Like any other day at Sheffield’s Union Street co-working space, Thursday is a hive of activity; an early-morning yoga class has just finished, a pop-up street vendor is preparing pie and mash and freelancers – from designers and consultants, to editors and poets – are going about their daily business.
At the heart of Sheffield’s vibrant, emerging co-working scene, Union Street has been striving to give power back to its members and become the city’s ‘go-to’ destination for freelancers since it opened in 2014.
“We’re trying to create an atmosphere where there’s a sense of energy – a friendly and productive space that acts as a contrast to what you’d find at home or in an office,” co-ordinator Matt Hill tells me in Union Street’s buzzing ground floor café.
“But also, can we reflect people’s values? We want people to feel like they’ve had influence and agency over the things around them; from small things like sourcing and suppliers, right up to the bigger picture.
“We want a contrast to the top-down, corporate, no agency, no influence, no control environment. As a co-operative, being able to increase participation, increases the fruits for everyone involved.”
Union Street is not a co-working space defined by its facilities, but by the people who call it home. There’s a charm to it: a four-storey, formally vacant city centre building with winding corridors, upcycled furniture and, as Matt tells me, a long ‘to-do’ list.
It’s the ultimate example of what a little TLC can do to a previously empty space. Since its doors opened four years ago, Union Street and its inhabitants have been breathing life back into the venue and the wider Sheffield community.
“Having an active community is the ideal,” Matt continues. “We’re trying to reach out to some of the best things that are happening in Sheffield and see if we can be a sort of catalyst here in the city centre. If we can do that, then we have a win-win outcome.
“Initially, we wanted to cultivate a worklife balance, which we felt was really very important. We’ve been very keen to facilitate good quality workshops and meet-ups. Having space for private hires is another great way of bringing people in. Everyone from the university to campaign groups uses the space, and that diversity adds a lot of value.”
Around 100 permanent members ply their trade at Union Street, with co-working hotdesks starting from £45 per month, and permanent desks from £150.
Each floor offers something a little different: above the ground floor café – equipped with free workspace, superfast wi-fi and a private meeting room – is a first floor of event space. Hot desks, fixed desks and further meeting space occupy the second and third floors respectively.
A varied and popular list of regular events include yoga, Pilates, life drawing, African drumming, food growing workshops and after-work socials. With a vegan breakfast club and regular clothes exchange, Union Street caters for everyone – members or otherwise.
All that, combined with its welcoming atmosphere and the emphasis placed on collaboration, not competition, adds to the overall appeal for its members – many of whom greet Matt like an old friend when they arrive.
“I’ve been working from Union Street for about a year,” says Brendan Docherty, a freelance video editor based at the venue. “I lived and worked from home previously, but I felt very isolated and, even though I was doing well with work, I needed to get out into somewhere like this where I’m surrounded by other people.
“I feel fairly cemented here now – I like Matt’s ethos. He’s very interested in what people are doing here and how he can help and to keep us working. It’s a real community. I’m here not only to try to get more work but help run the place too. I feel an affinity to here, and I want to see it succeed.”
Union Street is indicative of the evolution and welcoming atmosphere in Sheffield itself. Majid Majid – an outspoken, unapologetic and refreshing 28-year-old – is Sheffield’s lord mayor and said after his election: “I’m happy as long as I try to make a positive contribution to people around me.”
That ethos is something that runs centrally to everything done at Union Street – from, like Matt says, the smallest things right up to the bigger picture.
Here, you’ll find freelancers from all backgrounds and industries co-existing and co-operating: designers helping consultants and editors helping poets. And with Matt constantly adding to his personal ‘to-do list’, this inclusive, plucky co-working space has grander ambitions.
“I’d love to continue the trajectory and momentum towards increased collaboration,” he adds. “We want more exciting people joining us. We want to open our eyes to other spaces in the city, and also help other people who don’t want to be based at home. If they’re in a city where there are very limited options, we’d love to create somewhere for them.”