WASHINGTON -- The Army has launched a new on-post coworking space initiative that plans to provide military spouses a comfortable and professional workspace outside their homes, along with a training venue for employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Improving military spouse career and employment opportunities through new programs and partnerships is a top priority for Army senior leaders, said Lt. Col. Keith Wilson, a Soldier for Life Program regional director.
Close to 40% of service members have considered leaving the military to support their spouse's career, according to a 2019 survey tied to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes program. The number increases to 48% if a spouse holds a graduate or professional degree.
The study also saw a growth in military spouses who sought entrepreneurship opportunities to increase their household income. Spouses noted that they were interested in more training and mentorship, and remote and flexible work opportunities, along with additional transparency on resources to help start a small business.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many challenges spouses face while trying to operate an in-home business, Wilson said. As families stayed home, some individuals found it difficult to maintain a professional setting free of distractions and often considered working at other locations.
"We found that military spouses are seeking remote employment as a way to maintain a career while they move throughout the Army," Wilson said. "Providing a location to work remotely is important.
“While most of our installations offer quality education centers, libraries and cyber cafes, none offer dedicated professional workspace focused on our self-employed and remote-working military spouses. That needs to change,” Wilson added.
The push for military spouse coworking spaces is just one way the Army is trying to help families improve their quality of life, he added.
The Army is considering ways to make coworking space locations available at little or no cost to families, Wilson said. Compared to services offered outside the military, spouses could spend thousands each year to reserve a location.
"My wife paid about $200 a month … just to reserve an open table," said Wilson, adding that the cost would increase if she needed a larger dedicated space or a location closer to a greater metropolitan area.
Each on-post site will offer wireless internet access, printing capabilities, and adequate workspace and seating, he said. Some facilities could provide a range of individual and group work areas as well as larger conference rooms for meetings and events.
Coworking spaces will also offer training and military spouse employment opportunities and a central location for professional networking and community engagement activities.
According to Wilson, the need for added support stemmed from initial spouse feedback, as many of them requested more organized training opportunities.
"This provides a venue where organizations can come in and provide information on how to start up a business, how to obtain capital, or how to expand marketing," Wilson said. "There is also a mentorship element, where other self-employed or remote working spouses can" help each other and grow.
The Army Quality of Life Task Force set a goal to establish military spouse coworking space on eight Army installations in fiscal year 2021, Wilson said. Efforts are already underway at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to make them the first installations to house a coworking space, Wilson added.
Other locations currently developing options include Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and West Point, New York.
Fort Belvoir coworking space
The USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore committed over $200,000 to renovate a section of the USO Warrior and Family Center, or WFC, in support of the Army's initiative, said Lisa Marie Riggins, Metro’s executive director.
The USO-Metro supports 11 locations and more than 300,000 military members and families, living or traveling throughout the Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland area, Riggins said.
The Fort Belvoir WFC will continue to provide rehabilitative services and support to all wounded, ill and injured service members and their families and caregivers.
"The USO is conscious of what the needs are in the military community. Fortunately, that demand and needs [for rehabilitative care] are mitigating," as counterinsurgency operations continue to decrease, Riggins said.
The Fort Belvoir coworking space is slated to open in February, barring any setbacks caused by COVID-19 restrictions, Riggins said. The location will feature a beautiful vaulted ceiling workspace, with an attached conference room and rooftop terrace, all designed with state-of-the-art ergonomic furnishings.
Fort Belvoir will become the first U.S. military installation in the world to provide professional workspace dedicated to military spouses, Wilson said.
The WFC is also making renovations to its sports lounge on the first floor, converting it into a community café workspace, she added. This area will be authorized for all visitors, while the USO will reserve the upstairs coworking space for military spouses only.
"We want to support military spouses and give them a premiere workspace," similar to coworking spaces offered on the current market, she said.
Developing the Fort Belvoir coworking space has become a personal venture, Riggins said. As an Army dependent during the Vietnam War, she said her mother had to give up her career choice as a licensed stockbroker to move multiple times and raise a family.
"My mom's life would have been totally different if she had an opportunity like this as a military spouse. That is what truly motivates me," Riggins said. The coworking space initiative "goes to the heart of what's important -- retaining a robust and qualified all-volunteer force."
The Army's push for public-private partnerships supports the coworking space program and other quality of life initiatives. Organizations like the USO, the Rosie Network, Instant Teams, and Rowan Tree, in conjunction with the Department of the Army’s chief of partnerships office, are assisting with current efforts, Wilson said.
Many of these organizations will provide additional entrepreneurial and remote work training and expertise, he added.
"I can't emphasize enough the value of public-private partnership," Wilson said. "We have so many great organizations that provide great programs and resources. It's been exciting to see that collaboration take place and it will only make the end product better."
The needs of each coworking space will be different. Installation leaders will need to make alterations to their program to support their local community.
"The greatest challenge is ensuring that we get the needs right … and that we are always taking into account the demands of the military spouses," Wilson said. "What we don't want to do is put a lot of resources into a program that is not needed."
Growing support for Forts Campbell, Bragg
In addition to outside partnerships, establishing and strengthening relationships across the Army and throughout the local communities will be vital to the coworking space program, said Col. Tony Parilli, XVIII Airborne Corps’ assistant chief of staff, G-1.
Established relationships between the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg and division leaders at Forts Campbell, Drum, and Stewart have led to the program's growth.
Fort Campbell is now spearheading an Army-led approach to the initiative. According to Wilson, the garrison is considering the renovation of an on-post tax center for use, with plans to incorporate local and national partnerships for future support.
"We wanted to get started [at Fort Campbell] to understand what was required, Parilli said. "We could then leverage the planning across the other installations."
Feedback from each installation will be crucial to the way ahead, as the XVIII Airborne Corps and post officials consider a proper feedback mechanism to determine each space's needs, Parilli said. Local leaders also need to be mindful of both on- and off-post support services that can provide spousal employment support.
"Properly resourcing a [military spouse] and family to support their educational or career goals is critical [for] retaining talent," he added. "It shows not only the Army family, but America, that we are all in and taking care of our people."
Lessons learned from both Forts Belvoir and Campbell will fuel the larger coworking space initiative, as the Army looks to increase partnership opportunities to support future locations, Wilson added.
"Any effort to make a coworking space private and professional … should be well-received by military spouses,” Riggins said. "Showing a demand for coworking spaces and meeting that need should inspire the private sector," and increase support.