Remote working is on the increase. Teams are often spread far and wide across the country (and beyond), connecting over emails and phone calls, tucked away in home offices, second bedrooms, make-shift spaces and coffee shops.
I moved to Chester in April 2016, excited to join the co-working movement. I had it all planned out; a few days at home, broken up with a mid-week stint at some fabulously artistic and open plan shared space, then I’d park myself wherever did the best cappuccino to finish the week off. 9-5 heaven. I’d even found the space to fend off the creeping terror of a week at home alone – CHIC – Co-working Hub In Chester. Sadly, after a promising Kickstarter launch in late 2014, the project struggled and closed around five months later. I had – and by a stretch – missed the boat on this one.
Bob Hadfield, one of CHIC’s founders, cites lack of uptake and poor support from local authorities as ultimately, insurmountable hurdles, ‘A lot of people turned up for our open day but then didn’t book a desk in the following months. And the rates for the space (above Chester station) were really high.’ The council did gift the budding start-up with 18 desks, but sadly Bob reflects that, ‘things didn’t accelerate fast enough. If we were to do it again, we’d start small and simple. Our mistake was going all in.’
Fast forward to the brink of 2018 and the need is growing. The TUC published a survey last year stating that nearly a quarter of a million more people work from home than ten years ago. ‘Government research shows that another 4 million UK workers would like to work from home.’ It’s hard to drill that down to Chester, but the increasing demand is felt here. There’s a murmur amongst Chester creatives and freelancers, a need for interesting and affordable spaces to stretch out in, aside from their own four walls.
Perhaps Bob is right when he suggests that something like CHIC is still hugely relevant and feasible (he’s had a smattering of hopeful calls since closing), especially if it’s a venture prepared to take baby steps.
And a few places are rising up to answer the need. Like Industry (we’ll be talking to them in Spring), at the Canal Warehouse Workshops, ‘a collaborative co-working environment.’ Individuals too, are seeking venues to gather in, under the co-working umbrella, and providing opportunities for casual networking, support and possibly even friendship. One such set-up is run by Lucy Newall, owner of Ravenspoint Marketing.
After moving to Chester in the summer of 2016 with her new business (set up late 2015), Lucy was keen to connect with people and throw herself into networking, but she initially struggled to find her fit. As a full-time homeworker it was important to discover places she could regularly escape to with her laptop and, hopefully, a side of conversation and caffeine. Cue The Little Yellow Pig, a café in Hoole, which has recently expanded into the furniture space next door.
It’s understandable that The Pig encourages the home-working collective; it’s light, open and full of little quirks for your eyes to roam over during flits of procrastination. And of course, there’s cake.
On most Thursday mornings you’ll find Lucy and a smattering of entrepreneurs, typing, chatting and mulling over the breakfast menu, between 9am-11:30am, (and longer, should they feel inclined). It’s my first visit to The Pig, and my first foray into the ‘Freelance Thursdays’ group, but within five minutes I know I’ll be back; delicious coffee on tap, meeting likeminded individuals after a brisk walk through chilly Chester, and a stimulating buzz. It’s quiet for the first half hour or so, peaceful even, but then the morning colours up with local workers popping in for an early lunch, casual meetings and lively families wrestling toddlers into coats. There’s a quick turnover around us and plenty of room for everyone.
Lucy’s chuffed with her venue choice and her visitors, ‘I didn’t want to pick another hotel reception space, or an office environment. I really like the idea of supporting a local Hoole business. I meet all sorts of people here and I love that; sometimes a gaggle, sometimes it’s quiet, but it works. Call it what you like, networking, socializing or working. Once you get to know people great things can come of it – collaborating, friendship…people in similar roles also share and give each other feedback.’
Like me she’s convinced that there’s a real call for this in Chester, ‘We’re going to need more space, more options. With groups like this, you’re not paying for anything when you come here, beyond supporting a business by buying a coffee. It’s flexible, you’re not tied in. It’s good to get out, have people come and go. There are a lot of people who are new to the city and working solo, maybe for the first time – this is a version of support.’
Personally, I like the idea that networking or a new client could be just a bi-product of a nice morning. Worse case scenario you get your head down and tick off a few tasks. Lucy’s confident on the benefits of a good gather, ‘I run weekly with one lady from the group. I’ve ended up making friends with people who didn’t even know about the group, but just happened to be working from the café.’
It’s just one of the ways she likes to operate, after a long stretch in the corporate world, ‘If you’re living in a relatively small city, word of mouth is everything. 95% of my work is referral based. I want to keep growing and expanding my business but I want to do it in a nice way, like friendly networking and relaxed co-working.’
Lucy enjoys creating opportunities for people to get together, a passion which led her to become the WiRE (Women in Rural Enterprise) Leader for Cheshire.
‘‘A lot of women come to the WiRE group who haven’t attended networking events before and the feedback is it’s a supportive group where people can learn business skills – different to what I want from The Little Yellow Pig – here I’m happy if people just sit together and have a bit of a chat.’
The Cheshire WiRE gatherings take place once a month in Christleton. Lucy’s eclectic background; trained photographer, a stint in pharmaceutical sales, marketing strategy and brand management, and now, firmly in the freelance arena – website design and marketing support (Ravenspoint Marketing) puts her in a prime position to guide, advise and connect others. Each month at WiRE a new topic is covered, with frequent guest speakers, to help and support those running small businesses.
Friends back in Bristol, where Lucy lived for 8 years, are keen to see her return, but she’s grown pretty fond of Chester, and Hoole in particular, ‘There’s a lovely community here. I’m still relatively new but I want to make the most of it.’
Lucy works with a large range of clients: jewelers, building firms, coffee shops, and recently designed the website for The Cornerhouse in Chester, ‘We’re always in there – they do a great mulled wine around Christmas time, with a shot of amaretto.’ She’s amassed a long list of favourite places, ‘It’s seasonal; Porta in the summer, sitting outside with grilled prawns and a beer. I’m loving Storyhouse, I’ve been making the most of the space. There’s The Faulkner and of course The Little Yellow Pig. I like The Ship in Handbridge and Telfords. I like to support independent places. I’m more aware of small businesses and if they’re putting on a good show, I’m going to be there.’
Her top advice for the newbie homeworker and or/freelancer on staying sane and motivated?
‘Timetable your week, maybe on Wednesday you go swimming and Thursday is always an admin day, structure it. Make sure you get out every day. It sounds silly but get dressed in the morning. I allow myself a quick peek at my emails in my PJ’s, then get dressed ready for business. If you feel physically ready, then you’ll feel better in your mind. And keep in contact with your colleagues, even if they’re previous ones. Pick up the phone, don’t just contact people through email. If you know other self-employed people, just call for a chat – especially if you’ve had a week where your head’s been in a project and you’ve not spoken to anyone. Everyone has highs and lows. You can end up thinking everyone else is doing so well and drawing comparisons can get you down. Christmas especially can be a quieter time.’
And if you can’t always make it to Freelance Thursdays, or another local group for networking or otherwise? ‘Volunteer or go for a long walk. You can’t be productive staying at your desk all day. If you’ve just started your own business, be kind to yourself, you’ve taken a risk and you’re going for it.’