Could the Next Wave of Coworking Be Small Towns?

This article was originally posted on Women2.0 on October 21, 2015.

The case for leaving the city to join a coworking community in a small town.  By Jamie Orr (Founder & CEO, Tahoe Mountain Lab) In a big city, a new coworking office may not be on the radar of the general population. But in a small mountain town it can start a movement.I am lucky enough to have been part of just that in the past year at Tahoe Mountain Lab in South Lake Tahoe, California.


South Lake Tahoe is a small mountain community on the shores of beautiful Lake Tahoe, straddling the California and Nevada state lines. While its local population is in the 25,000 range, that number can swell into the hundreds of thousands during peak season.The community is small and close knit — the kind of community where I have neighbors stop by during their afternoon walks to chat and share a glass of wine after work. Not surprisingly, tourism is the dominant economic driver for the community, which offers year-round recreation in the form of world-class skiing in the winter and anything from hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail (which I'll get to one year) to paddle-boarding and boating on the lake to golfing during the summer months. Due to the seasonality of tourism, many local workers change jobs or move in and out of town just as frequently. This growing coworking community proves that you can live and work where you play.


In recent years, the global coworking movement has expanded beyond the urban centers of its inception and begun spreading to smaller, rural communities. Many of these communities offer a very high quality of life — especially for those like me that enjoy outdoor recreation. These communities can also be limited in options for high-salary employment. Coworking cultivates a diverse community of freelancers, remote workers and entrepreneurs, providing support for economic activity that enables a broader range of workers to thrive, away from an urban environment. A coworking space also offers a physical location to showcase entrepreneurial activity in the community. By pulling often invisible independent professionals out of home offices (and their sweatpants), and into a central working location, it provides a place for visitors considering relocation to quickly see that full time residency is a viable option. I moved away from Silicon Valley life two years ago and leaving the security of a big city job market wasn't just scary, it was terrifying. Still, the upsides to living in a beautiful, mountain environment and raising my family here were worth the risk. I've watched that transition become easier for others when they can follow in the footsteps of others that have made the move before them.


Attracting and providing support for new, diverse, location-neutral (and higher salary) businesses is a key component to creating economic stability that compliments the existing tourist market. One of the challenges faced by mountain towns across the United States is establishing a sustainable rural economy that is not dominated by the ups and downs and minimum-wage jobs associated with the tourist industry. This is where coworking truly shines. The energy associated with a vibrant coworking community is contagious and can invigorate a small town's business community by bringing in an air of innovation, excitement and hope. In the case of South Lake Tahoe's Tahoe Mountain Lab, it is hard not to feel inspired after interacting with the mix of creative, intelligent and driven professionals that spend their workdays there, including: graphic artists, attorneys, strategic marketing specialists, theoretical physicists, and web developers. And we all like to mountain bike or ski together! Members of a mountain coworking space actively support one another, but that support doesn't end at the office door. When a person is able to work where they want to live, they can be more invested in their local community. Hours spent commuting can turn into hours spent with family, friends, and neighbors enjoying what the region has to offer.


Additionally, community groups can benefit from the presence of a coworking space. Local non-profit organizations can utilize the affordable space as an option for meetings and fundraising events, or to increase their volunteer base by appealing to members of the coworking space. Members can offer classes or workshops about their area of expertise for the general public, artists can display their work in a public space and students can find internships and mentors in industries not traditionally supported in the region. In this way, a coworking space becomes a modern community center. Mountain coworking spaces are still fairly young, many having opened just within the past year or two, so the actual long-term impact on their communities is difficult to predict. But the early signs point to these rural coworking communities providing a much needed positive impact on the economies of their communities and in the lives of those who are really striving to find a work-play lifestyle. Photo by Martin Hapl via Flickr.

About the guest blogger: Jamie Orr is living the mountain dream in beautiful South Lake Tahoe, CA with her adorable daughter and business partner husband. Passionate about nature & science from an early age, she earned a PhD in theoretical physics, worked in Silicon Valley for several years, then ran away to Tahoe where she founded Tahoe Mountain Lab and is a part-time science professor on the side. She is a firm believer that you can work where you want to live and loves helping others figure out how.