By Sara DiNatale
Geneva Drummer’s vision is a decade in the making. The Gulf Coast entrepreneur realized what her business community needed before they did.
By 2016, Drummer was one of Mississippi’s earliest leaders in flexible workspaces, virtual offices and co-working when she opened The Meeting Space in Biloxi. Four years later, the pandemic upended work habits across the country, making work-from-home more acceptable and got even the most traditional corporate leaders seeing the benefits of less traditional office setups.
Drummer’s business helped fill in the blanks — and is growing fast with a second recently opened space in downtown Biloxi and a third soon to open in Gulfport.
“Mississippi has co-working spaces and the demand is there,” Drummer said, “we’re still behind, but growing.”
Mississippi’s flexible offices and co-working spaces — turnkey commercial offices and desks for independent remote workers, businesses and startups — are mainly clustered on the coast and near Jackson with a couple scattered in Oxford and Tupelo. They may not be as popular as they are in other states and bigger cities, but those creating the office spaces see increasing demand.
“I think people are realizing work-from-home is great but work-from-home presents its own challenges and does not solve every problem,” said Adam Horlock, the center manager at Office Evolution in Flowood near Jackson. “Businesses are realizing: ‘We do not need a large lease or a large space somewhere, but we need something.’”
The nation’s number of remote workers tripled to nearly 18% between 2019 and 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s community survey. Meanwhile, 6.3% of Mississippians work from home, according to the same set of data. It may be lower than the national average, but it’s still about three times more than what it was in 2016.
Drummer and Horlock primarily see remote workers who want an office to go to a couple times a week or few times a month and businesses who need designated workspaces for employees without the headaches of renting a massive office space.
Startups and small companies, especially for the state’s fledgling medical cannabis business, have gone to the flexible office spaces. There are marketing firms that have workers who spend most the week at home but need a conference room for scheduled meetings a few times a month. There’s the independent behavior therapist who meets with patients for sessions in a private one-desk office and an accountant that needs a rented desk to get some quiet while the kids are home from school.
“I knew I wanted office space,” said one of The Meeting Space’s members, Burl Barbour, from a private suite. “I knew I wouldn’t be disciplined enough if I stayed home.”
Barbour and his wife recently moved to Mississippi after years nearby in Mobile. Rather than leave his job working as a project manager for an Alabama-based commercial door company, he became a remote worker in Biloxi.
Before the move, he hadn’t heard of co-working spaces. Now, he’s a fan of his “own little world” at the shared office — just a 15-minute drive from his home.
Drummer said the expansion of co-working spaces as an integral part of growing Mississippi’s economy. Folks need spaces to network, a hub to innovate with one another and access affordable services without multi-year lease commitments. She seeks out downtown real estate, taking advantage of a metro area’s walkability.
Drummer said most often she’ll get a remote worker for about three months — maybe they just moved to the area and are still setting up their at-home office. Some opt for the open co-working spaces, where folks mingle and work, while others, like Barbour’s company, pay up for private offices.
Nearby in Jackson County, economic development leaders have isolated attracting more remote workers to the Gulf Coast as a way to diversify the region’s economy and attract wealthier people to the state. They’re now planning ways to market the county as a destination for remote workers not tied to any one location but want to see their salary go farther.
“We have got five generations of people right now currently in our workforce,” said Mary Martha Henson, deputy director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. “This remote working concept was already going on before COVID, but then in a COVID environment and a post-COVID environment, more people are in a situation where they can live where they want to and still be a productive employee.”
While the county advertises Mississippi’s affordability compared to other coastal cities that are well-established destination cities, they still need to have the features millennials seek out — things that allow them to live, work and play in the same area.
“Some of the younger generation really care about quality of life features,” Henson said. “If we want to remain competitive, we really have to think about these things.”
Among the hip coffee places, restaurants and local shops, co-working offices are keeping up with the tastes of the millennial and up-and-coming Gen Z workforces.
“We’re filling a need that traditional office spaces just can’t fill,” Horlock said. “We’re flexible, turnkey and the cost is low. We provide everything – even free Starbucks. Bring your laptop and you can usually set up that same day.”
Drummer’s two Biloxi locations are a short walk from one another on Water Street and Howard Avenue, where parts of the historic downtown are closed off to cars.
She’s seen other co-working spaces in the area fail — one tried making use of vacant spaces in a shopping mall. The location, she said, wasn’t ideal for a lot of young workers who want to feel connected to their communities and in hubs of activity.
She said for those seeking to start a coworking space of their own, the margins are hard to make work if the business operator doesn’t own their real estate outright.
Her new location in Gulfport is on the edge of downtown, but she was able to partner with Omni Technologies – an IT support company – that will be a member of the new space.
Nearby in Waveland, WorkWise’s primary business is providing administrative services and support to small businesses. But rather than let part of its office space sit vacant, the company offers private offices and coworking spaces similar to Drummer’s.
Drummer wants to see flexible offices and coworking spaces spread across the state. She has fielded calls from out-of-state companies seeking locations similar to hers for their remote employees in parts of the state where the options aren’t available — like Columbus and Natchez.
She has expansion on her mind, but one location at a time. After Gulfport is up and running, she may turn her attention to Hattiesburg.