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Can working from home and coworking help German rural areas?

August 29, 2023

Working from home has become established practice in Germany. Coworking, however, is a relatively new concept. Both could breathe new life into areas lacking in infrastructure.

bird's eye view of woman sitting on the floor with a laptop and a cup of coffee
Many people in Germany now work from homeImage: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/picture alliance

Bernhard Holtkamp had long been working from home, even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Home for him is an idyllic farm in the Münsterland region of North Rhine-Westphalia, in the west of Germany. From there, he works for a software company based in southern Germany. He is by no means alone in this. Since the pandemic, using a home office has become an established practice in Germany, with 20-25% of all employees working from home on a regular basis, according to the country's Federal Statistical Office.

But that was not enough for Holtkamp. He decided to go one step further and, together with his wife Elisabeth, opened a coworking space on their farm, which they named "calle3." A renovated former stable now has workspaces for up to 16 people. The facility has been open for a year and seven of the spaces are regularly occupied. Outside, a few sheep that belong to the farm can be seen grazing.

The surroundings are an important drawcard for the people who work there: "The people who come, they enjoy the peace and quiet which is part of this environment," Bernhard Holtkamp said.

Bernhard and Elisabeth Holtkamp
Bernhard Holtkamp and his wife Elisabeth Holtkamp have been running the calle3 coworking space for a yearImage: privat

Peace and quiet is one motivation. Others use a coworking space to have some company while they work. In calle3, for example, three young men who are friends but work at different companies attend once a week on the same day. Coworking originally became popular among self-employed people who lacked a solid circle of colleagues.

City phenomenon comes to the country

Coworking began in the early 2000s in the United States. The concept involves people from a variety of industries and professions sharing an office space and working on their own tasks in an open, communicative atmosphere. At some point, the idea made its way to Europe. In the beginning, it was a big city phenomenon. Today, 62% of all coworking spaces in Germany are in larger cities.

"Since the 2000s there has been a lot of further development in the cities," Suntje Schmidt from the Leibnitz Institute for Research on Society and Space said, adding "We are finding this experimental character, which we saw earlier in the major cities, more often now in rural regions."

farm building with two young people walking by
People share an office space in calle3's converted stable buildingImage: privat

Calle3 is such an experiment where Bernhard Holtkamp also works for his local county administration and advises other people who also want to open a coworking space.

"In my view, it is definitely growing in popularity. There are a whole lot of people with interesting ideas," Holtkamp said. Recently, he spoke with a community of heirs who wanted to open a coworking space featuring an integrated kindergarten.

For the past year, the entrepreneur has had to be creative with his efforts to publicize his coworking space. When it was still under construction, he invited the whole village to see it, so that everyone could get used to the new venue. After completion, they hosted a programming course for children with their parents.

"A whole lot of parents said afterward: 'This is great here! After I drop my children off at school, I could come to work here and not be looking at a mountain of laundry at home while I am working there,'" Holtkamp said.

Not every rural region can take advantage of coworking to the same extent, according to Thomas Pütz from Germany's Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development. There are small communities, villages, and small cities which are well-connected to major centers. Pütz evaluated commuter data on the areas surrounding Munich and Stuttgart, two expensive cities to live in, where people were moving into suburban locations and nearby villages. These regions, which are rural but for the most part well connected, are the ones that could profit greatest from people working from their homes and coworking spaces, Pütz said.

Office work: Past, present and future

A study from 2022 conducted for the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs concluded that only 180,000 people were regular users of coworking spaces so far.

But the potential for rural regions is there. The setup could attract young people with their families, who in turn contribute to the revitalization of the villages.

Working from home could also be a catalyst for this. Before the pandemic, it was often unthinkable to move too far away from the workplace. However, it is now an option for consideration. In their new location, workers could then maybe also find the appropriate community in a coworking space — and perhaps, such as in the case of calle3, a rural balance complete with sheep and fresh air.

This article was originally written in German.

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