The 8am commute, remember it? The halcyon days of cramming into a pacer train, sitting in traffic bumper to bumper, or waiting for the bus that should have arrived ten minutes ago?

The pandemic hasn’t killed the commute entirely, but it has altered the way we view work, from both an employee and employer’s perspective.

Working from home has revolutionised our workdays. All of a sudden what we wear, what we have for breakfast, how we structure our entire days has been altered, and probably forever.

Yet, this transition to a new normal is certainly not sustainable for everybody. Some jobs simply cannot be done remotely, others are done far less effectively.

For people working from home, space, childcare, knowing how to switch off and balancing work and life has been a nightmare. Oh, and don’t mention Zoom.

What next?

The National Wales: Communal working spaces could offer a place for people to work remotelyCommunal working spaces could offer a place for people to work remotely

Well, one solution is the middle option – remote community working – and it’s a radical concept quickly gaining momentum.

The last Welsh Government published an aim for 30 per cent of the Welsh workforce to work remotely, a commitment carried forward by the new administration.

It is a proposal that appears to have public support, with a YouGov survey last year finding that only 31 per cent of British people believe their employers should make them return to the office.

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For towns and villages that have long fallen behind the curve of development, remote working could offer a revolutionary opportunity.

IndyCube is a network of community cooperative working spaces, established eleven years ago, with the aim of opening up collaborative co-working spaces across Wales.

They currently have 25 spaces from Llanrwst in the north to Benwen in the south. The concept is simple, you pay a fee depending on how often you want to use it and you get your work space close to home.

For Mike Scott, director at IndyCube, now is the time to seize the opportunity to expand the network of co-working spaces to every city, town and village in the country.

Mr Scott told The National: “It is about offering choice, offering options and flexibility, as opposed to being asked to fit into a system that isn’t that human.

“By doing that, people can stay local, spend local, reduce their mileage and have an impact ecologically.

“Our market was originally focussed on freelancers and the self-employed, but now there are a lot of people displaced and under pressure to work from home.”

IndyCube is now trialling hub.cymru with the support of the Welsh Government, a pilot in rural wards of Swansea that will transform traditional spaces like offices, community centres and church halls.

Case study: Caerphilly

The National Wales: Could libraries become community co-working hubs?Could libraries become community co-working hubs?

There is also plenty of interest elsewhere in Wales. Caerphilly is archetypal of a community that could really benefit from a new way of working.

A traditional market town, with surrounding villages dependant on the coal industry, for cynics, the town’s best days are behind it. It is now reliant on tourism as a means for bringing money into the area, and the last 15 months have proved that income is not always stable.

Housing developments have sprung up around the town and throughout the county. A direct trainline to Cardiff and easy access to the M4 has attracted Cardiff, Newport, Bristol and Swansea commuters, while the town centre has fallen behind.

Take a stroll down the high street and you cannot help but notice a lack of love. There is a story typical of so many town centres in Wales: betting agents, a couple of pubs, charity shops.

That is not to say Caerphilly is not full of innovation. Just outside of the town centre, the huge celebrated Welsh ICE (Innovation Centre for Enterprise) offers co-working spaces and office rental for start-ups. It has been a nurturing ground for companies like Bomper Studios who produce music videos for the Foo Fighters, and the multi award winning community newspaper Caerphilly Observer.

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If you look hard enough, you’ll find reason for hope in the town centre itself, with the successful and well-visited Vegan Box in the market and a zero waste shop Plant2Plate near the train station. There are new restaurants opening, a sign people are looking closer to home. You get the feeling there’s an energy waiting to be released, as if a leaning tower sized handbrake is stuck on.

The council has spent money here. In 2014, it opened a new state of the art library at a cost of £5.2 million.

At the time, some local residents questioned whether a new library was needed. Of course the nature of how we interact with libraries has changed. DVD rentals have been replaced by streaming services, a lot of reading can be done on digital devices. Is a three story book depository the best use for the space?

It is buildings like the library that Caerphilly’s Senedd Member wants to see put to use as a flexible community working hub that can draw residents back into the town centre, and rethink the nature of work.

Hefin David, who has called on the Welsh Government to put its money where its mouth is on remote working, told The National: “There are two keys things that must be done to make this happen.

“The first is how we go about the principle behind what needs to be done, and the second is putting in place the practical steps needed to achieve that.

“The worst thing would be to say 30 per cent of people should just work from home, because that’s not for everybody, it should instead be about working from the community.

“We are criticised in Wales for the large public sector we have, but that gives us an opportunity. A large public sector workforce working in Cathays Park should be supported by the Government to work in their community.

“The council can do the same here in Caerphilly, but it is vital that the employee does not incur the cost. It should not be on them to pay for the working space and you can’t just stick people in libraries and expect them to use the current facilities without improvement.

“If you get it right, that all then plays into the breakfast, lunchtime and evening economies, alongside social space, childcare and businesses that can develop around it.”

Like almost every community across Wales, there are no shortage of spaces that could be redeveloped to accommodate co-working spaces.

Caerphilly’s old Miners Hospital is now a community centre, while the building that used to house the library just the other side of the castle is now a cafe-come-social space.

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Angela Crabtree took over the Old Library just over five years ago after moving back to the town where she was born. In that time, she has developed a space for the whole community with Wifi, work spaces and a place for children to play. 

For Angela, the pandemic has created an opportunity to utilise what every community already has on its doorstep.

“I do feel the town has seen better days, although they may have been before my time,” she told The National.

“One of the major concerns that is raised about Caerphilly, is simply that we are too close to Cardiff, that people live in Caerphilly, but work, shop and socialise in Cardiff.

“I do think the pandemic is shifting that dynamic. With more people staying at home, I do think it has provided an opportunity for people to explore more of what they have on their doorstep.

“Each town needs its own plan and own dedicated management, working with the people who want to use the town as well as the local residents who live in the town centre to create a vibrant place that works for everyone.”

It is an idea that Hefin David wants the Government and local authority to grab and run with:

“It would be really interesting for Welsh Government to do a community space audit, look at the how they are being used and how they can be adapted.

“I believe the public sector has to take the lead, and then the private sector can step in and follow.

“Let’s listen to the pioneers who have been taking this forward and pioneering before the pandemic and look at the people affected by this moving forward. It’s not about abolishing the commute and central office, but rather offering flexibility and alternatives.”

You get the feeling that there is a real energy to harness the concept of a ‘new normal’ and revolutionise how we work, and the sounds coming out of the Government suggest it is serious.

It has committed to publishing a strategy for remote working in the autumn, with a commitment to no more than 50 per cent of its workforce working from an office at any one time.

For IndyCube’s Mike Scott, the time has come to truly revolutionise how we view the working day for good: “There has to be a collective and collaborative buy-in to regeneration.

“The potential is there now to create that phoenix moment for towns and cities across Wales. It needs fire starters, so that people who were spending £10 a day on their lunch in Cardiff can now spend it in a cafe in Caerphilly.”

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