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10 November 2023

WeWork’s fall proves no one wants to work in utopia

People don’t want mental health webinars or pool tables – just job security, so they can live a life outside of work.

By Pravina Rudra

WeWork has filed for bankruptcy in America. Founded in 2010, the co-working space was the flag-bearer for the sort of open-plan, progressive workplace that provided daily Bikram yoga classes and served beer at 3pm on a Friday. It emerged in the era of Big Tech campuses with ping-pong tables and sushi bars, as parodied by the 2014 HBO series Silicon Valley. At its peak, WeWork had 500,000 users in 111 cities buying into its vision of a “capitalist kibbutz”. But its long-haired, bare-footed founder Adam Neumann didn’t want to stop there – he wanted to “change the world” by bringing people together “in the work environment”.

In a way, Neumann’s vision succeeded. When I worked as a management consultant in the late 2010s, conventional companies increasingly had open-plan offices subdivided by glass partitions – and brightly coloured novelty stools you couldn’t sit on for very long. Work wasn’t just work, it was supposed to be fun, to even “elevate consciousness” as per the repeated slogan of Neumann, who reportedly played “Juicy” by the rapper Notorious BIG whenever investors visited the office. Meanwhile the Wing, a pastel-coloured co-working space that billed itself as a “utopia” for “women on their way”, was founded in New York in 2016 and expanded to London three years later. It became emblematic of the “girlboss” era, and was christened by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

WeWork says it will remain open outside North America, including in the UK, where an email to tenants seen by the BBC claims its co-working spaces will continue to keep providing services “in the vast majority of our buildings”. But its demise in the US was under way even before the pandemic changed office attendances. Neumann stepped down as CEO in 2019 shortly after an aborted plan to go public and the announcement of severe financial losses, spawning WeCrashed, the 2022 Apple TV series dramatising his fall. At the time of its bankruptcy filing, on Monday 6 November, it was worth less than $50m – a thousandth of its peak value of $47bn in early 2019. The hubris of its expensive office leases has been exposed. And work perks in general are disappearing – an analysis of 70,000 posts by tech employees on Glassdoor, the employer review website, found posts mentioning workplace benefits reduced from 8.3 per cent in 2019 to 4 per cent in December 2022.

[See also: Progressives dream of tyranny]

At best, many of the add-ons were impractical. On Twitter, Joe Twyman shared the instructions he sent people visiting his company Deltapoll when they were based in a London WeWork: “Come in and go under the balloon arch, go past the live DJ on your right, past the massive skateboard ramp that doubles as a library and then reception is on your left before the merchandise stand and the arcade machines”. Amid such grand structures was the absence of, say, walls. Who wants to be fired in public, while sat on a magenta beanbag?

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Of course, employees soon realised that these “perks” only served to distract from their employers’ inadequacies. A popular meme from 2021 showed Phoebe from Friends trying to teach Joey to say “reduce employee workloads” – try as he might, Joey can only limply reply “mental health webinar”. It’s now almost a cliché to talk about how unlimited holiday policies, as spearheaded by Glassdoor and Netflix, reduce the holiday people actually take, because they feel guilty

Following the 2012 leak of an employee handbook for a computer game company called Valve where “nobody reports to anybody else”, businesses increasingly sold “flat hierarchies” to potential employees as empowering. But there has been a backlash against such structures in recent years, with business suggesting they obfuscate and minimise accountability: someone always calls the shots, it just isn’t clear who.

At worst, workplace bells and whistles hide something more nefarious. In the case of WeWork, Neumann reportedly encouraged his employees to smoke cannabis in the office while requiring them to work 20-hour days. There have also been allegations of sexual assault by colleagues (which WeWork denied). The Wing, meanwhile, closed last year after previously getting mired in allegations of racism and bad working culture. At one buzzy Shoreditch start-up I worked in, female colleagues discussed how a sexist culture was camouflaged by skinny jeans and Converse trainers. Having a ball pit, funnily enough, doesn’t inure you to toxic behaviour. 

Working from home during the pandemic made people question hustle culture. It became clear that gimmicks such as nap pods and free food were keeping staff in the office longer. Most companies now have a hybrid working policy, meaning employees come into the office far less. The bursting of the unicorn bubble (ie, the realisation that many venture capital-backed start-ups, including WeWork, were overvalued) means ruthless investors’ are rethinking the financing of kombucha taps. Earlier this year, after Google announced 12,000 job losses, the company ditched not only its massage centres and snack drawers, but staplers too.

Neumann wanted to create a workplace in which “people make a life and not just a living”. But people have no desire to live at work – they want a secure, fairly paid job so they can go home to live their lives. They don’t want tequila shots and a performance from Run-DMC to accompany announcements of lay-offs. They would prefer not to lose their job at all.

[See also: The lies we tell about Joan Didion]

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