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Monday, April 15, 2024

Everything’s a WeWork Now

The SaksWorks coworking space in Greenwich, Connecticut, tucked inside what was once a Saks Fifth Avenue department store, feels like a well-appointed library where no one reads: fireplace, overstuffed couches, and large potted plants. When I visited on a Monday in March, the books lining each wall—grouped by color, not theme—made an appealing backdrop for my afternoon Zoom meeting. There were a few rooms I could have booked to make a more private call, but the space was so sparsely populated that it hardly seemed necessary.

SaksWorks was something of a marriage of convenience for the retailer, which is looking to repurpose some of its real estate as in-person shopping dwindles, and WeWork, the fallen coworking giant that, until recently, managed the space. (Saks parent company Hudson’s Bay Co. has since invested heavily in Convene, a WeWork competitor that will take over.) The unlikely transformation also speaks to a peculiar consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic: These days, anywhere can be an office. And every office feels increasingly like a WeWork.

It’s a surprising turn. WeWork’s collapse is the stuff of legend—or at least of podcasts, books, a Hulu documentary, and an Apple TV+ series. The coworking pioneer had soared to a valuation of $47 billion by 2019 on the back of stylish, amenity-rich office spaces and overeager venture capital. But as the company prepared to go public that year, questions swirled about its viability. Within weeks, Adam Neumann, the charismatic cofounder responsible for much of WeWork’s mythmaking, was out as CEO, the company’s valuation dropped to $10 billion, and the IPO was put on ice.

But while WeWork has become a cautionary tale, office life in the US has quietly embraced several of its core tenets. Many workers who spent the last two years at home—a small portion of the overall labor force—are being called back to offices that look different from the ones they vacated in 2020, with fewer desks and more open spaces designed to foster collaboration. A survey by CBRE, a commercial real estate company, found that 51 percent of respondents expect flex space to make up a significant portion of their offices in the next two years. Even the US government is working on its own pilot coworking space, called FlexHub, for federal workers and contractors. Commercial landlords have been adding coworking spaces to their buildings as well.

Those workers who don’t have a company office to report to also have opportunities to cowork just about anywhere: high-end apartment complexes; Sojo, a Korean-style day spa in New Jersey; and a music venue, bar, arcade, and art venue focused on communities of color called 7th West in Oakland—not to mention WeWork and its many competitors, like Industrious and Daybase. Even virtual coworking spaces have cropped up.

“The office is undergoing a major evolution,” says Paul Fiorilla, research director for Yardi Matrix, which analyzes commercial real estate. Employers, he says, now need to justify to workers why they should show up in person.

In a survey, LinkedIn found that 87 percent of its employees do want to go to the office—at least part of the time. The company lets workers and teams decide when to come in, and it redesigned its Sunnyvale, California, headquarters to emphasize meeting or open spaces over desks, says Shannon Hardy, LinkedIn’s vice president of flex work. It now includes amenities like cafés open outside of mealtimes and library-like “deep focus areas.”

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LinkedIn assigns workers to “neighborhoods,” areas designated for particular teams or job functions. Other companies have embraced “hot desking,” where you show up and grab whatever space is available, or “hoteling,” in which you can reserve your space in advance, usually through an app.

For companies that lease their offices, that switch to a flex space can be an effective way to shrink their footprint and save money—even if some workers have reported that they miss having a dedicated desk. “I would be sad if I showed up one day to a stranger in my seat,” says one Spotify employee, who always returns to his prepandemic spot in the New York office, even though there’s better real estate on offer in his office “neighborhood.” In late 2020, Dropbox ditched desks—and perks such as free food made by chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants— for a “virtual-first” setup. Former employees told Business Insider that the transition hurt the company’s culture and retention.

Even more staid workplaces like banks and law firms aren’t immune to the trend. Last year the bank HSBC switched to open seating—even for executives—in its London HQ, part of a plan to shrink its overall office space by 40 percent, according to the Financial Times. JPMorgan made a similar switch.

Open desk systems are nothing new; advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day notably experimented with it in the ’90s, an effort that WIRED called a resounding failure at the time. Some of the frustrations identified then might be fixed today by software—including an offering from WeWork and Yardi—for booking desks, finding time for teams to work together, and managing how people are distributed throughout the office.

I spent a couple of weeks working out of various coworking spaces, including WeWork’s six-story showpiece overlooking Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, a restaurant that transitions from weekday brunch to happy hour promptly at 2:30 pm, a climbing gym, and an outpost of the Bond Collective so well appointed—“like a Soho House,” one of my WIRED colleagues commented when I sent a photo on Slack—you could almost forget it overlooked a scrap metal yard on Greenpoint’s industrial fringe.

The spaces were inviting, sometimes beautiful, but felt eerily devoid of personal items and collaborative buzz. I found myself occasionally gazing up from my computer or walking down halls of mostly empty glass-walled offices looking for signs of anyone living out the “do what you love” ethos embossed on WeWork’s keycards.

That’s a far cry from WeWork’s heyday, when individual offices were small, but open spaces felt like the lobby of a buzzy boutique hotel. The spaces were a “cool, cool place to work,” says Insurtech CEO and former WeWork regular Paul Gaglioti, citing the events and the coffee, beer, food, and random dogs hanging around. Without that ecosystem of like-minded people in a well-designed space, it’s just “four walls and fruit water,” in the words of one former WeWork employee, referring to one of the company’s signature perks during the days when it was burning through VC money.

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In an effort to get its finances in order, WeWork installed real estate industry veteran Sandeep Mathrani as CEO in 2020, and the company finally went public in 2021. Today its slimmed-down portfolio is concentrated in places like New York, Austin, and Miami, says global head of real estate Peter Greenspan—cities where space is at a premium and creative and entrepreneurial workers cluster. About half of its business comes from large companies, many of which found themselves with what Greenspan calls “albatross leases” during the pandemic: decades-long contracts that no longer fit their needs. WeWork’s average membership agreement is for 20 months, and offices can be configured quickly, avoiding the months-long construction required for more traditional spaces. WeWork has also put more focus on striking agreements with landlords to manage their coworking spaces.

Part of WeWork’s appeal was that it didn’t feel like a corporate office. Now, as WeWork goes more corporate and coworking spaces are invading hollowed-out malls, independent coworking spaces may offer the most potential for the sort of built-in community that WeWork promised in the early days.

Over the past decade, as WeWork gobbled up Manhattan office space, spots like the Lab Miami in the city’s Wynwood Arts District popped up in neighborhoods favored by young creatives. Roxette Miranda, the Lab’s managing director, says that these days members rarely work a full day in the open-desk areas, but they do stop by to tap into networking and social opportunities. The pandemic was hard on indie coworking spaces, many of which closed or face relocation as developers encroach on the locations.

PencilWorks, a coworking space in Brooklyn, opened in 2016 in a former Eberhard Faber Pencil Company building. The spot I booked for a day was austere: a table, concrete floors, a lamp, some outlets. But the space had a communal kitchen and views of Manhattan and a nearby water tower. Tenants were the kind of cool employers that residents of Greenpoint might want to work for: Bandcamp, a small outpost of UNICEF, and an office for local bakery Ovenly. PencilWorks is currently at 70 percent occupancy, down from 99 percent before the pandemic, but on the day I visited, the few offices that weren’t empty only had a worker or two.

It made me wonder: Why not use the money I spent on a day pass at a bar or café instead? So, at 6 pm, I did exactly that, crossing the street to a bar called the Pencil Factory, which is not in a former pencil factory. I counted three laptops, two dogs, a baby, and a person who appeared to be working on an art project. When I loaned the person next to me an iPhone charger, it felt like the most coworking I’d done all week.

The draw of both pencil-spots was obvious: My commute was a 10-minute walk. But after two weeks of solo coworking, I found that I missed seeing the handful of coworkers who come to WIRED’s New York office. And I longed for the desk I’ve unofficially claimed as my own, in defiance of the company’s hot-desk policy.

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