Year after year, barriers to spouse employment are one of the most significant challenges military families say they face. Now, the Army is trying to address those challenges by developing a professional place for military spouses to work outside the home.
Army spouse Sarah Benson is a science writer.
“My job is 95% remote,” she said. “I talk to scientists on the phone and interview them about new research and findings. I can pretty much do that wherever.”
But working from home isn’t always the ideal situation.
“The kids are distracting. They’re constantly interrupting,” Benson adds.
She said she’s even tried working from a home office while a nanny or babysitter takes care of the kids, but it proves problematic.
“They barge into the office anyway, even when I’ve told them the babysitter is in charge. That’s why I’ve relied on places to work outside the house, away from those distractions.”
Benson said while stationed in Hawaii and San Antonio, she was able to find private coworking spaces. Then her family got orders to Fort Belvoir.
“One of the first things I did, even before we got here, was look up coworking spaces and there really wasn’t anything close by. There are plenty of coworking spots in D.C. or Alexandria, but I was looking for something closer than a 20- or 30- minute drive.”
Before COVID-19, Benson relied on working from local or on-base libraries, but that came with its own issues.
“I couldn’t make phone calls from the library workspace, so I’d go out to my car to make calls and then come back inside to work. A coworking space on or close to base is really needed,” Benson said.
The Army is working to make that happen in the D.C. area and at installations across the country.
“One of the challenges to military spouses working remotely is finding quality, professional workspaces. Spouses often settle for coffee shops or libraries, but they need more than just internet access,” Lt. Col Keith Wilson said.
He is coordinating the coworking space initiative for the Army.
The first of these coworking spaces, designed specifically for spouses, is now open at the USO’s Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir.
“The Army reached out, told us about this initiative, and we knew it was something we wanted to be a part of. We want to stay current in addressing military family needs and this is obviously a high priority,” said Lisa Marie Riggins, president and CEO of USO Metro, which serves the entire capital region.
“We wanted to do it right and do it at a high level,” Riggins added.
Riggins said they had the space to commit to the project — a respite lounge in the building — going mostly unused. Thanks to $80,000 in financial support from USO Inc., the newly-renovated area has state-of-the-art ergonomic workspaces, noise-canceling telephone booths, a conference room equipped with technology for video calls and conferencing, an outdoor terrace with furniture, and a coffee bar and lounge.
“Everything was done with a lot of thought. We felt as being the first ones out of the gate that we wanted to be an aspiration for others.”
The Army Quality of Life Task Force set a goal to set up spouse coworking spaces at eight Army installations during 2021. In addition to Fort Belvoir, those include Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and West Point, New York.
Work is already underway for the coworking space on Fort Knox.
Maj. Gen. John Evans Jr., commanding general of U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, pointed to priorities laid out by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.
“He’s really taken an approach of putting people first in our Army, and in support of that, we’ve put together a people-first strategy.”
Evans says that includes quality of life initiatives benefiting service members and family members, including better housing, improved dining facilities, and these coworking spaces for spouses.
Evans said the co-working space on Fort Knox should be ready in the next few months.
Meantime, the hope is that the workspaces on Army installations are just the start.
“We‘re happy to lead the charge,” Wilson said. “We had an opportunity to present this initiative to the Joint Services Partnership Board. They were interested in what we’re doing, and I think as we build the concept on some of our posts, it will give us a great model to share with other services.”
On Fort Belvoir, the military spouse coworking space is open for (spouses to do) business. The center can accommodate nearly 30 people on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“When we’re seeing the space utilized, there will be designated scheduling,” Riggins said. “We can’t wait to see spouses here working side-by-side with other professionals, and we envision great opportunities for networking.”
You can find this story and more in our May issue of Military Families Magazine. Download it here.