The Social And Economic Impact Of Coworking: A Q&A With Ashley Proctor

Ashley Proctor from Creative Blueprint, GCUC Canada, and COHIP talks about the different ways a coworking space can have a positive impact within its local community and how to measure that impact
  • As coworking has grown from a small movement into a global industry, so too has its potential to positively impact neighborhoods, communities, cities, regions and even countries.
  • Ashley Proctor from Creative Blueprint, GCUC Canada, and COHIP talks about how individual coworking spaces can better measure their local impact.
  • Proctor believes community outreach is not necessarily something reserved for well-funded or large spaces, and that all coworking spaces can have a direct impact on their local community.

Ashley Proctor is a coworking powerhouse. Founder of Creative Blueprint, Executive Producer of GCUC Canada, founder of COHIP (the Coworking Health Insurance Plan), former Executive Director of 312 Main, the largest coworking space in Canada, and more, she has helped shape the coworking movement for the last 15 years.

Allwork.Space spoke with Proctor about the potential economic and social impact of coworking, how individual spaces can better measure their local impact, and where she sees this global community going. Here are the highlights of our conversation. In the early days of coworking, it was all about how spaces and communities could support each other. Now we’re looking at the potential of coworking to transform neighborhoods, cities, regions and beyond. What’s your bird’s eye view of what we’re experiencing?

Ashley Proctor: Thinking about the future of the movement and the potential we’ve been amassing or building over time is a thrilling topic. In the early days of coworking, the people I know who were doing this at the same time as me were trying to improve the conditions for human beings. It could be for themselves, or their peers and friends, or solving a problem for a group of people that approached them, or seeing a need in the market, but there was a general desire to improve conditions for humans.

The big picture goal at that time was to potentially shift thinking about work, or to show the world that another way is possible. Not necessarily to change the entire work landscape, but to reimagine it, shape it a little bit, or at least cut out something that made sense for our smaller communities and make that okay, as well.

Now we’ve seen everything evolve into a real industry. Coworking is so tangible, it’s an industry, it’s a movement, and it’s growing. I’m seeing a lot of the core values of coworking disappear, or at least become less important in the industry. But there are still genuine coworking spaces doing the things that we’re not necessarily seeing in an industry space.

A genuine coworking space has nothing to do with desks or wifi or space rental—it’s about bringing people together, and dismantling loneliness. We see people focused on building and strengthening communities, and inspiring and empowering members.

On a larger scale, we’re breaking down barriers and building bridges between industries; we’re making entrepreneurship accessible to people; we’re protecting freelancer rights; and increasing productivity and the capacity of our member organizations. In turn, we’re accelerating economic development, which is where people start paying attention.

Allwork.Space: It’s an impressive vision and model that has caught on in a variety of different spaces and communities around the world.

The genuine coworking space is focused on that vision. And, if we focus on that vision and those objectives, we have to acknowledge that the global coworking movement is only one way to achieve those goals. I see this global network we’ve built as a foundation for what’s to come. I really believe that coworking is the foundation for something much, much bigger. This is just the beginning of a major shift.

It took almost 15 years, but we built a global network of community hubs filled with incredibly inspired and empowered people who are now connected, they share values, and they’re ready to change the world. That’s what really excites me.

The conversation I want to have is around coworking, but also other ways in which we could reimagine what we’ve been taught is the right—or normal—way to do things. Hacking the system, or disrupting the system to recreate and improve those systems, to re-prioritize people over profit, or to nurture a strong community or culture, is very exciting to me.

Allwork.Space: What are some of the other areas that excite you about what could potentially be done in parallel, or addition to, coworking?

People are connecting very quickly through coworking communities and these centralized hubs. Coworking communities are bridging the distance between people and encouraging people to work towards meaningful impact in their community and neighborhood—to step up and be active and vocal.

That energy can be harnessed in a lot of ways, and each community can do that in a way that’s tailored to them. I don’t think there’s one universal solution or answer. But, since we’ve created this system, and this network, then in each of the cities or communities we’ve expanded into across the world, we’ll see solutions emerging and creative partnerships, creative alliances, and collectives formed around issues and solutions that a municipal government might traditionally be responsible for addressing. The solutions will be really specific to that community.

Allwork.Space: When you talk about making meaningful impact, your work at 312 Main was one of the most impressive examples of a space focused on social impact. How can spaces of all size impact their neighborhoods for the better?

Because 312 Main is such a large project that involves so many players and parties, and it is well-funded, I fear that many people will see social impact as something that’s out of reach for their own space, or their smaller community, or without a budget or experience of that scale.

Any coworking space can make an impact on a local economy, and have a social impact, as well. Every coworking space can be dismantling loneliness and helping people connect within their community. Whether or not that’s their focus, that’s happening in each space. Every space is empowering neighborhood residents.

On some level, because this is focused around work, you’re supporting job creation, entrepreneurship, self-employment, employment opportunities and the direct local impact you have by your members being present in that community. Every space has a direct impact in their local economy and community.

There are a lot of ways we can do this in every space. Community outreach is not necessarily something reserved for well-funded or large spaces. But, the reason I was interested in being involved in 312 Main in the early days was that I recognized that, with a space of that size, it was a sustainable, long-term venture we could invest in now and see a great social return over time.  

What excites me about that project, in particular, is that it really has the opportunity to lead the industry in terms of showing the potential for social impact in a coworking community or community hub.

Allwork.Space: How did you go about establishing a social impact tone or ethos at 312 Main?

We set the project up to do that in a couple of ways: through community engagement and democratic engagement. With extensive and inclusive public consultation and by setting up a community advisory board, which allowed us to engage the local community and understand what specific needs it has. Each space can work with a very hyper-local group of members and community residents and organizers to find what specific needs there are.

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312 Main is located at Main and Cordova, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver, BC. It is generally known to be one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada. The neighborhood is visibly experiencing a devastating opioid crisis, with high levels of addiction, overdose, homelessness and poverty. The building is the former Vancouver police headquarters. It sat empty for a long time and really was a negative symbol for local residents. It was not a warm or welcoming place, and the community supported a transformation to make it a publicly-accessible and inclusive space.

The development really came from a local need to engage with and support community residents. Residents requested publicly-accessible, gender-neutral washrooms, and a public, community gathering space where you could sit without having to purchase anything. Basic amenities, like access to indoor space, and access to washrooms, and access to wifi, is life-changing for so many people, so, at the very least, it is important to provide those things at 312 Main.

There’s also the example of donating space. Any space can make sure they’re providing affordable, accessible space, or free space, to community groups. Sometimes just a comfortable, accessible space is all a group needs to get off the ground.

At 312 Main, I was also focused on reconciliation as well as creating low-barrier employment opportunities, skills-training and development opportunities in the DTES. At every turn, you can use volunteer opportunities and all of the partnerships and networks in the space to benefit others. Everything is multifaceted and multidimensional. I think every space can make decisions like that.

Allwork.Space: How can spaces of any size, from independently operated ones up to scaled workspace brands better partner with local organizations?

Everyone has an opportunity to partner with mission-driven organizations, or to create a social procurement program, for example, where you work with local or social enterprises to have a community impact, or you decide to buy everything within a certain distance of your space. You can choose to support small businesses, or women-owned enterprises, or companies owned by people of color. There are ways to set the tone with how your space is going to interact with the community and what kind of engagement you’re going to have.

From there, if you’re making a commitment to support those around you, you’re looking to provide, not only the office and event space that support the development, but potentially programs, workshops, or anything that’s going to help increase or improve the sustainability of a social enterprise or small business. This can also be connecting groups within your space to be able to access grants or funding that wouldn’t be available to them independently—using your strength in numbers.

The main thing a space can do for their community is to lead by example—to be a leader with the changes they want to see. We can all decide to employ amazing people who are marginalized or under-represented and who deserve to be at the table. We can do that with our membership base as well, and with our event programming. By simply providing an affordable, accessible or inclusive space, you’re making a difference by modeling accessibility and inclusivity.

Leading by example also means you’re modeling behavior in the space. If you’d like to see an environmental impact, make sure you’re composting and recycling, and engage your members in doing the same. You can choose to work with local or environmentally friendly building materials and furniture designers. You create a sustainable model, and are maybe fundraising or using your strength in numbers to take care of a local cause or support a local charity with programs, drives or events.

Allwork.Space: What would you like to see around efforts to gather data about the impact of coworking, and coworking spaces?

We’ve done a lot of things incredibly well over the last 15 years of the coworking movement, but one of the things we haven’t done well is measuring and reporting on the impact we’re having in our communities. That’s something I’d love to see change and it’s something I’m mulling over and working on right now with a few of the longtime coworking voices and leaders.

I really think this is going to be something many of us will be working on moving forward. It’s quite important when it comes to convincing the people who haven’t had the experience of coworking, or don’t understand the model as well as we do. As operators and community managers we know firsthand the magic that is made within our spaces, but, it’s a lot easier when you’ve got that data to back it up.

There have to be some surveys and statistics we can share. What you can do for your own space, at the very least, is to measure the impact you’re having within your own community and space. To do this, you can survey your members formally. Usually we see an intake survey, quarterly or semi-annual check-in, and an exit survey.

If you’re serious about tracking impact, get serious about your surveys. Within the surveys, ask questions about where people would be working if the coworking space wasn’t there. A lot of people may have left the community if the space wasn’t there. We need to ask questions around job creation, as well. When we do, we find measurements that are very impressive to people who are involved in economic development, politics, and private investment. They can then see jobs as being as being something other than a 9-to-5, full-time-with-benefits arrangement. We could look at the employment impact we’re having because, in many cases, people are able to provide benefits without a full-time employment opportunity. We can also measure local spend—what people are spending to operate their company, to live, and to travel to and from their space.

Allwork.Space: What approach can space operators take to gathering this information on a day-to-day basis?

There are ways for each of the spaces to work with their members, specifically, and that’s going to be different from location to location. Try to figure out what you don’t know. The best way to do that is through informal check-ins with your members. In addition to your formal survey, encourage your community managers to collect stories and those life-changing moments people reveal in the space and share on social media. Write those down and measure them because you start to see trends and patterns over time. Some of those stories are real gems, and those actually show the most meaningful impact you’re having.

You can also work with your city, or students, or local organizations to study that impact over time. You don’t need to be an expert in this kind of surveying. You can bring in people to help, and it doesn’t have to be an expense. Many people are very interested in studying this for different projects they’re working on.

Allwork.Space: What are you working on now? Where are you putting your attention and energies?

Behind the scenes for the last 15 years, my company, Creative Blueprint, has always been there—though the projects themselves are better known. Through Creative Blueprint I provide independent consulting services.

Creative Blueprint also produces GCUC Canada, and the fifth annual takes place this October. I’m also working on managing COHIP, the Coworking Health Insurance Plan—we’ve recently expanded across Canada.

I’m excited to be working on a variety of multidimensional, community-driven projects. I am privileged to get to work with creative community builders and organizers around the world, as well as travelling for speaking engagements about the coworking movement, transformation, and social impact.

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