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14 April 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 10:57am

The travails of WeWork brings home the freedoms of remote working – and the downsides, too

WeWork claimed to be about bringing an increasingly alienated population together. But we don’t need to unite through our work, do we? 

By Megan Nolan

This week I watched a new documentary about the American real estate company WeWork, whose success imploded in spectacular fashion two years ago. WeWork began in 2010 as a relatively low-stakes desk rental service in ­Brooklyn, New York, and eventually came to be ­valued at $47bn as a private company.

Yes, WeWork’s success was in part thanks to the standard confidence tricks of entrepreneurs trying to attract speculative investment, but also to the more particular shaman-esque charisma of Adam Neumann, the company’s co-founder. Neumann’s business was, at its heart, nothing more than a tool to subdivide rental space, but his ­ability to articulate ­appealing new-age nonsense about “togetherness” and “synchronicity” led to WeWork becoming something far bigger.

None of this happened very long ago. But watching the documentary, the ­naivety of Neumann’s employees and clients is strange to witness. It feels dated, of its time. How did Neumann convince them all that WeWork was not only providing rental spaces for their various start-ups, small businesses and freelance gigs, but was somehow a force for good in the world? How did they invest so readily in the fiction of their own profundity – especially as all WeWork’s clients mostly did, aside from tapping at their laptops, was drink funny kinds of alcohol and wear groovy outfits?

Whenever Neumann was asked what his core aim for the company was, he replied each time that it was to “elevate consciousness”. This is typical of the modern type of fundamentally cynical hippie that Neumann and his wife, Rebekah, embody. It means nothing of any concrete material description, but is also in its way perfectly irrefutable. We are all one. You are me and I am you. We are we – and what do we want? We want to make money! “We want to do something that makes the world a better place and we want to make money doing it – it’s OK!” Neumann shouts to an adoring crowd at one point in the film.

WeWork has always held particular ­fascination for me because of its overbearing atmosphere of forced office fun. Now, I understand that most people welcome free beers at 3pm on a Friday and fridges full of natty snacks and so on. Certainly, I have never knowingly turned down a free item offered to me by an employer, regardless of whether I have any use for it. But really, such companies do not offer perks as a bonus or thank you. They offer them as a way to deliberately encourage the erosion of work-life boundaries.

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This is completely overt in the case of WeWork, but is true of many workplaces. If your boss can convince you that being in work is fun some of the time, then it is much easier to establish the idea that your job is an essential part of who you are, and that you shouldn’t ever be switched off from its demands. Many of us are encouraged to see no separation between ourselves as people and ourselves as professionals or workers.

[see also: WeCrashed: the podcast that explores WeWork’s rise and fall]

Our relationship with work has evolved unbelievably rapidly during the pandemic. Many will soon find themselves in the position of grappling with a return to the office, or, just as significantly, grappling with the possibility of working from home becoming a more permanent state. It seems inevitable that, at the very least, home-working will be more of an option in the long term.

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In many ways this would be a hugely positive development. Working in offices often takes large chunks out of one’s day and budget because of travel. Aside from ­logistical concerns, lots of people don’t feel well suited to office life. I’m one of them.

Although I’m an unusually social person in my private life, I found that working in an office exacerbated my anxiety ­enormously, making me hyper-aware of what I was wearing, how I was presenting myself and whether I was coming off as capable or stupid. This had nothing to do with the mostly lovely colleagues I encountered. I found it an unnatural and stressful way to spend so much of my time, and one which had very little to do with my work. Because I am not a highly qualified or educated person, my jobs have mostly been entry-level or menial and I was not ­exceptionally talented at any of them. In the office, that truth felt like the only fact about me.

My personal life, where what mattered was predominantly my friends and family and the fun and support we could offer each other, disappeared. Everything else that made up “me” melted away, and that’s why offices felt so oppressive. It’s not an exaggeration to say I ended up as a writer in large part because I didn’t feel I had the option of being part of regular workplaces any more.

One downside to home-working, ­however, did strike me as I watched the WeWork film. Although there has been a positive bounce following the pandemic, according to the Organisation for ­Economic Co-operation and Development, trade union membership has halved in its member countries since 1985. It seems to me not unlikely that a more atomised workforce may be even less likely to collectivise and respond to calls for solidarity.

Towards the end of the film, a disenfranchised WeWork employee morosely opines about the squandered potential of the company – after all, it was trying to bring people together in an increasingly alienated population. But we don’t need to unite through our work. Our community and connections can and should exist outside of our ability to produce. We don’t need ­co-working spaces and drinks at the office. What we need is the ability to protect our personal life and the freedom to enjoy ­community in our own time. What we need, really, are friends, family and unions. 

[see also: How WeWork foresaw the end of the conventional office]

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people