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A Magazine for Sheffield

Agency in the Workplace: Regather

Co-founder Gareth Roberts tells us how, and why, agency and control in the workplace should be available to everyone – not just those in the cooperative movement.

Regather farm 3

Gareth Roberts (R) on the Regather Farm, Moss Valley.

Series supported by Ownership Hub logo

This piece is part of our generative inquiry entitled Agency in the Workplace, exploring worker ownership and worker control of organisations in South Yorkshire through the stories of local people. We are also hosting two events as part of Festival of Debate 2023: What if everyone had real agency in their workplace? (17 May) and Co-ownership drop-in session (23 May).

Regather is a co-operative of people working to build community through improved food systems and sustainability in Sheffield. They run an organic farm, a veg box scheme and many other community projects. They advocate and make change around sustainably sourced food, locally-based economics and democratically-controlled systems.

Regather was established as a worker-owned co-operative in 2010 and evolved into a community-owned society in 2018.

Co-founder and director Gareth Roberts told me about the commitments he holds, the challenging operating environment which exists in the UK, and why agency as an active practice in organisations is so important.

Tell me about Regather. Tell me about what's important?

My journey through Regather started off as a sole trader, then went on to being an off-the-shelf company limited by shares with me as the sole director. Then meeting Julia [Harrison] and Barney [Harris] to form a kind of ‘Regather 1.0’ in 2010. The premise of Regather in that first iteration was about getting the best of both self employment and employment, somehow hybridised into a cooperative model. So there was a lot of autonomy. But there was also accountability, you know, between one another.

There's an underpinning foundation of values and shared philosophy, ethics. That actually is what brings you together, and keeps you together, or not, as will happen over extended periods of time. Because it's not ‘all peace and love, man’. Just because you're a worker coop, it doesn't mean you can somehow forgo the human condition and, importantly, the environment in which that organisation exists – that hostile environment, where dominant cultures and huge challenges, such as social injustice and climate change, define so much of what we are about.

As somebody who works inside a community-owned organisation, do you feel like you have more agency in mitigating the worst effects of that hostile environment?

That's certainly the premise on which we set out to do what we're doing.

I was holding down zero-hour contracts with an institutional employer that had a degree of certainty, but only on a semester-by-semester basis, and the hours [were] very demanding.

And so we basically recognised that these were pervasive characteristics of the work environment – or just the economic environment in which we had to operate, because essentially, it's about making a living.

We did spend a lot of time exploring alternatives to cash – timebanking, local alternative currencies, local exchange trading schemes (LETS). We did a whole bunch of stuff over a period of years to mitigate, and try and reengineer… this relationship between ourselves, our labour and the economy.

Barney and Julia 2 Regather

Co-founders Barney and Julia in the kitchen at Regather Works.


How has having ownership in your workplace changed your life?

I hate this term of ‘having skin in the game’...

So to make Regather happen I had to put up cash, real money upfront, at the beginning. I raised it from my own sweat and toil, and also persuaded others to relinquish money from their own sweat and toil to put into Regather. So for me, ownership comes with a certain degree of accountability, because essentially that money belongs to the next generation of the family and friends who supported me in those early days, which includes my own children!

…so it made it slightly more precarious, is what you're saying.

To start with, it was a loan. If things didn't go well, then in theory I was closer to the front of the queue, but in reality that’s often not how it can go for founding members.

After converting the loan into equity, the only way I can get that money back now is through withdrawing shares. As it happens, the preferred option is to convert those shares into a kind of annual credit on the Regather veg box scheme that I receive in the form of fruit and vegetables. Sometimes I joke that I'm in fruit and veg until I die. There is a good chance my children will have some for quite a while after that as well!

That's obviously the absolute bottom line. But the relationship I've had with the organisation, the kind of ownership… It comes with an enormous amount of responsibility. You become acutely aware of the relationship that exists between any one individual and the organisation that employs them, the job that they do, the role that they have, and the sense of ownership – or not – that the individual has. Those things really matter.

Is it fair to say that having agency in the workplace was a prerequisite in order to honour that responsibility?

Well obviously, we designed the organisation in the way that we did to give us agency. So the evidence is there that it really, really matters. Because if it didn't matter, then if you think about the evolution of the organisation, we just wouldn't have bothered. It’s not an easy evolution, but the best way to describe it was making a model out of not knowing what we wanted to do. And importantly, drawing on shared ethical values whilst making that model.

We described it very early on as creating a mutual local economy. There's articles in past editions of Now Then that explain precisely that in our very earliest stages of existence. And we knew what that meant in a theoretical, kind of, academic sense. But obviously we didn't really know what that looked like in practice. That's what Regather does – it is a practice… We've done our best to design the agency in, we've practised it and we've retained it as much as we can.

I suppose the challenge I would make to wider society is that this agency doesn't have to be something that is exclusive to being a co-op. I want to believe in the fact that these are qualities that can and do exist in any organisation. It's just that in organisations where this extent of agency isn't a quality, it's because nobody's taken responsibility to design the organisation in that way. Whether it's laziness, or incompetence, or exploitative practices, or oppression, or power relationships, there's so many different reasons why somebody, somewhere – whether they knew it or not – fails to give, or blocks, or takes that agency away from people.

I want to turn the whole thing on its head, and rather than just saying, 'Oh, yeah, we practise agency, and we only can practise that in a cooperative organisation,' practising a particular way of doing things that agency actually could be accessible to anybody. As things stand we are a long way from this, because there's the injustice and the violence of the hostile [economic] environment we all have to live and make a living in. And this is something I've come to really recognise on a deeper, more personal level over the past year, that that environment, the society we live in is, on certain levels, in a variety of ways, fundamentally hostile and fundamentally violent.

What's the best thing that could happen?

Have a situation where there's some, I suppose, solidarity. Let's start with that.

Recognising that we have far more in common than we have in difference, that actually by coming together in solidarity, we stand a much better chance of making the change we want and need to see happen.

Qualities we're talking about – agency, and so on – should be accessible to everyone without having to pull yourself out of the mainstream and create some sort of lifeboat vehicle to exist in a sort of alternate universe. Because that, essentially, is still a mechanism of privilege.

I would argue that I come from a relatively privileged background. It has to be recognised. For me the relationship with that privilege is one of a burden of responsibility.

That's why so often the very bright examples of solutions that do exist get boxed into this kind of like, ‘alternative’... ‘It's the middle class, it's for affluent people, it's for those that can afford it.’ It’s a dilemma we must face up to – recognising the opportunity to be the change, whilst also being responsible for making that change as accessible as possible.

What we need to avoid is when people elsewhere in the population, who might significantly benefit from change, look at that change and go, ‘That's not for us, that’s for someone else.’ This can and does happen, particularly in community development, and for me, as a practitioner, it’s one of the hardest challenges I think we can face.

What commitments do you hold at your work that are important for you to honour?

That's a really difficult question. For me it is anyway.

So I mean, I have commitments to customers. As a business, the customer comes first. I mean, it's a cliche, isn't it? But it’s so true.

I suppose the reason why [the customer] comes very close to the top of the list, if not at the top of the list, is the fact that particularly in a food business of our nature, our service is driven by customer demand. We offer a service, and those people who choose to purchase that service are practising a different form of food system. And without them, that food system wouldn't exist.

What commitments does Gareth Roberts hold?

I have to be honest and say it’s a commitment to myself, my own sense of identity and worth. But then obviously I have commitments to other people as well, particularly my family.

While that's certainly true, that we're all to some extent working for ourselves and our own self worth, you quite particularly have decided to draw your self worth and align it with a wider purpose.

Fundamentally, yeah. So that's a commitment to a sustainable future on this planet, commitment to nature. And it's a commitment to a community like Sheffield.

Next in series

Agency in the Workplace: Doncaster Skate Co-op

Emma and Lewis tell us about how their new co-op took on Twisted Skate Park in Doncaster – a hub for the city's skating community – and their experiences of control and ownership at work.

More Agency in the Workplace

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