InterAct partners with GW+Co to start change in manufacturing perceptions

Recent InterAct research from the Strathclyde University based ‘Future of Work’ team has highlighted the major issue of UK public perception of the manufacturing sector. In the emerging ‘war for talent’, perceptions are essential to providing a snapshot of public opinion about the attraction of the sector and the desirability of working in manufacturing. They may not measure up against ‘reality’, they may be ‘misinformed’, but ultimately they significantly shape the workforce of the future.

In an effort to start changing the narrative around manufacturing, InterAct has partnered with expert creative change consultants GW+Co to deliver an online workshop for manufacturing leaders on 23rd May. The session explored the underlying issues for manufacturing, address the myths of modern branding and introduce ways for you to enact meaningful change within your business.

An image of online workshop participants.

Attendees had the chance to work with GW+Co’s CEO, Gilmar Wendt, to learn about his innovative approach to tackling the brand and perception challenges of their own organisations, including:

  • How three manufacturing businesses have changed perceptions by aligning their people with brand, culture, and strategy.
  • Tools and approaches that deliver successful brands by tapping into the existing skills and knowledge within a business.
  • Training in a technique developed by GW+Co that helps businesses to identify the pitfalls specific to their business, and documents outcomes in a way that ensure project success and team cohesion.

If you are interested in learning more about the perception challenge facing the manufacturing sector, read our recent reports, which will be joined later this year by further work on practical guidance for rebranding.

You can listen to a summary of some of the key takeaways from the report by Dr. Robert Stewart for ManufacturingTV below


InterAct delivers message of human insight driven digitalisation at MACH24 and Future of UK Manufacturing Conference

On 16th April, InterAct Co-directors Professor Janet Godsell and Professor Jillian MacBryde joined audiences from across the manufacturing, digital technology, policy and academic communities at MACH24 and the ‘Future of UK Manufacturing’ Conference to discuss the strides InterAct is making to deliver new human insights into the digitalisation of manufacturing.

MACH24 is one of the UK’s largest manufacturing focused trade shows, bringing together over 500 exhibitors – all eager to showcase their latest cutting edge, innovative products and services across many sectors. InterAct was present for three days this year, with a stand in the Engineering Supply Chain Show where researchers and InterAct staff had the chance to engage with dozens of businesses.

The ‘Future of UK Manufacturing’ conference is an event organised by High Value Manufacturing Catapult, EPSRC and the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge, which brings together leaders from academia, government and industry. This year’s line up of speakers included: Sarah Sharples, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department for Transport, Katherine Bennett CBE from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Benjamin Nicol from the Advanced Manufacturing team at the Department for Business and Trade, and Professor Jillian MacBryde, InterAct Co-director and Vice-Dean of Strathclyde Business School.

Visiting the events at the NEC, Birmingham and Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield respectively, Professors Godsell and MacBryde delivered talks focusing on the scope of the InterAct Network’s projects, our growth over the past two years and the exciting forthcoming research outputs.

Discussing her session at the ‘Future of UK Manufacturing’ conference, Professor MacBryde said: “It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to be here with so many voices from across the industry, policy, and academic divide, all discussing how we can drive forward a bold vision for the future of manufacturing in the UK.

We are conducting a lot of really valuable work concerning the integral role of people and human insights in the digitalisation process, and it’s been great to have the opportunity to deliver a overview of what we’re doing to such a receptive audience. The discussions we’ve engaged in here today will definitely help to inform our research going forward.”


Made Smarter Centre for People-Led Digitalisation launches call for papers

To improve productivity and efficiency the manufacturing sector has regularly looked to evolve its systems and embrace new technologies. More recently the pace of change has intensified as we see the emergence of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital twins, advanced analytics, cobotics, and smart manufacturing. Learning from past challenges, particularly in the 1980s when the adoption of robotics faced obstacles due to insufficient consideration of human factors, centres like the Made Smarter Innovation: Centre for People-Led Digitalisation have recognised the important role that people play in the adoption and acceptance of new technologies.

Although digital technologies have the promise of creating significant economic, environmental and societal benefits, they also have the potential to substantially alter the future of work – the jobs people do and how people work. The world is currently at a crucial decision point – what do we want the future of work to look like?

Taking a people-led approach to digitalisation aims at improving the outcome of the adoption of digital technologies. This is achieved through prior explicit consideration and planned appropriate action that prioritises human needs and working patterns in the design and implementation of digitalised work systems.

The team at People-Led Digitalisation are seeking to publish innovative research which explores the human element of digitalisation, be that in the design of digital technologies or the implementation of digital technologies within a manufacturing environment.

They are welcoming original research, reviews, impact and industrial case studies, from the perspective of improving manufacturing performance such as (but not limited to); increased productivity, reduction in environmental impacts, re-imagining manufacturing jobs, people-led digital change. The following top-level themes should be used as a basis:

• The future of work in manufacturing to 2030 and beyond,
• Stakeholder engagement in digital change,
• Digital skills,
• Industrial Digital Tools for good work,
• Metrics of success in digitalisation projects,
• Enablers and barriers to the adoption of digital technologies,
• Readiness for digital change,
• People-led approach to design of digital technologies.

InterAct Blog

More than just a desk: Can co-working spaces make labour markets more inclusive?

This article was originally published on the OECD COGITO blog

Since the pandemic, co-working spaces have exploded in popularity. The number of people working in these spaces worldwide is predicted to double in 2024, relative to 2021, reaching 5 million users. They offer an accessible, flexible mode of working that appeals to professionals, leading policy makers to look for ways to harness their potential to drive growth. But can they also have a role in making growth more inclusive? 

More than just a desk

Co-working spaces (CWs) come in various forms. The physical spaces range from adaptable layouts in industrial settings, including converted warehouses and historic buildings, to specialised studios tailored for comfort. They can be for-profit companies and non-profits, and many are supported by local governments or regional development agencies.  

Public support can be directed to the owners of a co-working space. For instance, local governments have provided financial support to run a co-working space or incentives for the creation of co-working spaces in unused public buildings. In other cases, the use of co-working spaces can be encouraged, for instance through the provision of vouchers to freelancers, self-employed workers and businesses.  

Co-working spaces offer cost-effective solutions for individual users through shared infrastructure. Moreover, they foster a diverse in-house community for start-ups, entrepreneurs, freelancers and companies. Firms of all sizes increasingly use co-working spaces to allow their employees to work away from headquarters, resulting in a trend where office workers now live further from their jobs than they did before the pandemic. 

As a hotbed of new activities, from fostering entrepreneurship to networking among workers from different companies, co-working spaces may provide a boost to local economies. For instance, the Ludgate Hub in County Cork, Ireland, can point having created over 300 new jobs in the region. However, there are more ways in which co-working spaces can benefit their communities. 

How co-working spaces can make local labour markets a little more inclusive

Many co-working spacess have become vibrant community hubs, closely integrated with their local environments. A 2019 study on co-working spaces in Italy reported that three-quarters of the surveyed coworkers noted a beneficial impact on the urban and local context. Due to their connections with local communities, evidence is also mounting that co-working spaces can support those facing challenges in the labour market in at least three ways. 

First, by providing a convenient solution for workers with family or caring responsibilities. A national panel survey of 2 500 working parents conducted by Harvard Business Review revealed that “nearly 20% of working parents had to leave work or reduce their work hours solely due to a lack of childcare. Only 30% of all working parents had any form of back-up childcare, and there were significant disparities between low and high-income households”. Some co-working spaces, like The Tribe in Devon, UK, tailor their support and community building to focus on the needs of women – especially working mothers and carers. Others, like Coworking Toddler in Hannover and Berlin, Germany, take a step further by providing workplaces that integrate professional settings with childcare, enabling parents to concentrate on their work while their children are cared for in an adjacent daycare facility. 

Second, by providing a space for more experienced workers to share their knowledge with individuals Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) and other vulnerable groups. Co-working spaces have been actively creating opportunities for young artisans to work alongside experienced professionals, some retired, who are eager to pass on their manufacturing expertise. For instance, Fablab in Verona, Italy, and Center-Rog in Ljubljana, Slovenia, provide an entry point for people of all age groups to learn new skills, with trainings offered ranging from 3D-printing to food preparation.  

Third, by supporting the attraction and retention of high-skilled workers. Co-working spaces can contribute to the retention of local workers by providing them an option to combine remote work with occasional office attendance. This is particularly critical in rural areas, as it allows such places to retain and attract high-skilled workers, for instance, in the Ems-Achse, a group of mostly rural districts in north-west Germany. However, co-working spaces also provide these high-skilled remote workers with a vital connection to the local community, through which they can share knowledge and inspire others.  

Supporting innovative initiatives

In short, co-working spaces can provide communities with valuable new hubs that can connect workers, helping share knowledge, skills, and opportunities. This can help regions address pressing labour shortages and skills gaps while supporting vulnerable workers into new opportunities. Many local governments and employment agencies are therefore finding creative ways to support co-working spaces as part of a broader strategy to build thriving communities.  

“In my experience, my coworking community helps more with mental health balance for my coworkers – as most come to my space for the social links that are created here. The networking aspect which stems from this means that most of my coworkers have used services offered by other coworkers (coaching, communications services, building renovation …) or collaborated with other coworkers on projects (an architect with an interior designer, two coaches on a new service offering…).” 

Antonia Mahon, Founder of The Hub in Sèvres, France 

InterAct ‘Future of Work’ team publishes new report on perceptions of manufacturing

The InterAct ‘Future of Work’ team consisting of Dr. Robert Stewart, Professor Jill MacBryde, Professor Colin Lindsay and Carolina Marin Cadavid (University of Strathclyde) have published a new report drawing from their 2023 survey of UK public perceptions of manufacturing. ‘Making Things Work’ – Perceptions of Manufacturing is an insightful examination of the survey findings that looks at issues such as:

  • Whether people still value (and how positive they feel about) manufacturing in the post-industrial economy, and their awareness of manufacturing in the media
  • What people associate with manufacturing work and jobs, and what qualities they are looking for in jobs that need to be reflected in job offers to attract talent
  • The perceived quality of manufacturing jobs for those currently working in (or familiar with) the sector and whether people would encourage others to enter the sector
  • How new manufacturing technologies are likely to change future jobs and careers in manufacturing
  • How can the sector best attract emerging young and ‘untapped’ talent

Discussing the report findings, Dr. Robert Stewart said: “In the ‘war for talent’ perceptions matter because they provide a snapshot of public opinion about the attraction of the sector and working in manufacturing. They may not measure up against ‘reality’, they may be ‘misinformed’ but ultimately this matters more to many of the people we interviewed than employers and industry stakeholders.

However, if you are wondering how people in the UK look at the sector, or how employers should be best positioned to attract people into manufacturing, ignore them at your peril.

Our results throw up some surprising and interesting findings that we hope will offer insight to, and spark further investigation from, academics, employers, industry stakeholders and UK policy makers.”

InterAct Blog

‘Making Things Work’ – Perceptions of Manufacturing

The InterAct Network ‘Future of Work’ team has recently completed analysis of a survey of over 2000 people drawn from across the UK to provide insights into their perceptions of the manufacturing sector and jobs.

We hear much about the ongoing ‘war for talent’ in manufacturing and concerns that the older industrial legacy of manufacturing makes it less attractive to jobseekers. In this sense, the emergence of new technologies present both a challenge and an opportunity for employers to positively reshape jobs, careers, and address negative sector imagery through better job quality. Improving job quality in the post-Covid labour market should help manufacturers better compete for emerging Gen Z talent and extend their reach into under-represented groups such as women and minorities.

In the ‘war for talent’ perceptions matter because they provide a snapshot of public opinion about the attraction of working in manufacturing for different groups. They may not measure up against ‘reality’, they may be ‘misinformed’ but ultimately this may not matter to many in our sample. However, if you are looking to attract people into your sector, ignore them at your peril.

Our results confirmed some of the usual suspects but also threw up some surprising and interesting findings that we hope will be useful to employers and industry stakeholders.

People still value manufacturing but visibility is lacking

People still attach a high value to the manufacturing sector, describing it as ‘essential’ for the supply of goods, innovation, prosperity, industrial reputation, living standards, national security, and as a source of local jobs. While most feel positive about manufacturing as an important part of the UK economy, our study identified a weakness in terms of the sectors wider media reach and visibility: less than a third said they saw anything about manufacturing over the past year.

Images of manufacturing work are putting people off

Manufacturing is seen as creative blue-collar work with (on the balance of opinion) poor pay for inflexibile, low status jobs in an old-fashioned sector. On a positive note, of course, manufacturing does mean different things to different people. Gen Z plug into the creative and innovative side of the sector, think pay and security are more likely to be good. The problem for them (and women) is they mainly associate work in the sector with ‘boring old industry’ and think that young people are less aware of digital careers in manufacturing. This latter finding is similar to those more familiar with manufacturing work (workers) but they think of the sector as modern with very reasonable amounts of quality in jobs. One of the questions, this raises for us is how does the sector translate some of these positive insider images (creative purposeful work with career opportunities) to a wider ‘uninformed’ audience? Rightly or wrongly, nearly a fifth of our sample associate manufacturing with poorly paid work.

Does job quality matter in manufacturing?

The short answer is that job quality (whether we express that in terms of ‘good jobs’ or ‘fair work’) tells us what people are looking for in work, including manufacturing. Good job quality is essential for attracting new talent and retaining skilled workers. In our sample, quality is largely driven by pay, wellbeing and flexibility, a desire for clean and safe working environments, contractual security and stability, and employee voice. Gen Z have a strong desire for ‘employee voice’ (where their opinions are heard and valued), whilst women have a strong preference for employers offering wellbeing and flexibility practices.

The good news? Job quality for those people in the sample who currently work in manufacturing looks reasonably satisfactory. Over three-fifths of workers identify manufacturing work as purposeful, delivering reasonable levels of contractual stability, career development, EDI, and safe work. Interestingly, this still means that a significant number of workers don’t rate manufacturing jobs as purposeful and, also jobs appear to be slightly ‘weaker’ on pay, wellbeing (and flexibility), and employee voice. There are some good messages on job quality to sell the sector to ‘outsiders’ but more work to be done in reaching, telling, and convincing people, about the benefits and upsides of working in UK manufacturing.

The digital future looks bright but hold back on the shades

Most people think that tomorrow’s manufacturing jobs will be more advanced and hi-tech wit less environmental waste. Although people think that increased leadership diversity will fuel more innovation, over a third are sceptical about whether there really will be more representation from women and minorities in the future.

People have concerns about the destruction of jobs in manufacturing

We hear plenty about people using new technology (especially AI and robotics) to autopilot or co-pilot work and how new manufacturing technologies will continue to replace the ‘dull, dirty and repetitive’ manual tasks. In practice, the technological future will likely be the same old melting pot mix of greater creativity, augmentation, and job destruction. On a positive note, most people think that new technologies will augment (and co-pilot) tasks and people’s skills – upskilling not downskilling – and make jobs more interesting and rewarding for workers. Less reassuring is that just over a quarter think that they will have a destructive impact on the numbers of jobs in the sector. The link between new technologies and their impacts on jobs is a divisive and uncertain issue, with potentially negative implications for attracting talent, workers job stability and security that must be addressed by businesses. It is not surprising that those in the lowest socio-economic groups (those most at risk from job elimination) think more negatively about the impact of new technologies in future manufacturing.

Attracting future talent means more good people practice

Gen Z are the most optimistic about manufacturing jobs of the future. To harness that optimism how should employers’ best harness that potential and attract more digital talent into the sector, particularly from digitally ‘native’ younger generations and from groups such as women and minorities? The largest positive factor for attracting young digital talent and women concerns the promotion of wellbeing and flexibility practices. Young people are perceived as less ‘threatened’ by digital technologies, linked with greater innovation potential but thought to be less aware of digital careers in manufacturing workspaces. There is also a recognition that manufacturing employers may need to refresh their practices to attract more women and minorities into jobs. Working practices and environments need to adapt to become more inclusive.

What does it all mean?

There are some key messages for employers and industry stakeholders from our survey:

  • Keep talking up the value of your sector, people know you are essential and valuable, but the media reach and messaging of the sector isn’t reflecting that effectively.
  • Legacy images of old-fashioned manufacturing work impact negatively on how people look at jobs and careers in the sector. Although job quality is reasonable for many manufacturing workers, more needs to be done selling this message outside the sector to hard-to-reach groups such as women and minorities.
  • People anticipate that new technologies will improve the quality of future manufacturing jobs but have concerns about job destruction and its likely impact on opportunities and job security.
  • Going forward, attracting new talent will mean employers making greater investments in positive people practices in areas such as well-being, flexible working and inclusive workspaces.
InterAct Blog

Workshop insights: International Perceptions and Megatrends of Manufacturing

I recently attended a workshop on international perceptions and megatrends in manufacturing. Hosted by Aston Business School, it featured various experts and practitioners sharing their insights on the current manufacturing landscape and the strategies required for its positive future. The research team (Dr Guendalina Anzolin, Dr Jennifer Castañeda–Navarrete, Dr Dalila Ribaudo and Yanan Wang) included researchers and practitioners from Aston Business School and the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge. The research is funded by InterAct, a network led by the Economic and Social Research Council and Made Smarter UK.

Initial findings from the research

During the event, the project team shared some initial findings from their research. This has involved a systematic review and expert validation, with a specific focus on how manufacturing is discussed in contexts where digital technologies have been adopted, and widely addressed at the policy level. The analysis encompasses the following countries: Canada, Germany, Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The results emphasised the different connotations manufacturing holds for various demographics and how manufacturing, ranging from robotics to engineering systems, varies in definition based on individual perspectives. There is an observed dichotomy in public perception of the sector, ranging from antiquated views of dirty factories to a modern, automated image. Consequently, while the industry still captures public interest and is deemed essential, there are disparities between generations in understanding its significance.

Furthermore, the research has found familiarity with the sector positively influences opinions, indicating a gap between the familiar and unfamiliar regarding job quality perceptions. The discussion also emphasised the shift of countries from manufacturing to services and explored the importance of a robust manufacturing base for sustainable growth. Gender dimensions and the impact of COVID-19 perceptions on the industry’s role in innovation were also explored.

External speakers

The external speakers included Professor Fumi Kitagawa (City-REDI), Ollie Burrows (West Midlands Growth Company), Stewart McKinlay (National Manufacturing Institute Scotland), and Alain Dilworth (Made Smarter UK) shared initiatives and challenges faced in different regions. From the UK’s creation of the ‘Catapult’ technology and innovation centres focusing on manufacturing-related R&D and emerging technologies, modelled on the German Fraunhofer Institutes, to regional strategies focusing on net-zero, automotive innovation, and the intersection of technology with manufacturing, various initiatives are driving growth and sustainability.


Insights highlighted a stark disparity between perception and reality, with challenges like labour shortages, health and safety concerns, and the need for upskilling the workforce. Additionally, a Senior Policy Manager at Make UK, highlighted upcoming narratives for the manufacturing sector, especially in the context of elections and economic resilience. Emphasizing net-zero goals and a push to increase manufacturing’s GDP contribution. There was consensus that an overarching industrial strategy is needed focusing on skills, supply chains, and technological advancements.

The workshop offered a comprehensive view of global manufacturing perceptions, challenges, and the need for a strategic shift in how we perceive and position the sector. Addressing misconceptions, advocating for skills development, and aligning policy with industrial strategies emerged as critical themes for the future of manufacturing. As industries navigate an ever-evolving landscape, bridging the gap between perception and reality will be pivotal for sustained growth and innovation in manufacturing worldwide.

This blog was written by Dr Chloe Billing, Research Fellow, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham and originally published online by the University of Birmingham.

InterAct Blog

Rethinking manufacturing: It is everything, everywhere, all at once

In a world where perceptions shape industries and policies, understanding the narrative surrounding manufacturing is crucial. InterAct has recently published a report which analyses the perceptions of manufacturing in the United Kingdom and compares it with six other countries.

The report “How to make manufacturing charming again? It is everything, everywhere, all at once”, authored by researchers from Aston University and the University of Cambridge, examines the factors that influence these perceptions and tracks how the UK public’s perception has evolved over time.

The aim of the report is to support InterAct research on the future of manufacturing by providing insights into attitudes to manufacturing and industrial strategies, and how manufacturing is discussed in other countries, particularly where digital technologies have been adopted.

Public perceptions of manufacturing across countries and over time

Although governments remain hesitant to explicitly champion “industrial policy”, the renewed commitment to manufacturing, as evidenced in the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Plan, underscores its pivotal role in national economies which is increasingly acknowledged by policymakers.

The multi-country review, encompassing the UK, Canada, Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, and the US, revealed more positive perceptions of manufacturing in Germany and the US compared to the UK. However, perceptions within the UK have shown improvement. In 2001, the British public believed that the country could thrive without manufacturing. In contrast, by 2023, 93% of the public believe that the manufacturing industry is essential to economic growth and resilience.

Across countries, including the UK, a consistent trend persists; younger people exhibit the least interest in pursuing careers in manufacturing. The prevailing perception, widely held among teenagers and young adults, is that the industry is predominantly male and lacking diversity compared to other sectors. Additionally, manufacturing is perceived as being poorly paid, repetitive, and not requiring high-skilled labour. These misconceptions pose significant challenges in attracting new talent to consider the manufacturing sector as a viable and rewarding career path.

Understanding the policy and perception nexus

Industrial and innovation policies play a significant role in shaping public perceptions, which can sometimes differ from reality. Terms like “advanced manufacturing” increasingly highlight the high-tech nature of the industry. National strategies also underscore manufacturing’s role in economic growth, innovation, and regional development.

Women tend to be underrepresented in manufacturing, especially in high-tech industries. For instance, in the UK, women account for 26% of the manufacturing workforce, and their representation is even lower in high-tech sectors such as automotive and aerospace. However, gender disparities within the sector remain largely unaddressed across policies, reflecting a notable blind spot.

Megatrends reshaping manufacturing

Megatrends reshaping manufacturing, such as environmental sustainability and digitalisation, persist as top priorities in industrial and innovation strategies. The interrelation of such megatrends is also becoming an area of interest in policy making. In addition, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions have led to an increased emphasis on resilience, national security, value chain reconfiguration, and technological sovereignty.

These shifts in priorities and the continued focus on digitalisation and environmental sustainability have broadened the scope of activities and value chain segments within manufacturing. Notably, there is a growing emphasis on areas such as design and recycling, and the blurring boundaries between manufacturing and services.

Addressing challenges and charting a new path

This latest InterAct report highlights the evolving perception of manufacturing, emphasising the intrinsic link between policy and public perspectives. It highlights manufacturing’s multifaceted role in economic growth, innovation, and social inclusion, while also indicating pathways for improvement.

The report provides four recommendations in moving forward:

  1. Systematic collection of data (yearly or every 2 years) about how the public perceives manufacturing and the role of the digital and green transformations in shaping perceptions.
  2. Leveraging the manufacturing observatory, outlined in the UK Advanced Manufacturing Plan, to constantly monitor policy developments across different contexts. This includes how manufacturing and related terminologies are defined and portrayed.
  3. Setting measurable targets and initiatives aimed at enhancing diversity in manufacturing.
  4. Providing education and career information about manufacturing from the early stages.
People Resources

Perceptions of Manufacturing: How to make manufacturing charming again?


Watch a short explainer video about the importance of sector perception to the future of manufacturing

This report presents insights into how manufacturing is perceived, the factors shaping this perception, and how this perception has evolved in the last decade. The findings draw upon a systematic review of academic, grey and policy literature across seven countries: the United Kingdom (the UK), Canada, Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States (the US).

The report is the main output of the InterAct-funded project “How to make manufacturing charming again? It is everything, everywhere, all at once”. The aim of the report is to support InterAct research on the future of manufacturing on an international scale by providing insights into attitudes to manufacturing and industrial strategies, and how manufacturing is discussed in other countries, particularly where digital technologies have been adopted.

This research was conducted by Dr. Guendalina Anzolin (IfM, University of Cambridge), Dr. Jennifer Castañeda–Navarrete (IfM, University of Cambridge) and Dr. Dalila Ribaudo (Aston University). This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

For further discussions or potential collaborations, please contact Jennifer Castañeda–Navarrete or Dalila Ribaudo.

Watch project researchers Guendalina Anzolin and Jennifer Castañeda–Navarrete discuss their findings in this webinar hosted by IfM Cambridge

The potential of coworking spaces to contribute to geographically distributed manufacturing activity and regional levelling up in the UK


Working from home, or telework, has been rising in the past 20 years, but large-scale adoption of this practice was never really embraced by the majority of UK employers. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic ‘flicked a switch’ overnight, and all workers who were able to work remotely were compelled and facilitated to do so, through digital technologies.

Whilst many people who worked from home during the pandemic, many others found themselves with a lack of appropriate workspace, or experienced a sense of social isolation. As the pandemic subdued, patterns of work have evolved into more complex patterns of hybrid working.

The benefits and disadvantages of working remotely remain in this dichotomy of place – home or the office – yet new workspaces, such as coworking spaces (CWSs) offer a third option. Indeed, the growth of coworking spaces has grown significantly across the world since the pandemic, not only in cities, but also in the suburbs, towns and rural villages.

Other countries (across Europe and the USA) have recognised the potential of CWSs, to help deliver economic growth and develop places beyond their core cities. They have begun to develop explicit policies to support remote working from these places. However, there is a noticeable absence of this type of discussion in UK policy and the question is, why? Are they not popular in such areas of the UK, are they different to city-based CWSs, in what ways? What are the implications for the areas they are located in?

Our pilot study of CWSs in a number of provincial areas in England examined what CWSs in these areas look like, what they do, what are their governance structures and the potential they hold for raising entrepreneurship and business growth beyond core-cities. We interviewed owners, managers and users of CWSs; Chambers of Commerce, local councils, local enterprise partnerships. We made observations of a variety of CWSs types, business models and identified the range of their activities they undertook to support their local areas. We listened to how they were faring, their relationships with each other and other local bodies. Our findings are summarised in two reports. Whilst designed to sit as separate briefs, there is complementary in what they cover, and benefit from being read together.

The first report “The rapid rise of rural co-working in England: sharing experiences for mutual learning” is a briefing for industry. It identifies the activities undertaken across a range of CWSs and collates them to provide insights and suggestions to other CWS owners and managers about the best practices we observed, so that these might be considered by those who do not currently adopt them and strengthen the role of their CWS to its local economy further.

The second report “The potential of coworking spaces to stimulate local growth outside of major cities” is a briefing to local and national policymakers. It identifies more specifically, the contribution CWSs can make to various levels of community: the community within the CWS, the local business community around it, and the wider social community in which they reside. It also identifies areas in which the government could offer more support. The potential value CWSs bring to each level of community means they deserve to have greater attention from local and national policymakers as they grapple with how to stimulate local growth and prosperity across the UK.

This research was conducted by Dr. Felicia M Fai, Dr. Mariachiara Barzotto and Professor Phil Tomlinson (University of Bath). This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

For further discussions or potential applications/collaborations, please contact Felicia Fai.