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Feeling lonely at your kitchen table and wondering where to work remotely?

Your friendly neighborhood library (or workspace perhaps?) could be your new work-from-home haven.

Commentary: I came across this article which speaks about the rise of remote working, something I have been doing since 2011, and the increasing use of public spaces as remote work/office environments such as coffee shops and public libraries. In fact, up until the lockdowns of 2020, I was regularly using and presenting PowerPoint presentations at the downtown library talking about the very topic of Why You Should Have a Home-based Business. Talk about being prepped for the future!

The challenge I was coming across even then was the fleeting ability to book the presentation spaces unless you could plan 4 weeks out. I guess everyone was beginning to get the same idea. Now, after the economy has more or less fully reopened, the demand for these public resources will grow exponentially and will not be able to meet the demand for some time, if ever.

And that's where Space Central comes in to save the day. As you read this article, appreciate that everything the author mentions, and much more, is being addressed with our visionary business model.

~ James Steele IV - CEO of Space Central

Jun 13, 2022, 5:04 AM

I am a work-from-home veteran. Over the past 12 years of using my house as my base of operations, there are a few things I've learned that are really helpful. Among the most important is a coffee shop I can walk to — sometimes you just need a snack and contact with human beings. These little out-of-home amenities are crucial to surviving as an out-of-office worker.

Lately though, I've noticed that my neighborhood is not set up to accommodate a massive increase in remote workers. For example, there is no smaller printing shop within walking distance — I have to make the three-mile trip to the print shop at a nearby Office Max.

This is just one example of a growing problem: As the epicenter of white-collar work shifts away from the downtown office, cities need to catch up to the new class of remote workers who are now camped out in suburban neighborhoods. And in my opinion, it's the prime opportunity to elevate the humble neighborhood branch library.

Libraries have long been a resource for job seekers, with computers and an internet connection patrons can use to dust off a résumé or take classes to earn a GED. When everyone went remote, libraries stepped in with drive-up internet access. Those services will remain important as workers increasingly decamp for better opportunities as part of the Great Resignation.

But given the scale of disruption in the American workplace, there's going to be more that libraries can do to replace what the office has always provided: watercooler conversations, a place to get out of the house, and access to business services like printing. If the downtown office is truly dead, libraries could meet these needs within their communities. Freelancers, a growing class of entrepreneurs, and remote workers are looking for a convenient place to get work done while staying in touch with their communities — and libraries are a perfect solution.

Libraries as social linchpins

In his book "Palaces for the People," sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that libraries are key social infrastructure. They help nurture social capital and "buffer all kinds of personal problems including isolation and loneliness." But he also says that the "new upper class has abandoned the project" in favor of private spaces — favoring country clubs and WeWorks instead of public pools and neighborhood libraries. Klinenberg argues that the resulting decline in social interactions and connection is undermining Americans' well-being.

The trend toward working from home could further political and social problems that stem from disconnection. Happiness expert Arthur Brooks writes at The Atlantic that he expects the rise in remote work to lead to increased isolation, depression, and loneliness. That could be especially true for the rising share of the public who live alone. But for many workers, returning to the office just doesn't make sense for them — many have moved to more affordable cities far from their home offices. And surveys show that workers prefer the flexibility of remote work. So to combat the isolation and disconnected nature of remote work, workers need places to connect with other people.

Travis Howell, an assistant professor at UC Irvine's School of Business, has researched the appeal of coworking spaces. He says that for many workers and companies with dispersed workforces, the potential for networking and collaboration is a key selling point — as is meeting space.

Melanie Huggins, president of the Public Library Association, says it might be more difficult for smaller libraries in lower-income areas to serve business users. The biggest limitation is the demand on space, she said, and accommodating additional patrons may place additional burdens on staff.

A small neighborhood library may "only have three or four meeting rooms," she said. "The sweet spot is you have to figure out what works for everybody."

She said meeting rooms could be used for everything from client meetings to telehealth visits. Adding equipment like sewing machines might serve a small business or a Girl Scout troop.

"The key is to find those services that have multiple audiences," she said. And for libraries to deliver on their mission as places for the community, catering to everyone in the community — whether it's a freelance writer, a mom looking to keep her kids busy, or a sewing club — is essential.

Let the people eat

More than a decade ago, my friends and I in Cleveland started an informal coworking group that would meet weekly at the downtown library branch. It worked out OK for us. Being out and about and around friends — especially at a place as beautiful as Cleveland's Main Library — made working a little more fun. It would have been easy for the library to accommodate more folks like us, too. A lot of times during the day, the mid-level floors were practically deserted.

But more flexibility about food and drink could help libraries attract and serve remote workers — working from a library desk is a lot more comfortable with a cup of coffee there.

"While some libraries are more lenient than others," Troy Lambert wrote for Public Libraries Online, "many still have a no food and drink policy, one that makes sense in certain sections (like reference rooms or special collections), but not everywhere." Offering coffee and snacks could be a way to help libraries compete with Starbucks for nomadic laptop jockeys and college students. Lambert said that colocation with coffee shops could better serve customers and boost libraries' bottom line — whether by renting space to a private coffee shop or by selling coffee and other products themselves.

In order for libraries to become true community hubs, they might need to rethink other policies as well. Maybe every area of the library doesn't need to be silent — certain sections could allow talking and phone conversations at a reasonable volume.

Libraries as hubs for a new workforce

As we emerge from the pandemic, many remote workers are eager to escape their home offices, pushing the demand for flexible office spaces higher. Already, many libraries are trying to cater to workers newly unchained from the downtown office.

Huggins told me that many libraries were watching business trends before the pandemic. According to Work From, a publication for remote workers, about a third of libraries were offering services for remote workers and entrepreneurs as early as 2017. In 2018, Book Riot called libraries the "original coworking spaces." Formal coworking or business-incubator spaces are hosted by library systems in places like Phoenix; Columbia, South Carolina; and Akron, Ohio.

Spokane, Washington's library coworking space provides community tables with outlets and USB ports and high-quality color printing. Akron calls its space TechZone@Main. It offers entrepreneurial users a "maker space," including recording studios, a laser engraver, a vinyl printer, and green-screen room. In Cleveland, the downtown library branch offers a maker space with similar services that may be useful to hobbyists or people who work in design-related fields.

Huggins says there's no formal data about how many libraries are offering these services, but she believes it's becoming increasingly common. Google partners with the American Library Association to support a program called Libraries Serving Business, which offered $2 million to support coworking spaces in an initial round of funding at 13 library systems last year. Huggins' system in Columbia, South Carolina, even offers an "entrepreneur in residence," with office hours to support those using the library as a startup. In exchange, the entrepreneur receives a small stipend and office space.

Even though many libraries are on top of catering to a remote workforce, these services have generally been confined to downtown branches. With workers now concentrated in their neighborhoods — it's the smaller branch libraries that could fill this gap in the community.

Services like printing at branch libraries remain unnecessarily burdensome in many places. While the downtown Cleveland library offers 3D printers, my branch library is strictly no-frills. Printing something in a special size and laminating it, for example, wouldn't be possible. Expanding these basic services and providing little things at branches closer to where people live would be a huge help for small business owners and remote workers.

Libraries for the future Libraries have always served a critical social function. Now, there's an opportunity for them to fill the social and functional voids left by the retreat from the office. Imagine spending the day working from your local library: You settle at a desk next to your neighbor who's there working on their novel; some local college students are nearby studying together for an exam; you say hello to a woman you recognize from down the street who is picking out books for her kids. When it's time for your 10 a.m. meeting, you step into a room designated for phone calls so you don't disturb anyone. For your presentation next week, you print out agendas and bind them in the business center. At 11, you pop over to the café next door for a coffee refill and run into your friend who's there with her mother. You spend the whole day working remotely, but never feel disconnected.

This is exactly the role libraries could play in the remote-work world. A key obstacle for libraries to reach this full potential is public support and funding. But if these institutions catch on to their new community needs, the support will come — it would certainly boost community support from remote workers missing aspects of office life. To catch up to the new reality of work, we have to rethink what libraries are for and who they serve.

Angie Schmitt is a writer and urban planner based in Cleveland. She is the author of Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.

This story is exclusively available for Insider subscribers and has been reproduced here without permission. A link to the original source has been provided.

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