The social enterprise uniting self-employed with social space in city centre.
Many of Sheffield’s self employed find themselves facing the pyjama issue at some point. “Where do you work if you’re self employed?” asked Matt Hill, coordinator of the Union Street co-working social enterprise. “From the library? From a cafe? From your bedroom? Or do you try and afford a corporate work space?”
Matt pointed out that most of the newly self employed say the thing they miss more than a regular salary is the chance to be around other people. “We want a space where people interact and build personal and professional relationships rather than being at home all week often working in your pyjamas.”
Recent government surveys show that over 100,000 adults in the Sheffield city region class themselves as self employed, a growing figure, albeit one that also includes non-pyjama wearing taxi drivers and bike couriers from the ‘gig’ economy.
The city has a growing reputation as a genuine self employment hub, with accolades in recent reports as the fifth best place in the UK to be self employed, and the top city in England (and third in the world) to set up your new digital technology company.
This is partly due to the decent cost of living here, thinks Matt, partly the ‘Outdoor City’ status, and partly Sheffield’s size, where entrepreneurs can often network more effectively than in larger or smaller cities. Four years ago, Matt and a small team of like-minded colleagues and supporters took over the council’s former housing office on Union Street with the support of Sheffield’s universities.
Their idea was to turn the 1960s building into a collaborative space for small businesses, events, and new food and coffee outlets. “It’s an amazing building, but with lots of challenges,” Matt said. No central heating or double glazing, for example, and no working lights when they moved in.
Nevertheless, the team gathered 60 ‘pioneer’ members keen to work from a city centre location, often in hats and coats surrounded by fan heaters to keep warm during the first winter.
“But people stuck with it,” Matt said. “It felt like an exciting thing to be doing.” New business-people often want to work alongside others, ideally in a location that helps them link up with other businesses.
But many can’t afford commercial rents, particularly when their enterprise is just getting off the ground, said Matt.
Union Street’s latest report also details the mental health benefits for freelancers to get out of their house and work alongside others, not something always in the brochures of traditional office lets.
“Our priority is not can we make as much money as we can, it’s much more can we enable as many people as possible to do the things that they’re looking to do.”
Initially Matt helped get the venue going without pay (while using Union Street as a base for his other work supporting small businesses), but he was eventually able to take a living wage for his work at Union St.
But after taking out a short commercial lease on the property two years ago, Matt was surprised to read this year that a large developer was planning to knock the building down to make room for new commercial offices.
“In my view cities need to have more spaces like this, we don’t want the few we do have being knocked down,” he said.
He thinks the answer is a balance between offices that maximise revenue and spaces accessible to smaller and new businesses not yet able to meet market rates.
Matt’s now looking at a second smaller venue for events and food on the High Street, and the Union Street site now hosts regular events, like Saturday’s Endless Love Makers Market, and this week’s exhibition about squatting and trespass.
Union Street has become nationally recognised, listed in the top 50 co-working spaces in the UK recently, and Jeremy Corbyn has even dropped in to do a bit of work as he passed through the city.
“But I don’t spend my days thinking how great it all is,” said Matt. “We still need to do more to get to the point where we’ve cracked it.”
One food trader which started life as a pop up at Union Street has now expanded to have its own permanent restaurant.
The above article first published on sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk in Nov, 2018.