Self-employed professionals and freelancers naturally take a collaborative approach to building their businesses. Over 9 out of 10 have interacted with other freelancers, citing factors like business advice, networking, and emotional support among the reasons they connect with others in the community.
However, without physical infrastructures such as coworking space and digital infrastructures such as effective broadband and mobile coverage, the freelance community will not be able to advance and prosper as business. These infrastructures matter to Europe. They help self-employed professionals to create work and perhaps most importantly are a source of sustainability, productivity, growth and innovation.
Coworking spaces help freelancers to generate work and are a source of sustainability, productivity, growth, jobs creation and innovation. They empower and enable self-employed professionals to build networks and form project teams, share skills, contacts, work collaboratively, bid for larger projects and are hugely beneficial specifically for young people looking to start their career. Consequently, coworking can help people to try out self-employment in a comparatively sheltered environment with little business risk and so broaden the scope for labour market participation.
If there is a place where people could launch their startup or freelancing career, it is in a coworking space. If remote workers are to have a better balance of life, they should be in a coworking space. If established professionals want to have a peer support network that is lost outside larger companies, they will find it in a coworking space.
Despite all this, operating costs of coworking spaces might be prohibitively high for them and in some European countries self-employed professionals do not benefit from the same tax relief that other small businesses with premises have. In addition, local governments can do far more to allow underused and vacant buildings to become coworking spaces.
It is imperative that freelancers and self-employed professionals can benefit from the opportunities offered by the Digital Single Market. The development of competitively-priced fast internet access and high-speed broadband is key to creating economic growth and achieving the goals of the Europe 2020 Strategy. The slow rollout of 4G coverage in the EU hampers flexible working and broadband and mobile connectivity is still incredibly patchy, particularly in rural areas which makes it difficult to work independently. Self-employed professionals often need to work on the move both at home and across EU borders, and a lack of WiFi in public transports and high roaming fees result in a genuine loss of productivity.
While most digital infrastructure investment should be funded by the private sector, there is a role for the EU institutions to ensure that national infrastructure in the Member States keeps up with demand, set standards and the wide regulatory framework, guarantee sufficient competition, and use public funds to fill gaps where the market fails.
EU policy makers should support the growth of coworking spaces and extend business rate relief for freelancers who base themselves there. While it is right that rents are set by the market, EU countries should review planning systems and restrictions with a clear goal of increasing the supply of affordable office space. Local governments should also be incentivised to use empty properties as coworking spaces. Municipalities may publish interactive maps of disused buildings in the area, as well as extend planning permissions and development rights to allow unused government office space to change their use.
As part of the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), EU Institutions should commit more EU funds to achieve 100% access to broadband by 2020. The funds should guarantee new housing developments have fibre-optic broadband and work with industry to accelerate the roll out of 5G mobile connectivity and free WiFi in public transport, to allow people to be more productive on the move, including the self-employed. Technical assistance should be provided to national authorities to make full use of the Structural Funds and the Connecting Europe Facility Funds earmarked for investment in ICT infrastructures and high speed networks, especially in rural areas. Additional EU investment may also co-finance national and local actions aimed at mapping existing infrastructure and prospective broadband investments.
The development and implementation of National Broadband Plans that should meet the coverage, speed and targets defined in the Digital Agenda for Europe and support the completion of the Digital Single Market by 2020. This will help EU countries to achieve real competition among broadband providers that would lead to affordable prices for consumers, the roll-out of high-speed internet and cutting of roaming tariffs.
Finally, EU countries should continue to pursue the digitisation of government transactions (eGovernment), especially their cross border interoperability across the EU, with a target of 50 % of citizens to use eGovernment by 2020. In addition, national governments should be encouraged to release more data and open up transactions using APIs to allow others to build upon them. This will create massive new opportunities for innovation by micro-businesses and technology entrepreneurs.
Back in January, for the Series: “Think Outside the Boss” I have spoken to Bojan, a 29 years old co-worker from Croatia. Here is what he told me:
As a young graphic and UX designer based in a coworking space, my greatest problem is how to keep running costs for my business low. Professional indemnity insurance in Croatia is expensive and insurance companies do not set out differentiated rates for smaller businesses. Collective packages to access group insurance are non-existing, despite the demand from other freelancers.
Many commercial coworking spaces are way too expensive for me and often focus on acceleration or incubation programs targeting entrepreneurs with a high income generation potential. Municipalities have many empty and unused public spaces which could be given to communities of freelancers at lower rent rates for educational, business development programs and be turned into coworking. I am even thinking in the direction to design an app to map out all these empty public buildings with the option to check availability, location, price and attract freelancers interested to use them.
As I am based in a coworking space I cannot benefit from the tax relief given to businesses with premises, those legally registered in an office. When I contacted for support the chamber of commerce which is the local contact point of the Enterprise Europe Network, their advisors only pointed me out to offices for rent. There are hundreds of thousand self-employed professionals working as freelancers in Croatia, one of the highest ratio in the EU. And the trend is growing. More support for us is imperative.
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