As the flexible workspace sector continues to grow, it’s never been more important for operators to reach out and engage with the wider community. But is it easier said than done? Actually, it’s not as challenging as you might think.
You just need to get out there and make the first move.
Fortunately, the role of coworking spaces in the community was a hot topic of discussion in a recent London Coworking Assembly event, during which the following expert speakers shared their experiences, expertise and top tips:
- Nina Franco: Artist, Community Organiser and former Community Manager at ARC Club
- Kofi Oppong : Founder of the employability and enterprise training charity, Urban MBA
- Giedre Jackyte: Urban MBA alumnus and writer
- Nicola Moore: Programme Manager at Impact Central and Project Coordinator at Haringey Council
- Tash Thomas: Director of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at European Coworking Assembly
The first step is to work out what community means to you. In the context of coworking, community can refer to the internal community - the members who reside within the built environment, and the wider local community who live and work in the local area.
“We often think of the community of members within our coworking spaces, but what we're talking about here is connecting with our local community and the community that the working space sits within,” says Tash.
“That's the community that already exists, we don't have to build it, we don't have to make it - it's there and it's waiting to be connected to!”
Kofi thinks coworking spaces have the potential to provide a service to the local community by becoming a place where people discuss the issues affecting their local area or borough.
As well as providing the local community with a forum, participating in local discourse can help coworking operators gain the trust of people who live locally.
Understandably, people don’t always trust new businesses and developments, especially if these spaces aren’t inclusive and do nothing to enrich the lives of people who live nearby.
“It means people get an understanding of what a coworking space is, because I still think there's a misunderstanding about what coworking spaces are actually there to do, especially in the local community,” Kofi adds.
ARC Club, a coworking space in east London, hosted one of Urban MBA’s employability courses. (You can read more about it in this article.) Since then, the space has collaborated with similar organisations, including the local non-profit, Hackney Quest.
Providing a space for local young people can be invaluable. As well as benefiting from a productive work environment, they’ll have the opportunity to make connections within your member network, and this could lead to that first foot on the career ladder.
Nina, who worked for ARC Club at the time, emphasises the importance of asking community groups and enterprises what they need first. It’s up to you to make the introduction.
“By reaching out to organizations that work with young people like Hackney Quest, we understood that they would benefit from having a space to work and study that was free of charge,” she explains, adding that you also have to think of the practicalities of your space.
(In other words, don’t run a workshop for the community if you can’t provide a separate environment from where your members are working!)
Nicola runs Start-ups in London Libraries (SiLL), an ERDF business support programme by the British Library Business and IP Centre. It’s a cross industry pilot based across ten boroughs designed to support early and pre-stage businesses to develop and grow.
She discovered that in order to make the project work, she needed to have lots of conversations with new businesses to understand exactly what it was that was missing.
“Based on a lot of conversations with startup businesses, we noticed that there's a lot of business support out there, but we weren’t hearing enough from our local businesses and entrepreneurs, and young people weren't hearing from them either,” Nicola explains.
To overcome this, Nicola and her team ran two panel events with the aim of highlighting local entrepreneurs. The events centred around the key issues that local entrepreneurs struggle with when starting a business. “A lot of young people came and now we’re bringing entrepreneurs into the schools to have those conversations.”
When it comes to celebrating diversity within the community, Kofi suggests starting by working with your Community Manager to identify the top three communities in your area. “I know Tottenham has a large Brazilian community, for example.”
You can get the ball rolling by connecting with community leaders or groups within these communities and asking them what they need, and how they’d like to utilize your space. If your community comprises lots of different cultures, you should be celebrating them.
Can you think of three local organisations? If you can’t, it’s time to connect with your local area, says Tash who also recommends looking closer to home at the “community you’ve created.”
“If you already have that diversity within the community, it's a case of turning to your diverse membership and asking, ‘How can we facilitate the discussions you want to have?’; ‘What's important to you?’”
Whether it’s hosting a culture month about Brazil or an LGBTQ+ support group, there’s so much you can get involved in.
There’s no time like the present, as the old expression goes. Here are a handful of ways to start engaging with the wider community today, as recommended by London Coworking Assembly’s panel.
1. Reach out to an organisation this week and find out how you can work together.
2. Input key business and community events into your marketing calendar and start to brainstorm how you’ll celebrate them, both within your space and locally.
3. Ask your members if they’re already working with young people in the local area - more often than not, members are providing more social value than operators realise.
4. Reach out to local youth organisations, particularly smaller ones that aren’t funded by the local authority or large businesses.
5. Find out whether you could offer work experience or an apprenticeship to someone from the local community to help them in their career.
6. Open up the discussion - this isn’t something you have to do on your own. It’s all about collaborating and working together to build something successful. Is there anyone within your space - whether they’re an employee or member - who wants to help out?
You’ll probably find that engaging with the local community has commercial benefits too. In creating a space that’s inclusive and accessible to a wider range of people, you won’t have to rely as much on paid advertising to fill your space.
Word of mouth will do a lot of the work for you.
It all comes down to having a collaborative mindset and making the first move. Even if your space isn’t running in-person events just yet, you could offer virtual services and alternatives until you’re back up and running at full capacity.
Good luck and let us know how you get on!
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