Mike Knutson at Reimagine Rural gets me thinking again (that's his job!). Knutson suggests that rural communities should take deliberate steps to support telework. He points to an MPR report that describes how rural Minnesotans are using the Internet to work closer to home:
Rose Buer commutes to her job as a software engineer in Bloomington every morning.
But she doesn't drive from Minneapolis or St. Paul or another suburb. She makes the short trek from her 10-acre farm to a small office in Dawson, next to a hair salon and the Dawson Sentinel, the newspaper that serves the town of 1,300 people in western Minnesota.
From there, thanks to a DSL Internet connection, she telecommutes to her job at PPT Vision, a company that designs electronic monitoring systems for assembly lines [Jennifer Vogel, "Telecommuting Levels the Field for Some Rural Minnesotans," MPR News, 2011.03.24].
Now notice: Buer isn't working from home. She rents an office in town for $100 a month, in part because she can get faster Internet service there than she can out at the farm...
...which got me thinking, as I clicked through pages on my mostly reliable but sub-megabit-per-second rural wireless connection. Might there be some local teleworkers who could benefit from a shared office space with a blazing fast broadband that they might not care to buy independently at home?
Boom! Out comes another idea for local economic development: a community telework center! Here's how it works:
- Some community entity (here, the LAIC is a logical candidate) acquires office space downtown (like, oh, say, the Dakota Drug building, or the Masonic temple!).
- We install the business-class broadband and some basic workspaces and office amenities (maybe a metered copy machine?). Maybe we even move the LAIC and Chamber to this space, so they can piggyback their daily online operations on the awesome signal and keep their finger on the pulse of the teleworking trends in the community.
- We rent cubicles on a monthly basis to local folks who work by computer. Keep it non-profit: the rent should be enough to cover the broadband and other upkeep.
- We include a physical conference room where teleworkers could hold business meetings with clients and fellow employees without having to clear space on the dining room table at home.
- We include a couple of small Skype conference rooms where teleworkers could communicate with their remote clients privately. Include some ferns and nice oak paneling behind them so the teleworkers look more upscale on camera than they might if they Skyped clients from home and had their fridge and cereal cupboard in the background.
I've been mostly teleworking for the last four years. I enjoy working at home in view of the lake. But even I enjoy a change of scenery. Sometimes I enjoy coffee and signal at Mochavino. Sometimes that "third place" setting is just too social, and I need a focused setting like the Mundt Library on campus. A community teleworking center could provide a similar get-down-to-work venue other teleworkers. If there were two or three workers from the same company telecommuting from Madison, they could use such a center as a formal group work site. Teleworkers from different firms would have a chance to interact and share ideas. And it wouldn't hurt if the center were in eyeshot and walking distance of a nice coffeehouse and other downtown businesses where teleworkers could easily dash on errands.
Of course, the utility of a community teleworking center would likely rest on two main economic factors: can the center provide better broadband than folks can afford individually at home, and are there enough teleworkers to support it? I wonder: just how many people in Madison do work by wire (or wireless)? If those numbers pan out, a community teleworking center could be a useful amenity to boost Madison's profile among the growing technorati who are no longer tied by work to where they live.