The origin story of WeWork, the co-working company, might be as big a part of its image as the office space it rents out. Its co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann was raised on a kibbutz, an Israeli cooperative built in the mold of the early twentieth-century socialist Zionists who sought a “conquest of labor” (kibbush avodah) in establishing a homeland for Jews in Palestine. Speaking at a tech conference in New York in 2015, Neumann reflected fondly on his childhood, going to school, eating dinner, and doing homework with the same kids each day. But there was a flaw.
“In a kibbutz everyone makes the same amount of money,” Neumann lamented. “I always remember thinking that it’s not fair that someone’s effort is not being rewarded based on what he puts in.” In starting WeWork, Neumann—a tall thirty-six-year-old, usually sporting a blazer thrown over a WeWork T-shirt—set out to correct the imbalance. He calls his company “a capitalistic kibbutz: On the one hand, community. On the other hand, you eat what you kill.”
Since opening up shop in 2010, Neumann has certainly been eating well. In the wake of the housing crisis, he and his co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, have built WeWork into a company worth tens of billions by following a simple business model: buy large chunks of space in huge metropolitan office buildings, deck them out with desks, walls, and kegs, and then sublet to freelancers, mid-sized companies, and start-up founders at a premium on month-to-month contracts. Don’t sell space, though; sell community, in the form of single-origin coffee and craft beer, a company-wide social networking app, and an office environment that plays as hard as it works. WeWork doesn’t have tenants. It has “members,” of WeWork and of the WeGeneration.
The average WeWork member—a millennial, to be sure—is an almost Platonic ideal of what the journalist Paul Mason describes in his book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future as “the T-shirted techno-bourgeoisie . . . their information stored in the Cloud and their ultra-liberal attitudes to sexuality, ecology and philanthropy.” They represent a “new normal” of office life and life in general: where work and play are increasingly indistinguishable, and both hinge on access to vast networks and limitless streams of information.
WeWork’s network-first approach to work is reflected in its cosmopolitan, creative-class aesthetic. Locations around the world are virtually identical, from San Francisco to the Negev: they all feature the same oak floors, clean lines, and hand-worn metal and wood furniture. Walls throughout the building are plastered with multi-colored, productivity-themed aphorisms like “Hustle” and “Thank God It’s Monday.”
Reverence for hard work is not simply a decorative gimmick, but core to the WeWork philosophy. The imperative to hustle reflects the way the founders see (and wish to shape) the future of work. Meanwhile, WeWork’s popularity is driven—in part—by the increasing atomization of labor, across income brackets. By offering workers an alternative to days spent alone behind a computer, Neumann and McKelvey discovered they could turn a profit by exploiting one of the defining features of work’s so-called future: isolation.
Sharing looks a lot like paying rent
Despite the fact that WeWork has been around for six years and is currently valued at $16 billion, the company is still commonly referred to as a “start-up,” a misidentification the founders are keen to perpetuate. To hear Neumann tell it, WeWork is disrupting work itself, revolutionizing the economy by applying a sharing economy ethos to drab office life. “We are a community of creators,” he told Bloomberg when asked about the company in May 2015. “We create an environment for entrepreneurs and freelancers and we leverage technology to connect people. . . . It’s a new way of working. Just like Uber is the sharing economy for cars . . . we’re the sharing economy for space.”
But sharing, in WeWork’s vision, looks a lot like paying rent. Joining the WeGeneration doesn’t come cheap. A $45 “We Membership” buys access to WeWork’s online community and the ability to work at a location anywhere in the world for two days a month. Dedicated desks in Manhattan range anywhere from $450 to $800, with single occupancy private offices stretching up to $2,100 per month. By square footage, space tends to be more expensive than that in the surrounding neighborhood. Aside from the beer and office services (one year of Amazon Web Services credits, discounted payment processing, lunch delivery, and so on), the price point is said to derive from all the immaterial benefits of being surrounded by young, driven professionals who “do what they love”—a slogan stamped on the coffee cups that line each floor. In April 2016 WeWork opened its flagship WeLive location on Wall Street, offering fully furnished, dorm-like accommodations complete with extracurriculars like yoga, “family dinners,” and building-wide karaoke. Another WeLive, in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, opened shortly thereafter. Members—at work, home, and play—can now lead their whole lives within the WeWork bubble, so long as they can cough up a few grand a month.
Company founders have repeatedly denied that their brainchild is in the real-estate business—in large part through clever branding. Senior staff hold titles like “Head of Community,” and Neumann seldom makes it through an interview or press event without rattling off stories about his childhood in Israel, first years in New York, failed early business ventures, or relationship with his muse-turned-wife. Such tales, too, are why investors and consumers both treat WeWork more like a unicorn than a multinational corporation.
If there is sharing happening, it’s between WeWork and major developers. According to WeWork Real Estate Head Mark Lapidus, the company has built close relationships over the years with real-estate giants like Rudin Management and Boston Properties to negotiate favorable leasing terms. Lapidus calls their landlords “partners,” and notes that “60 percent of our deals probably come through either landlords with existing relationships, where we have other locations, or landlord referrals, or just landlords reaching out to us and saying, ‘Hey, before I put this on the market. . . .’”
Do what you love—or else
What happens inside the walls of WeWork is as old-fashioned as the process through which the company acquires its space. Referring to employees as family members has a long tradition in the corporate world as a means to rebuff organizing drives and calls for higher wages. In the case of WeWork, talking points about community and family have come in handy when deflecting the many labor complaints it has fielded over the last several years.