and more often, my home base is Tok, Alaska, the first pitstop along the Alaska Highway once you cross the Canadian border.

Darrell’s post “Coworking à Deux” was particularly relevant because, as of this posting, I’ve only identified one other web worker in my community, and she only does it part-time. While her day job is teaching at the local school, she blogs for half a dozen education blogs after hours. As far as I can tell, the two of us are the only two Twitterers in Tok. I know many residents are on MySpace and some on Facebook but web working isn’t part of their day job.

dscn00651Inspired by my co-bloggers here at WWD, I’ve been thinking about the ins and outs of coworking in very rural locations. While I do travel more and more often, my home base is Tok, Alaska, the first pitstop along the Alaska Highway once you cross the Canadian border.

Darrell’s post “Coworking à Deux” was particularly relevant because, as of this posting, I’ve only identified one other web worker in my community, and she only does it part-time. While her day job is teaching at the local school, she blogs for half-a-dozen education blogs after hours. As far as I can tell, the two of us are the only two Twitterers in Tok. I know many residents are on MySpace and some on Facebook, but web working isn’t part of their day job.

My Definition of Coworking

My understanding of coworking is to create a space — rent, build, borrow, co-op — where people who work remotely and solo can work in close proximity with others, usually people in similar industries but not always. The purposes for doing this vary, but it helps diminish the isolation, provides networking opportunities, allows cross-pollination of services, and generally builds community where there otherwise was not one because of the inherent separation of working remotely.

Finding Coworkers in Remote Places

Coworking clearly doesn’t have to happen solely amongst tech workers, however, in rural places there are often few ways to find non-tech workers to cowork with. In my location, we are so scattered and remote that there is really no general gathering place to meet new people unless you hang out at the grocery store or one of the two restaurants, or attend community events. The only notices we receive about anything and anyone in town are either through our twice-monthly local paper or one of three bulletin boards, so finding potential coworkers who aren’t at least on social networks is very difficult.

How to Cowork in Tok, Alaska

I’ve come up with a handful of potential coworking opportunities for me and the other blogger in town:

1. My house – I have Wi-Fi, a home office setup, a comfy living room and a spacious dining room table. So that makes three options within my own abode that could accommodate another web worker.

2. Her house – I’d have to check with her about her setup. This might not be an option.

3. Fast Eddy’s – This is one of two local restaurants and the only one with free Wi-Fi, although I have trouble accessing it most times I’m there.

4. The Grumpy Griz – The other restaurant down the road. It doesn’t have free Wi-Fi. We could tap into the local telecom company’s wireless service, but we’d have to pay about $25 per month to use it.

5. Another location – If we decided to pay for wireless cards, we could work from another location  in town, although our choices are few. The library? It is only opened when a volunteer is working, and the schedule isn’t steady. The park? Not in the winter, but it’s a possibility for the three months of summer. Until the summertime, there really aren’t any other places to go. No bookstore, no coffeeshop. But in the summer months, our options would expand to a few more seasonal restaurants.

6. Skype or Google Video – We could suck up our limited monthly bandwidth allowance and hang out virtually yet together on Skype or Google Video. But is that really coworking? Or would it be…cheating?

skypeCan Video Chat Really Be Coworking?

When your options — or even suitable coworkers  — are so limited, video conferencing seems a viable option for creating a pseudo coworking “space.” Just the other day, my Denver-based business partner and I wound down our video chat but didn’t hang up. We both just started doing our work while still connected on Skype.

When I realized, I laughed and pointed out to her what we were doing. But do you know what? Before I had paused to mention the fact that we had both started working while our video chat windows were still open, I actually had felt for those few minutes that we were working in the same room. We were independent, yet together. That feeling is what coworking offers, so why not do it via video when you can’t actually be there?

Of course, if you are really rural, you’ll encounter two obstacles to video coworking:

1. Lack of bandwidth could make it untenable; and

2. Bandwidth can be very costly.

Why Not Rent an Office?

For me, I’d say a major reason for working from home is not to ever work in an office again. Even as successful as my business is becoming, I can’t imagine spending a dime on renting a space for coworking because I get major cost savings and profitability for my business from not renting physical space. Many people in rural areas like Tok can’t always afford fast Internet connections, much less an office space. In very rural places, real estate can be quite limited even if renting an office were an option.

Are you coworking in very rural places? How many of you are coworking and how/where are you doing it?

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  1. RemoteRevolution Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    This is such a great article, in part because it’s put in the personal context of experiences in your own town and the lackluster broadband options you have to “choose” from. A lot of people forget that here are vast tracts of land throughout the United States and Canada that do not have broadband access, some without even reliable dial-up. In the future, as rural broadband initiatives increase the number of places and people that are connected, I can see these co-working arrangements springing up everywhere but having (perhaps) maximum value in rural areas. In a city, I feel like if I went to such a place I would just end up chatting, drinking coffee, and not getting a thing done. In a rural area, I can foresee something far more productive happening. Thanks for this article, it’s great and really got me thinking. I Google-mapped Tok, Alaska and man, it was hard to find ;)

  2. One possibility is having an additional monitor devoted entirely to video; a ubiquitous visual chatroom.

    Or, to take it a step further, a setup with several monitors (some on different machines), each with multiple people on video chat.

    It’s hardware-intensive and not portable, but it could replicate a more bustling environment for those of us living in rural locations.

  3. Elizabeth King Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Keeping video chat open with other WAH folks while I’m working has proven to be an outstanding way to make my computer-based work less alienating. I had know idea that a term exists to define it, but I now I know I was on to something! : ) I recommend it to anyone, if you’re disciplined enough to, well, shut up and work.

    Thanks!

  4. I don’t live in a rural environment, but have often daydreamed about a coworking set-up for WAH folks that includes some kind of childcare share. This would not only help WAH parents of young children in balancing work and childcare needs, but also provide a supportive community environment for parents and kids alike.

  5. Coworking Wrap-Up Thursday, April 16, 2009

    [...] Coworking in Rural Places [...]

  6. Erin @ solsticeGIS Thursday, April 23, 2009

    I’ve tried to structure my business around a mobile co-working model. I often work at a client sites even though I could stay at my home office. Broadband is improving in our rural area but its still challening. Twitter as also become an interesting form of “co-working” with colleagues in my same field. I dream of new business models beyond the 8-5 cubicle.

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