“The “software” of a coworking space is what defines the human part, such as connection and collaboration”- Sandrine Benattar
Founder of Soleilles Cowork, one of Paris’s first official coworking spaces, Sandrine Benattar really knows the ins and outs of the coworking community. After 4 years of successful coworking, Soleilles Cowork has since closed its doors, and today Sandrine is focusing on ways in which she can help bring freelancers to coworking spaces. Interested in exploring methods which will enhance collaboration, Sandrine primarily looks towards the human side of coworking, or what she calls, the “software” of a coworking space.
Hi Sandrine, you have been involved in the Parisian coworking scene for some time now, can you please tell us a bit about your experience as a coworking space operator and how it got you to where you are today?
I first got the idea to open a coworking space in 2009, which was still at the beginning stages of European coworking. My vision was to have a place where people could connect during the day. At the time there were only 1 or 2 spaces in Paris, one of which was subsidized by the Paris municipality and Region. This space was catered to the digital and tech sector, so it was rather specialized. Thus, I wanted to create a multifaceted coworking space that would focus on connecting and enhancing collaboration between people.
It took around 2 years to build a business model, find the team before I opened in September 2011. Yet after 4 years, I decided not to continue my lease as there are now a lot of new spaces in Paris that are welcoming professionals. I am now concentrating on the idea of enhancing collaboration and working on the animation in the spaces, such as helping to bring freelancers to coworking spaces.
What are the key points of creating a coworking space focused on connectivity?
My focus was on, what I call, the “software” of the coworking space. The software is what defines the human part of coworking, such as connection and collaboration. A space offers “hardware” (a place to work, a desk, amenities) but the software that is the human aspect and includes characteristics such as empathy, kindness, and connecting abilities: is as equally important for me.
What are some of the difficulties coworking space operators face when trying to balance the software and hardware of the space?
I wanted to people to feel they were being welcomed home, but at the same time you need a lot of assets to run a space. Not only must you provide physical space, make sure that members are comfortable, have strong Wi-Fi, etc., but you also need to be able to be available to members and remain proactive in the community in order to enhance collaboration.
I think that there are those who are great with dealing with the hardware, such as investments and space management, and there are those who are better in the software part. Combining the two can be a challenge.
Why is it so important for freelancers and “solopreneurs”, in particular, to receive some extra support when there are so many spaces already available?
Many freelancers can work from home and do well, but at the same time, in regards to social interactions, status, professional environment, productivity, learning, serendipity they would probably be better off in a coworking space.
It can also be tough to bring the freelancers into coworking spaces since they have to pay for their desk, so you have to prove value. You also have to offer regular motivation. This isn’t the same for startups or small companies, which is what I noticed when I was running Soleilles Cowork. Unlike freelancers, startups work in groups and are already somewhat established so they have less need for collaboration.
How does the coworking scene in France differ from coworking communities in Europe?
Since I just stopped operating a coworking space, I have not yet had the freedom to explore this in full. But one thing I have found a bit tough in Paris is sometimes people are a bit too reserved. When you work at home you are a bit shy when you first enter a coworking space, which brings back my point to saying we need someone to facilitate the human connection.
What are your plans now that you are no longer running a coworking space?
I now have the time to visit various spaces and create links between them and I think that I can help them with various possibilities, with my previous network and also my passion and experience. Ultimately, I want to address the needs of my community because I now have the energy to just focus on collaboration. In addition to that, I also want to advise various entities, whether corporate of individuals, who want to launch a space or who may already have one, but need help animating their coworking space.
It can take a lot of time to create links, as people are often concentrated on their own work, so you need energy to introduce people, and you need to know these people and their needs in order to do so.
What needs to be done to improve coworking?
There are a lot of needs that should be addressed, such as finding the balance between making the model sustainable, and maintaining the links between coworkers and added value.
Many spaces owners are very welcoming, but sometimes members want to be left alone, so I think all these needs are nuanced so sometimes it helps to be a bit outside of the space in order to analyze the community needs and work from there.
Have you been to the Coworking Europe Conference before? If so, what was your impression and what did you gain as a space manager
If you are working as a coworking manager, potentially opening a space, or even just a coworker, there is something to gain. It is really important to meet people like you, and many of these people are warm and accepting and they know how to give a specific sense of community. It’s also important to have this support and understanding of the work you will need to do. It can help you address basic small needs to bigger needs.
What will you be speaking about at this year’s conference?
This year I will be giving a presentation exploring coworking as a cornerstone for independent and freelancers, so I will be exploring the relationship between freelancers and coworking spaces.