Future Of Work: Rural Coworking as a Gravity Center for Economic Activity | Jamie Orr

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Jellyswitch co-Founder, Jamie Orr, shares why she left Silicon Valley for Tahoe, improving quality of life, and how coworking can make the future of work better for small towns and rural communities.

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Transcript

Ceci [00:00:16] Thank you, everyone, for tuning in once again to the Future Of Work Podcast. Remember, you can also tune in on Allwork.Space, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio or Podbean. 

My name is Ceci Amador and with me here today is Jamie Orr. Jamie, welcome.

Jamie [00:00:40] Thank you so much for having me.

Ceci [00:00:42] We’re happy to have you. For those of you who don’t know Jamie, Jamie is the co-founder of Jellyswitch, a technology company that delivers products to enable the best possible experience for coworking space members. She is also the co-founder of Cowork Tahoe, the first coworking space on the shores of the beautiful Lake Tahoe, California. She’s a former theoretical physicist. She left Silicon Valley in academia behind to build a better life in the mountain town. She’s passionate about helping others find a way to work where they want to live. 

I’m going to just dive right into this, Jamie, and please tell us how you went from being a physicist in Silicon Valley to living in Tahoe and working within the flexible workspace industry. 

Jamie [00:01:31] I do get a lot of questions about how I ended up making such a big jump from physics to flexible workspace and coworking. My husband and I were living in Silicon Valley, we both had really good careers down there. I was at a university, he was with startups. But, we were also spending a lot of time in commute traffic. Too much time.

Any chance we got, we were trying to escape to the mountain and we were going up to Lake Tahoe, which is just a few hours away from where we were near San Francisco. And we finally realized that we wanted to live in Tahoe full time, and we wanted to figure out a way to make that work. So we just packed up and left. 

What we realized when we got to this small mountain town is there were a lot of other people that were like us that were building careers in the mountains; but they had to be remote and there wasn’t really a good place for any of us to work. And so what we ended up doing six years ago is establishing the very first coworking space in Tahoe. 

It’s been an incredible journey so far.  Over these six years, we’ve gone from twelve hundred square foot, tiny little office with very inexpensive IKEA furniture to purchasing our own commercial building. And so we now actually have over 13,000 square feet and there’s about one hundred and fifty members working from our space now, over 50 different companies are represented. And it’s this vibrant coworking hub. And a lot of people are arriving, you know, pretty much on a weekly basis to live that type of lifestyle. 

So, you know, we traded in hours of commute traffic on the freeway for a commute to work that can now be done by mountain bike on a back road trail. It’s absolutely gorgeous. And we have a lot more time with our family and a much better quality of life.

Ceci [00:03:39] I can relate so much to the traffic part. And what I find interesting right now that you were talking about is that you’ve managed to build a successful coworking space, but you’re doing differently than the majority of other workspace operators. 

For one, you are purchasing your own commercial real estate and then you’re doing it in a town, in a suburban area, not necessarily in one of the big cities or central business districts of cities. So how do you think that approach has changed, has made it more difficult or easier for you guys to establish a successful business?

Jamie [00:04:15] So the rural component has definitely been a challenge. You know, when we arrived in Tahoe, it’s where we are as a town of about 25,000. It’s mostly a tourism market, a lot of people come up to ski during the winters or to come and enjoy the lake and boating in the summers. And so the community wasn’t familiar with the concept of these flexible work spaces, even though the industry has been around for decades at this point. And, you know, and coworking being kind of a younger portion of that. 

A lot of education was required, and I think more so than you see in major cities in order to help the community understand what this was and what we were doing in this building. And, you know, I gave so many presentations, I can’t even count how many times I presented to local local groups or the local government on what coworking is and how it could actually impact the local economy. What we found is that it actually is helping to diversify the local economy by allowing people to work in careers that are not traditional for this tourism town. 

So people are able to better work remotely because they now have a professional environment to do so. And that also shows other people that have been here locally for a long time that there’s work alternatives to what they’ve been doing. And so really it does help the entire community in a way that I don’t know if any of us really anticipated by bringing some stability to what is otherwise a very seasonal economy here.

And for us, the purchasing of the commercial office space was really a good way for us to show our commitment to the project, but also to really make sure that we had full control over the business. We’re not subject to a landlord that’s going to increase rent or rates. We’ve been able to renovate the building in the way that we saw fit to make sure that the business model worked. And I think that that’s something that has been a huge benefit to us, building a really sustainable and profitable business model in a way that might be more challenging in a major city where there’s a lot more competition or purchasing of a commercial property takes a lot more capital.

Ceci [00:06:43] Yes. And I do think that purchasing your own building also mitigates a little bit of the risk associated should the economy turn or like you said, a landlord wanting to do something else with the building that wouldn’t be compatible with the coworking business. So I do think that there are several benefits to that. And it’s an opportunity that I haven’t seen many coworking operators take advantage of. 

But you were also talking about something that I found really interesting and relevant about the future of work. And it’s how the coworking space that you built was helpful in diversifying the economy of Lake Tahoe. And one of the other untapped markets of coworking is rural coworking. There’s been various studies that show that there’s a very deep need for these types of hubs and innovation centers in rural areas. So I wanted to ask you, how do you think rural coworking, suburban coworking fit into the larger flexible workspace movement? And what are your thoughts on how these spaces can help build a better future of work in small towns?

Jamie [00:08:00] I think as part of the future of work It’s incredibly important that people are able to work from where they want to live. And so, you know, that’s gonna be for a variety of reasons. It might be, you know, like in my case, I wanted a better quality of life for my family, and specifically, I wanted to have my children grow up where we could be right out of our door. Other people might have really deep ties to their community or their support network. You know, others might have situations where they have a spouse that has a career and they can’t jump around and move based on theirs. And so giving people the flexibility to work where they want to live is key to driving the future of work in and all of our our economy forward. 

And so having people be able to participate in a distributed workforce from wherever they are. And I think we’re rural coworking can really be a big benefit. There’s a lot of studies that are being done in the United States, especially about these smaller towns and their economy is really struggling. You know, having rural coworking spaces come in and serve as kind of a gravity center for economic activity can really encourage people to stay in these smaller towns because they don’t have to relocate, still have the same career opportunities, and also then end up really spurring other economic activity. 

Because if you have a coworking space, then you know, you’ve got people that need to have lunch and you have people that want to go visit coffee shops and you need other service providers and doctors and attorneys and lawyers and CPA and and all of those other support industries as well. And so you see a lot of revitalization as a result of these centers popping up. You know, one of the things that I think we’ll end up seeing is we’re going to see these flexible workspaces and coworking spaces in literally every community across the globe. And I think that’s what we should aim for. You know, it’s, and it may even be in larger cities you should have one in every single neighborhood. And I think that’s really how we’re going to see the distributed workforce play out, that these giant tech campuses are no longer going to be the norm, but rather these workspaces for the existing workforce in the area.

Ceci [00:10:28] Yeah, and I agree with you what you’re saying that having a coworking space will spur other types of activities. And it’s amazing how the impact of coworking spaces…so there’s a lot of talk around community, but it doesn’t necessarily just refer to the community within the walls of the coworking space, but actually coworking spaces contribute to the local economy, the local community.

Ceci [00:10:54] And I think and I hope, like you said, that having these types of spaces, of hubs, of campuses in small towns, rural towns, small cities, neighborhoods, it’s going to do a lot of good for local economies. But also I think, like in your case, it’s going to just improve the work life balance and the quality of life of basically everyone. And I do think that we’re increasingly moving towards a world of work where flexibility and the ability to work remotely are just two things that are expected. They’re not just like, you know, a little nice extra to have, but increasingly workers are demanding these types of benefits.

Jamie [00:11:40] Absolutely. And any companies or organizations that are not actively recruiting with a distributed workforce strategy, I think are going to be left behind. And people want to be able to work in the way that they’re most productive.  for some people, that is that a big corporate office; for others, it might be from home. But you want to again offer that flexibility and I think flexible workspaces really provide a central pillar to that; that piece or that workplace ecosystem. As we get closer to the future of work, these flexible workspaces are popping up in literally every community across the globe, and that’s really what we should be aiming for. And, you know, and maybe it’s even to the point of in every major city, you’ve got your local neighborhood coworking space instead of these giant tech campuses that you have to move closer to and then commute to, you can have people that that are able to have a workspace available to them within, you know, maybe a shorter than 15 minute commute. And a lot of what’s going to be able to enable this is, you know, the improvements in technology and what we can use for remote work as well.

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Ceci [00:12:57] And speaking about technology, part of what you guys do, atj Jellyswitch is that you developed a product, a software product that enables coworking spaces. Why did you decide to develop your own software for coworking spaces? What are some of the tech requirements that you see the coworking industry needs to focus on? And what role does privacy and security play into all of this?

Jamie [00:13:25] So after running the coworking space in Tahoe for many years, it’s amazing how many people you get to talk to in the industry. There’s you know, there’s thousands and thousands of these centers and we’re all trying to do about the same thing. And I was noticing that in my own space there was still a really big gap in terms of what the technology was able to provide my members, and specifically around the member experience. 

So, you know, we’ve got this amazing space that we spent a lot of time and energy designing and decorating. And I realized that I needed to spend just as much effort as I did on the furniture and the coffeemaker on technology. And I wasn’t seeing what I wanted out on the market. So I was lucky enough to be able to team up with one of my coworking members and we decided to launch Jellyswitch. We wanted to have a software platform for coworking space members that gave them the same level of experience and flexibility as the space itself did. 

We created this mobile platform that’s completely branded to a coworking space or a flexible workspace that allows members to really quickly do things within the space that they can get to work and really be productive and spend the majority of their time getting their work done, but also doing things like socializing with other members or spending time on some of the more human interaction portions of the business, which is a really big key in a flexible workspace because, you know, there’s a concern about remote work, around loneliness and isolation if you’re not face to face with your team all the time.

This was in the same way that a lot of communication tools like Slack can bring corporate teams together. You know, we wanted to have that same level of experience for coworking space members and also for owners and operators of the spaces to keep an eye on everything going on in their space and really understand how their business is being used by their members so that they can make improvements even more. So this is one of the ways that technology can really augment and support the flexible workspace movement. And, you know, you literally have your membership and everything in your pocket on your phone. And I think that’s you know, that’s a really huge advantage in terms of building brand awareness, brand loyalty for individual spaces or individual chains, as well as helping people better interact with the physical space.

Ceci [00:16:09] And you talk about interaction and making it easier for members to connect with each other in-person and online. But then one of the key issues that people are talking a lot around technology is privacy and security. And so besides technology, supporting flexible workspace operators and providing them with valuable data and how to better designed or space or how people are actually using it, what are some of the ways that you think technology will be able to support these technology and security requirements that people are interested right now, particularly now that there have been so many cybersecurity scandals in the last couple of years?

Jamie [00:16:57] I do think that coworking spaces and flexible workspace providers need to spend a lot more time looking at their network security and really, really locking things down for their individual members. 

And there’s more and more tools that are coming out to allow that in terms of, you know, individual signatures for Wi-Fi access. And, you know, as more of that becomes cloud enabled, I think that’s really going to be a benefit. You know, even just getting more people used to the idea of these smaller groups and smaller networks and smaller communities instead of a much broader kind of, this past decade we focused a lot on the broader, very open social media and now bringing it back down to these more refined groups within individual buildings or within the individual coworking spaces. I think that is going to help quite a bit.

And then, you know, I think a lot of the issues have stemmed from how for a  longtime we focused on the flexible work space industry on the physical space itself. And it’s been seen very much as real estate, when really it needs to be looked at much more holistically. And so the technology piece does need to play a role and does need just as much attention as the fine details around what plants you’re offering in your office or which chairs you are choosing. Workspace providers need to be also looking at what they’re doing in terms of network security and what technology can be used to augment and support better security and a better experience overall.

Ceci [00:18:36] I like what you say that we need to start addressing the flexible workspace industry more holistically. And I think that we’re already moving towards that and we’re seeing how a lot of brands have evolved and you don’t see that many coworking spaces anymore where they just have, you know, some cool chairs and tables and desks. But they’re actually thinking a lot more strategically about their design, the amenities, the perks that people want. And speaking about all of that and the flexible work space industry, where do you see it headed in the future in the next year, two years, five years, ten years? What do you think is in store for the industry?

Jamie [00:19:17] I do think we’re going to see continued growth. And I know that in the past year or so there’s been some skepticism around that just because of some of the larger brands and the scandal that I’m not really going to bring up by name. But we all yeah, all of us in the industry, you know, the company I’m talking about. 

But, you know, there’s going to be a maturity. I think we’re going to continue to see some of the other brands and chains and the flexible work space industry continue to expand and grow. I do think we’re going to see more consolidation as well as kind of a growing up. I think there will be a lot more best practices that reveal themselves in the flexible work space industry. There’s you know, there’s a few. 

Now, I think coworking as kind of a subset is definitely growing up. And like you said, there’s a lot more focus on the amenities and the services that customers are looking for. It’s not just about having this smattering of desks and chairs in the space anymore. And I think that’s that’s great, because what it is going to do is provide workers that are able to be flexible or that are moving around as part of corporations and are are traveling to these different spaces, a really highly monetized, highly functional place to work. And so you’re going to see productivity increase across the entire distributed workforce, which will just encourage more and more corporations to expand their distributed workforce strategy as part of their talent acquisition and retention play. 

And I think by looking at things holistically and looking at it as an experience, much more so than just real estate, that’s really what’s going to drive that. And I think that the technology piece is going to be huge in the next, say, 1, 2, to 3 years especially, we’re going to see a lot more technology developed and be adopted as part of that more holistic strategy.

Ceci [00:21:22] Thank you. 

And just to wrap things up a little bit, you went from being a physicist in Silicon Valley to creating your own coworking space in Lake Tahoe just to improve your quality of life. And I think that as the future of work continues to evolve and move so quickly, I think that’s something that we’re going to see a lot of. People are going to increasingly choose their quality of life over a job that requires them to commute for an hour and a half every day or that doesn’t enable them with a lot of flexibility.

And speaking about all of that and flexibility, I think that the flexible work space industry, particularly coworking space operators that open in suburban and rural areas can have a huge impact in the economic development of local communities and therefore improving the quality of life of the community members just by simply being there and creating the space where people can go to innovate, create new things and engage in jobs that are not traditional for their areas. And then, like you said, technology will play a key role in all of this. After all, it’s technology that’s enabling this flexibility, the ability to work remotely. And before we close off our conversation, I wanted to ask if there is something else that you’d like to add.

Jamie [00:22:51] I, just you know, my participation in this industry has been absolutely incredible. I am so thrilled to be contributing to it. It’s the most collaborative and exciting industry I’ve ever been in. And I used to do some pretty cool science before. So I think that we’re going to see a lot of continued growth and excitement, and an impact as a result of this flexible workspace movement. And I’m just happy to be part of it.

Ceci [00:23:22] Great. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jamie.Jamie [00:23:25] Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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