Note by CoworkZone: Why would any small company want to lose it's privacy / identity and get totally distracted? Want to see employees have great fun, burning hard earned money, rather than work in all seriousness?! Wework and such other places are fine, if your company is large enough, to take a whole floor. But for small companies, it's a nighmare! Talk to us and move your teams to CoworkZone! Affordable, private workplaces!
Open offices don’t work. WeWork is the ultimate manifestation of this bad idea
What was We thinking? That’s the only question worth asking now about the clowncar startup known as The We Company, the money-burning, co-working behemoth whose best-known brand is WeWork.
What’s a WeWork? What WeWork works on is work. The We Company takes out long-term leases on in-demand office buildings in more than 100 cities across the globe (lately, it’s even been buying its own buildings). Then We redesigns, furnishes and variously modularizes the digs, aiming to profitably sublease small and large chunks of office space to startups and even big companies. Well, profitable in theory: The We Company lost $1.7 billion last year.
But this is fine, We said. Unlike other recent troubled startups, which at least had the decency to cover up their scandals, We stands out for its brazenness. Critics have long pointed out that We is saddled with a self-evidently faulty business model that leaves it open to real estate downturns, and that its co-founder and just-pushed-out chief executive, Adam Neumann, was a walking parody of high-minded impulsivity and self-dealing.
And yet since its founding in 2010, WeWork has been one of the most highly-valued startups on the planet, assessed at $47 billion in its last private round of fundraising. WeWork’s Ikea-chic, couch-and-bench-furnished open office aesthetic has also become a cultural template, the sitcom backdrop for a new generation’s workplace travails. We’s founders and investors now often position their company as a workplace innovator — in forcing workers from different companies to work very closely together, We was not only a business marvel but, they suggested, also a feel-good, Goopy force for planetary collaboration and unity.
Then, last week, came the inevitable blow up. After finding lackluster investor interest in its business, We delayed its long-planned stock offering. On Tuesday, the company pushed out Neumann as CEO. The tech business site The Information reported that We is considering laying off up to a third of its work force.
I’ve been hung up on how all this happened: How did so many people put so much money into something so many were warning would end up so badly? What was We thinking?
And then it hit me: We wasn’t thinking.
WeWork? Not really. WeCan’t! We’re Too Distracted!
Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.
The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the past decade, American offices got more and more stuffed.
On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8% since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space.
As a socially anxious introvert with a lot of bespoke workplace rituals (I can’t write without aromatherapy), I used to think I was simply a weirdo for finding modern offices insufferable. I’ve been working from my cozy home office for more than a decade, and now, when I go to the Times’ headquarters in New York — where, for financial reasons, desks were recently converted from cubicles into open office benches — I cannot for the life of me get anything done.
But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work.
Last week, I put out a call on Twitter for stories about this phenomenon; I was inundated with tales of woe.
Nilay Patel, the editor-in-chief of The Verge, told me that he only goes to the office for meetings; for writing, editing and other work that demands concentration, he has to work from home, because the office is far too distracting. “My day starts with some meetings and ends with some meetings, but time in the middle is when I should do work‚ and I think it’s a problem that I don’t see my office as a great place to get that work done,” he told me
A magazine journalist who declined to be named echoed this idea: Because of a lack of desk privacy, “I can’t just make call after call the way I can when I’m working from home,” she told me over text. But working from home brings another set of worries. “A lot of times I’ll write from home, but then I feel anxiety about not being at the office — wondering if my editors don’t think I’m actually working, etc. But solving that — going into the office — means I don’t actually work as much!”
Many companies are aware of the risks of open office distraction, and some are responsive to workers’ concerns. Carmel DeAmicis, who works as an editor at Figma, a software company based in San Francisco, told me that she had to write a lengthy memo to her bosses to get them to set up a “quiet area” in the office. Her effort was successful — she and other workers are now hooked on the quiet area — but perhaps ephemeral. As the company has grown, it has had to claw back some of the quiet area to fit in more desks.
Her experience highlights the have-and-have-not nature of space and privacy at work. People who work for bigger, richer companies are at an advantage. Microsoft is in the middle of a multi-billion-dollar campus redesign, and a key goal, the company says, is to move away from one-size open offices in favor of lots of different kinds of work spaces for different kinds of workers. Your WeWork-bound startup will not enjoy similar luxuries.
The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.
WeWork is the ultimate manifestation of this bad idea. Its rise is a sign that we have no good way, in modern life, to value and guard private, distraction-free spaces. Our online lives are crammed with distraction-free spaces. Our online lives are crammed with distraction, and our work lives are no different, either. WeWork? At best, WeTry!