WeWork was Silicon Valley’s solution to the corporate burnout problem but now its books, and its leader have gone down in flames. By the fireside, CJ Tayeh reflects on what the company’s decline can teach us about the true value and nature of community spaces.
The day starts at 8am in a white-bricked studio off Broadway Market. Six men exhale and fold their upper bodies forward. They submit their tattooed carcasses to breath, seeking release from the pressures of daily life. The butchers at East London establishment, Hill and Szrok have recently taken up yoga.
Well known for its sustainable approach to killing and eating, the butchery recently turned its attention off its rump steaks and onto its workers. It’s an experiment to encourage staff to honour their physical, mental and emotional needs and an effort to transform its culture into one where such needs are more likely to be prioritised. Above all, it’s an attempt to reduce the risk of burnout.
Though one of the more unique adopters, Hill and Szrok is certainly not the first employer to try taking the pressure down through free yoga, meditation or other means. It’s a rational response to extreme levels of contemporary burnout, compounded with rising rates of social isolation and depression. Where the limbs of work-life and home-life once used to limit each other by virtue of their separation, they are now highly intertwined as a result of the penetrative technologies, systems and the expectations that go along with them.
Whereas the World Health Organisation once classified burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion”, it now considers burnout a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed”. Although whose responsibility it is to manage such stress, let alone take responsibility for it, remains unaddressed. This ambiguous policy approach has allowed the toxic combination of exhaustion, negativity and decreased effectiveness to take hold of our corporate culture. But it has also led to an unlikely antidote - the new world of co-working, which has sought to establish itself as the future’s antidote to hyper-individualism and community decay.
Half an hour’s walk from Hill and Szrok, co-working hubs thicken the Shoreditch streetscape their signposts beckoning the future. The most infamous of these is, of course, WeWork. Currently the company finds itself flogging dead stock in junkyard bond markets across the globe after its IPO backfired in September. But let’s not forget that, for a while, WeWork and its erratic, self-serving founder, Adam Neumann, were considered incredibly successful. To Silicon Valley’s elite, this may have been based on its ability to turn a basic subleasing business into a blinged-up unicorn. But to those of us in the creative and entrepreneurial diaspora, the company’s genius was simply in making work seem less like work.
WeWork’s multi-billion dollar tagline, “Always Do What You Love” was easily conflated with a “Love Conquers All” acceptance of its ostensible world domination. We embraced Neumann’s son-of-God characteristics, his tousled dark hair, his gestures of benediction as he described WeWork’s cultural platform as if delivering a form of Aliyah, a going up to Another Promised Land. “On the one hand, community. On the other hand, you eat what you kill”. The digital nomads loved it but his corporate audience loved it more. Let’s not gloss over the fact that 30% of Fortune 500 companies once worked at WeWork. Major players like Amazon, Starbucks, Facebook and Thrive migrated to Neumann’s “capitalist kibbutz” trying to tap into the “higher consciousness”, and the free 3pm beers.
At face value, WeWork’s offering reduced the cost of real estate for hulking corporations that still needed to act and react quickly. But the real cost reduction was in the transference of responsibility: WeWork became the custodian of corporate culture. Its proposition combined community with cut-throat capitalism, which made companies stretched to beyond-human scale feel human again.
How was WeWork able to achieve this? The answer is simple, albeit slightly incredulous - WeWork became an unlikely expert in psychological safety. Its co-working spaces may well be the sum of measured efficiencies and predicted utilisation, but that’s certainly not what they feel like. Natural light, high ceilings, a couple of comfy mohair chairs astride a vintage Ourain rug, all reflect an intention to create an environment where we feel safe to think and act according to our truest selves.
It’s easy to look at these extravagant fit-outs and criticise Neumann for overspec-ing and overspending; the people who matter already have. But when we look at this approach as part of an intention to create safe, unshackling spaces, it makes more sense than we care to admit. WeWork drew on the tried and tested technique of “treating oneself and one another” to hack its way to safety - via luxury. The company leaned hard into luxury until it leaned too far, contributing to its untenable burn rate.
Eleven minutes from Shoreditch and £6-10 later, men and women in pin-drop heels and pinpoint collars nod to their Uber drivers as they recite numbers into their smartphones. From towering monuments to the Marshallian Cross, they dedicate themselves to observing the market value of things. Except not some things - safety, community, love, care - are obviously valuable but they don’t have a value like real estate.
Each year, local government authorities sell off an average of 4000 community properties: buildings and places owned by the state for use and enjoyment by the public. Nominally, this is the equivalent of selling all the UK’s Starbucks stores about four times within a year, or all the UK’s WeWorks, about 63 times over. The commercial sale of community property evidences the current political-economic climate that is, like many of these properties, in a state of disrepair. But it also reveals a deep-seated misunderstanding of why buildings and spaces hold value and how we build on this value.
It is generally accepted that the value of a space is determined by two types of drivers: the utilitarian, based on how useful they are to us, and the hedonic, how pleasurable they are. Community spaces are unique in this respect because they are intended to meet multiple use cases and enhance collective well-being. They are designed to link people to local services, opportunities and ultimately to each other. Based on this understanding, community spaces, seem to manifest incredible value, or at least, incredible potential value.
WeWork’s business hinged on its ability to identify the potential value of community spaces and execute strategies to their realisation. To Silicon Valley hunters and punters it seemed an exhilarating retail play, but in truth WeWork was following an orthodoxy that grown and gone with the decline of the welfare state. Unintentionally and even unwittingly, WeWork’s rapid growth builds a business case for investment in community spaces. What WeWork’s experience doesn’t offer is a model answer for where that investment should go.
Dedicating 200 million pounds to pre-opening location expenses might seem understandable when you can leverage a 40 billion valuation. Luxurious fit-outs give some of us a reason to work at WeWork, but they give many more a reason not to. In this way, luxury was one of WeWork’s strongest drawcards, but at the same time it was one of its greatest limitations. WeWork built safety but it also built exclusivity, and in doing so it designed spaces that were destined to close in on themselves rather than expand - and community spaces need to expand.
Ray Oldenburg describes community spaces or “third places”, as neutral, inclusive and expansive. His seminal urban design study, The Great Good Place, describes third places as a counterweight to “the tendency to be restrictive...open to all and...laying emphasis on qualities not confined to status distinctions”. According to Oldenburg, expansive spaces are equalising spaces, but expansion also implies some kind of growth or flourishing. To Robert Bevan it’s a kind of emerging, where messy layers of multiple authenticities embed complexity, plurality and creativity.
What’s the recipe for truly messy community spaces? Brian Eno and Finn Williams propose that the secret sauce is open source. By creating simple systems and taking an “open-ended approach [that] leaves more space for a plurality of voices to shape their environment...it makes it less likely that our places are defined by individuals or exclusive groups within society and more likely that they belong to the Wider We.” Spaces become self-authoring when we allow multiple authors to experiment with their meaning and guide their evolution.
The Wider We is an expansive, inclusive idea - and that’s what makes it a radical one. To Eno and Williams, a Wider We connotes a “Bigger Here” and a “Longer Now”. It’s a call to design with and for decentralised control. In this way, it summons us to give up power so that lesser heard voices can take up power. It’s a call to move beyond the narrow, fear-based dynamics that are suffocating our communities and our corporations. Yet ultimately the Wider We is a way of reflecting on the choices we make and the lives we lead, for at the heart of a Wider We, is a Smaller Me.