Watching Jared Leto as Adam Neumann in “WeCrashed” walk through an empty warehouse explaining how people would build their futures in a new type of office called a “coworking space” gave me the chills.
It’s exactly the dream I sold people 12 years ago when I started betahaus, one of Europe’s first coworking networks.
My coworking industry friends say they feel the same sense of déjà vu while watching. We were all Adam at some point, relentlessly projecting a bright new future onto old office buildings, winning over landlords, future customers, investors and banks. We exploited partners, friends, family and employees to build our little empires — painfully similar to the series. I may not have gotten a million dollars from my father-in-law like Adam, but I did use the money my grandmother saved for me her whole life to pay for the buildout of our first location.
I even had a brief exchange with Adam back in 2011, when betahaus and WeWork had about the same square footage. But our paths quickly diverged; WeWork raised $15m — and I nearly filed for bankruptcy. Adam stopped answering my emails.
A lot has been written about what the tale of WeWork says about startup culture and cult leaders — and it’s not for me to write about that. But I can say what it means for the future of coworking and our fundamental attitudes towards working.
What other coworking founders thought of WeWork
The biggest contribution that WeWork made to the coworking industry — apart from an epic story — was giving us much-needed credibility in the early days. Its success signalled to established companies and future tenants that coworking was legit.
Coworking founders were simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by the WeWork story at the beginning. Fascinated because Wework was executing on a scale and had access to funds that we all could just dream of. Disgusted because the pace of its growth ran counter to the values that had inspired us to create coworking spaces in the first place — community and openness, collaboration and sustainability and, not to forget, accessibility.
It was clear to us that WeWork wasn’t a tech company like Facebook or Uber, and it was odd that bankers, real estate professionals and investors thought otherwise. The business metrics certainly didn’t support the value of a single WeWork floor in New York being worth more than the whole building (which was the case if you broke down WeWork’s valuation into square footage and lay it over the buildings they were occupying).
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Still, I caught myself more than once thinking, “Maybe Adam knows something I don’t know? Or maybe he's some kind of superhero.”
But now that WeWork’s valuation has come back down to earth, it’s clear there was no magic formula. Coworking is a complicated, low-margin, risky business that requires a lot of capital to start.
Rebekah Neumann was right
Adam’s wife, Rebekah Neumann, famously changed WeWork’s mission to “Elevating the world’s consciousness”. As cheesy as it sounds, she was not entirely wrong — but in a different way than you would think.
WeWork — and the coworking movement — helped “elevate the world’s consciousness” about the future of work. That means helping managers and employees see that we’re living in a world where work and life are no longer diametrically opposed. Just look at the rise of digital nomads, “downshifting” (adopting a simpler life), remote working and increased discussion of work-life balance over the last few years. The pandemic only accelerated this trend.
There is no “one-office-fits-all” anymore. Every single one of us works differently, and each individual now finds out how and when best to be productive by themselves. This also applies to the relationship between work and the rest of life like family, kids, friends, hobbies.
Flexible work and coworking companies have a big role to play in helping businesses transition and provide a certain work-lifestyle to their workforce. We are not here to provide space. We are here to provide an experience.
If you are a hybrid or remote company and you want to nail your employee experience, a boring Zoom screen won’t cut it. You will have to make an effort to give each employee their own personal mix of workspaces, software, perks and benefits, offsites… so get ready.
That said, we are still in the beginning of this shift and most players in the flexible workspace industry today are primarily driven by real-estate metrics. They don’t care about community as long as the spaces are booked and the customers are happy. But their attitude can’t hold back the fundamental change in mindset that has already happened at companies around the world.
So let’s cycle back to the beginning: WeWork still exists but it’s certainly not worth $47bn. Did coworking win or lose? It does not seem like WeWork — or any one company — will ever be able to deliver that highly personalised life experience that people want on their own. Instead the future of work relies on collaboration and the existence of many different providers and services creating the ecosystem of work.
So Rebekah was right and Adam was wrong. Elevating the world’s consciousness can be a noble goal — if the mission is empowering people to live and work as they please. But no one company can do it on their own. Let’s build this future together.