“A workplace retreat needs to be versatile, welcoming various individuals with unique needs”– Julianne Becker (Coconat)
In 2011, Julianne Becker answered an ad for a job at Deskwanted/Deskmag. The position was for someone to research, write articles, and manage social media, regarding all things coworking. This was Julianne’s first encounter with coworking, and she’s been involved ever since. Since then she assisted in the organization of the 2nd Coworking Europe conference in Berlin and is also the cofounder of Coconat, a workplace retreat just outside of Berlin.
Creating a a successful workplace retreat takes work. You not only need that idyllic location that will help your members reflect and relax, but you need to know your community. We spoke with Julianne about what it takes to build up a functional retreat for workers and how that reflects on the digital nomad community.
Hi, Julianne. Can you please tell us a bit about the concept behind Coconat?
The project is a combination of the community aspects of coworking with the tradition of artist and writing retreats that most of us are familiar with, some call it a ‘coworking hotel’, we say workation and co-living. This combination was first to satisfy the urban need for escape, to rethink the priorities of work with off-time. The project has grown to also encompass rural development and intracultural dialogue, between the city slickers and their country cousins.
Over the last several years the term “digital nomads” has made it’s way into the coworking scene. From your perspective, is this more of a trend or a growing movement?
I think the digital nomads are a kind of ‘tribe’ in what is becoming the ‘Location Independent Movement’. Those who identify themselves as digital nomads fit, from my experience, a pretty narrow demographic, and in general are pretty young. The location independent encompasses them, but also has room for those who may be more flexible in how and where they work, but who may also have some degree of in-flexibility, which can include family-life or a local business. I think that is where the real momentum lies, there is much more room to grow.
Coconat, and the growing number of places like it, are able to host people who may not be able to commit to a world-travel-all-the-time kind of life, to those who just want to break the cycle of normality. In our case, we are just a 1 hour train ride from Berlin to a completely different experience.
Are the majority of the coworkers who are utilizing Coconat coming from abroad or are they mostly from the area?
From our 2 test rounds we have a little data to give, though the real stuff will be from when we open in April. In the summer of 2015 we launched our summer of pioneers, and there we had a majority of Berlin based folks, with less than a handful that travelled to us, farthest flung from Switzerland. The following year, in May 2016, we marketed a bit more towards those who identified as digital nomads, and there we had only one German, and she travelled by car for 8 hours to participate in the week long workation event.
Both experiences were great! We get inquiries from US based people, and some permanent digital nomads who try to stay with the sun, and of course a lot of Berlin based people.
On the same note, from your experience with remote workers, are many of them looking for long term-travel or are they using retreat centers for short-term breaks/bursts of inspiration?
What is pretty amazing is that we really see a mix of both types of requests. We noticed the differing needs pretty early on and have already developed packages for many different situations. We have the ‘premium’, for lack of a better word, with really nice private rooms, everything included down to month-long workstays, where guests can chip in 10 hours a week to Coconat in exchange for a discounted rate.
Aside from the normal lingo used to describe digital nomads, such as “community” “relaxation” etc., what do you think workplace retreats can do for the overall future of work?
There are so many levels that we think about here, so I will list some of the central ones:
Community – Whether alone in a crowd or literally alone, if you don’t have people to share your ideas with, you will generally take more time to process thoughts, and in the end be less productive.
Digital nomads – On a retreat they will not only meet vacationers, but are usually tuned in to finding beautiful natural landscapes, so they will already have an appreciation for what is around.
Urban folks – For city dwellers, I can hope that a mindfulness of those moments when taking a walk in fresh air brings in some inspiration to their project that they just hadn’t thought of before. Nature and also rural spaces in general really creates a new atmosphere, where the environment is more plant based rather than cement.
The local community – They recognize the value of their community and environment with new vigor, as they start to see it through the experiences of others who visit. They will have a chance to explore interests with a larger circle of people, and possibly be introduced to topics and experts that they can really use in their daily lives
Concentrated work – Different work-styles and tasks require different kinds of workspace. This is where coworking really comes in to play for me. Quiet open floor plans, cozy café areas, private spaces outside with the trees, meeting rooms and spaces for the pow-wows. We take work seriously, so you don’t even have to think about it.
What I can imagine is that people can walk away with a mindfulness of what workspace works best for them. They can sit in a different space every hour, and feel where is right for them.
Do you think we should, or could, make it mandatory that employees take a certain part of the year to go away and work?
To be honest, that would be amazing. I think that it would really bring a lot of fresh ideas, perspectives, and in general more energy to the companies who did so. Of course they would have to keep in mind families and other external structures that may make these types of trips difficult, but in general I think that there can be solutions to these challenges.
Could this potentially blur the lines between vacation / work life?
No. This is definitely something that comes up a lot when I am introducing the idea of Coconat to people.
The time at Coconat should not be considered a vacation. It could be time when take time off from your ‘money-job’ to focus on your own passion project, and maybe a person uses their ‘vacation-time’ to do that, but that is it’s own situation. In general a person who comes to Coconat should be clocking their hours, taking their breaks, and getting some stuff done.
What are some of you current plans for the project?
We will be opening in April and hosting our stakeholder workshop in December, where we will start engaging the greater Coconat community to develop the project and the programming. We are also planning programmes for families, where the kids have activities and the parents can work.
Our community engagement strategy will also be implemented, which has already been significantly developed by a group of Master’s students from the Berlin School of Economics and Law.