If you have the option to work remotely, you’re probably not quite ready to go back into an office or open-plan coworking space, even if the people around you are wearing masks. But would you rent a backyard office from your neighbor?
Nooka, an Irish startup, is launching a new remote work model that it calls “proximity office space”: tiny, shed-like offices that people can lease to use in their own backyards or re-rent, Airbnb-style, to their neighbors.
The company began developing the idea pre-COVID-19, noting that people who used coworking offices also tended to spend a lot of time working from home in less-than-ideal conditions. “Even before COVID hit, we saw that a lot of people were working from home, and most of the time, they’re just working from their kitchen table, their sofa, sometimes their bed,” says CEO Leanne Beesley. “The work-from-home experience hasn’t really shifted at all. Nobody’s really innovated on that.”
Other companies do make small prefab buildings that homeowners can buy for extra office space, but they’re often out of the price range for many people, easily costing tens of thousands of dollars. “Even the ones that look pretty simple are really expensive,” she says. “So the model that we’re going with is a membership.” The smallest office rents for €299 a month, and the two-person size for €399. When it’s installed in a backyard, it comes fully equipped with a desk, chair, cupboard, high-speed WiFi, power, lighting, a smart lock, and heating and cooling. (The first versions of the design don’t come with a bathroom; if someone is renting it from a neighbor rather than using it in their own backyard, the company expects that the rentals will be short, such as for an important Zoom call or a few hours of work in the afternoon.)
The first units are in production now, and the company is taking preorders—first in Europe, with an expansion to the U.S. likely next year. Many of the first customers, primarily in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, plan to use the units themselves, as a way to have space to focus while their house is filled with family members also trying to work or study from home. But the company also wanted to offer the option for anyone with a backyard to rent the space to neighbors who might not have yards of their own. Everything for that process can be managed through an app. “We thought, what if there was one in every neighborhood, and if somebody just wanted to pop out for a couple of hours working, or half a day working, they could see, oh, there’s a Nooka nearby?” says Beesley.
Even when the pandemic is better controlled, it’s likely that many companies will continue to allow remote work. Beesley says that the startup is already in talks with some companies that are interested in leasing the backyard units for their employees—the same way that they might have paid for coworking space for remote employees in the past. Communities may be interested in these units too, as a way to keep people living in areas that aren’t full of offices. One early Nooka customer is a village in Romania that wants to add modern amenities to make it easier for people to work remotely, in an attempt to offset a trend of people moving to cities because they don’t see opportunities at home.
This model could be one piece of the 15-minute city, or the idea that cities should be designed so that anyone can do daily errands, including work, with a short bike ride or walk from their home—both for quality and life and for a lower carbon footprint. Before the pandemic, “there was a big trend for suburban coworking spaces springing up in the suburbs,” Beesley says. “So we were already seeing that trend of people wanting to stay close to home.”