Union St cemented its place in the Sheffield social enterprise ecosystem recently, hosting a popular networking event for the region’s social entrepreneurs.

It is essentially just bricks and mortar office space in a convenient location, albeit with a nice aesthetic of industrial-looking upcycled furniture and artwork on the walls, but it is much more – a community for its co-workers and a model for business co-operatives.

Matt Hill, co-founder and managing director at the co-working hub in Sheffield’s city centre was discussing the decade long journey of taking on a former 1970’s office into a space that is full of action, even after a global pandemic.

The upper floors are run by a co-operative, a community interest company whose profits are reinvested into developing the facilities and activities for the city. Architects, coders, freelancers of all kinds, work alongside each other, paying membership for desk space, and crucially, getting a discount if they “get involved.”

The community side of it includes things like talks and discussions and scheduled “doss breaks.” Many include food. The ground floor includes independent coffee and a rotating schedule of Sheffield’s best street food – the charity provides traders with the chance to develop a new brand and test trade to an established customer base.

Food from Icarus & Apollo at Union Street in Sheffield

Having discussed issues such as loneliness, isolation and links to mental health, Matt explained the proven benefits of the co-working space. He said: “We measured the social impact of what we do and there was a 40% increase in members’ wellbeing and work life balance since joining Union St. And for the bottom line, 68% said that they had generated new opportunities, with 93% of co-workers increasing productivity.”

One member, taking guided tours around the four storey building, said: “I’m a lecturer and I work a couple of days a week here. I looked at others [co-working spaces] in Sheffield, and they were corporate and flashy but the community aspect was the reason I chose here, and I’m glad I did.”

The event was one in a series delivered by Sheffield Social Enterprise Network, in partnership with Social Enterprise Exchange. The “Lunch With…” events offer a great way to help attendees learn from others in and out of the social enterprise sector.

Social enterprises are businesses which trade for a social or environmental purpose.

Matt spoke about why the business was set up as a community interest company, run as a co-operative, alongside a charity.

He said: “Working on community events I saw lots of nightclubs, pubs, shops and community centres closing down. I found out what “meanwhile use” was about – taking on a space temporarily, activating the space and addressing the landlord’s business rates.”

Union Street in Sheffield has created a community for co-workers

Union St, previously used by Sheffield Council’s housing team, had been empty for four years with business rates of £50,000. Property owners are still liable for rates, even if the space is empty.

On the business model, Matt said: “We grow up and are taught that we live in a democratic society and I always wondered what that is like for business.

“When I was at university studying management, they didn’t tell me about social enterprise or co-operatives, or how businesses can operate democratically.

“But research shows that the survival rates for co-operatives are much higher than the survival rate of companies.*

“And being a social enterprise hasn’t stopped us accessing investment. Thanks to organisations like Key Fund we’ve invested £63,000 over the last two years.”

Social Enterprise Exchange is managed by a consortium of partners supporting social enterprises to start-up and grow throughout South Yorkshire and the Sheffield city region. The partners are: CM Solutions, Sheffield Live!, Sheffield Social Enterprise Network,  Barnsley CVS, Cultural Industries Quarter Agency and South Yorkshire’s Community Foundation.

Social Enterprise Exchange is part-funded by European Regional Development Fund 2014-2020 and The National Lottery Community Fund.

The next “Lunch with…” networking event is taking place on Monday May 22 with Claire Rimmer, Head of Operations at CADS. It will be held at the new Theatre Deli space on Arley Street, Sheffield. Book a place here: https://www.socentxchange.net/2023/05/09/lunch-with-claire-rimmer/