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Shane Austin of CoLab stands outside of his downtown Kelowna, B.C. office.Artur Gajda/The Globe and Mail

Co-working businesses say their model of renting shared workspaces is quickly catching on in smaller communities as the advent of remote work has led to more people moving away from urban centres.

Shane Austin, co-founder of Okanagan coLab in Kelowna, B.C., said his business has returned to more normal levels after membership dipped by 30 per cent at the start of the pandemic, and he expects his business will continue to grow.

Co-working businesses such as the Okanagan coLab allow people who would otherwise work from home to rent shared or private desks and office spaces. They generally run on a monthly subscription, and they aim to foster a sense of community by connecting working professionals and offering services such as business mentorship.

In the past, Mr. Austin’s clients mostly consisted of people who were from the region or had lived there for a long time. Now, he said half of his growth is coming from people who have moved during the pandemic, or people who live a more nomadic lifestyle and change cities regularly.

“We’ve had a lot of people relocating from larger centres like Vancouver or Toronto, several members who’ve come from out east and just wanted a different lifestyle and something more connected to the environment,” Mr. Austin said.

A digital events startup named Rebellious Unicorn have a brainstorming session in their office space at CoLab. Melissa Sbrega (plaid shirt), Christian Leader (red shirt), Finch James (green shirt), Dustyn Bavlkham (black shirt), Cait Dixon (longer hair with glasses).Artur Gajda/The Globe and Mail

Kelowna, a city of 132,000, is one of many smaller Canadian communities where demand for co-working spaces is rising. Ashley Proctor, co-founder of industry association Coworking Canada, said just about every rural co-working space has seen major growth and has gone from barely scraping by during the pandemic to now considering expansion to keep up with demand.

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A 2020 study by Coworking Resources and Coworking.com projected that the worldwide co-working industry would grow 21.3 per cent in 2021 after initially slowing during the pandemic because of restrictions that kept people away from communal spaces.

“We were already seeing massive growth in this industry prior to the pandemic, but this sudden work-from-home event has accelerated things by about 10 years,” Ms. Proctor said. And according to Coworking Canada, the fastest growth is expected in suburban and rural towns.

“We’re seeing growth in Muskoka, in Sudbury, in Thunder Bay. These are markets that may have had co-working before but weren’t making a lot of noise.”

Ms. Proctor and other co-working operators say the central reason for this growth is because some remote workers are getting sick of working just from their homes, and feel a need to be better connected with the professional community around them.

That’s part of the reason why the Mountain CoLab in Revelstoke, B.C., has a waiting list of around 30 people for a facility that only has roughly 50 desks. The community has around 7,500 residents and is hundreds of kilometres from Calgary or Vancouver – the nearest urban centres where some remote workers have their jobs based.

Shane Austin meets with employees and entrepreneurs at CoLab in downtown Kelowna, B.C.Artur Gajda/The Globe and Mail

“More people are working from home, and the CoLab becomes like a haven for people to be able to focus on work without thinking about doing laundry, making food or dealing with the kids,” said Chloe Dumont-Samson, executive director of the Mountain CoLab, who first started using the facility years ago.

“As remote workers we feel isolated … we are longing for connection and we are longing for some sort of community, and the co-working space offers a bit of that.”

Ms. Dumont-Samson says the long waitlist for their facility means they often talk about expanding, and she said there is definitely space for another co-working space in the small community.

Back in Kelowna, Mr. Austin said one of his focuses as a member of B.C.’s co-working association is to ensure that new and growing businesses have the support to stay viable in the long-term.

“If we can find ways to get plugged in to what’s going on with them in order to support that growth, that would be great,” Mr. Austin said.

“We don’t want to see them sprouting up and then suddenly dying off within a year” because there’s not enough business growth, he said.

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