Bye bye WeWork, hello coworking

First published on November 8, 2023 by Gilbert West. Context is important.


So it finally happened. Like the baddy’s car tumbling interminably down a cliff in a crime drama, WeWork finally hit the bottom of the ravine and exploded. There’s no need to cover Adam Newman’s epic failure here as it has been serialised in podcasts and TV programmes. But I do think it’s useful to figure out where coworking often goes wrong and how it can get back on track.

I haven’t written about coworking for nearly a decade, but I live in a small town now and coworking is trying to arrive here. There are a few nascent projects having varying degrees of success. So I’ve been thinking about what it was that made for a coworking success nearly 20 years ago and why so few manage to create genuine coworking environments. To be precise, I don’t actually think coworking went wrong. I just think a lot of things that aren’t coworking, tag on the term because they think it’s a differentiator for their shared office space. But that’s the fundamental problem. They have a business renting space and they put that first. Coworking has to put people and connection first in order to make the space work and pay for itself. It’s not just a shared space with free treats.

The following comes from my experience of being part of different coworking communities in New York, Brussels, London, Nairobi, Edinburgh. I didn't just lift them from a book, but my old pal, Ramon, did write THE book, if you are interested. (Sorry Ramon, I still haven't read it :-)

When does coworking flourish?

Coworking works best for freelancers. At its best, a coworking space becomes a distributed company centred around projects. Longer term business partnerships may flourish, but they don’t have to and that’s attractive to freelancers. People can come together to work on projects based on needs and hand on work that they don’t have capacity for.

There has to be a paid staff dedicated to the management of the space. A good host will facilitate introductions and recommendations. This is good for the customer, but it also sustains and grows the coworking business through reduction of churn. Flexibility and a range of plans is core. This helps with the on-ramp for freelancers considering coworking. Many of them have to make a leap of faith that paying several hundred pounds each month is a better deal than their spare room at home which they think costs zero pounds or the local cafe which they also think is free … Flexibility also allows for a seasonality that occurs in certain types of freelancing experience. E.g. small startups that may have summer internships, accountants that have rush periods, summer lulls due to school holidays etc.

A coworking space should also be a learning environment, ideally with dedicated large meeting rooms that can host free short seminars where individual customers can showcase their skills and share knowledge and external providers can also come in and market their services. Full day or half day courses can also provide an opportunity for paid course providers and revenue shares between the coworking space and their customers who can offer training. Don’t just see your space as a rentable unit. Free events bring new potential customers into your building. It’s a cost to you, but it’s the cost of marketing your coworking space.

Likewise, you can become an event hub in the evening for communities of interest that you already host at the coworking space. The obvious examples are tech and design workers who are usually eager to run meetups and share knowledge, but you know your audience. More mature companies in the space will be able to help things be more convivial by sponsoring drinks and nibbles.

People will outgrow your coworking space. That’s OK, see that as a marker of success. As people form companies and they grow, they need more privacy and they need to arrange their space in a way that works best for their team dynamics. They need to be able to lock stuff up, they may - depending on their sector - need a dedicated secure internet connection and they need to “own” the wall space so they can share information openly, but not publicly. If a coworking space can offer a pathway to private offices alongside your coworking space then great. It can offer more stable income for your coworking business, but it can be a distraction and requires much larger premises. If it is an option, I’ve seen scenarios where the businesses that grew into permanent spaces have then overspilled into the coworking space as they continued to grow and just as importantly, used the services of freelancers in the coworking space.

How to put the co in everyday coworking?

Even if you don’t have enough break out space for events that help your coworking customers shine, you can still animate your space in a way that fosters connections and in particular helps new arrivals see the value of coworking more quickly.

You have to be hands on with your community in a light touch way that facilitates interaction and connections, but still ensures people have ample heads down time to do the deep work. Address some of the reasons people choose to cowork;

If we take these three needs, you can introduce these into your coworking space with some simple, regular, optional events that punctuate the week e.g.

Rodeos - people that want to participate stand in a circle and in 60 seconds say who they are, what they do, what they can offer or what they are looking for (e.g. a translator, designer, contract specialist etc). Done on a weekly basis this helps people refine their pitch, understand what skills are available in their coworking community and it’s great for introducing new members. After the initial 60 second pitches people can stay and chat, discuss projects and opportunities or just go back to work.

Accountability check-ins - At the start of the day, as a group, write down what you will achieve on that day. Use a whiteboard or similar, then check-in with the group at lunchtime and at the end of the day. This is great for productivity and like the pomodoro technique, over time it can help people be realistic about what they can achieve and set better deadlines/price projects more appropriately. They will become more aware of the impact of interruptions, things they did do that they didn't need to prioritise and maybe recognise that some of the things that happen in their day that they don't think of as "work" are actually part of their work.

Eat together - food is very specific to local culture so I won’t say much. Eat together, away from your desks, even if it’s just a small group in a meeting room. Cook together or for each other if you really want to build bonds.

Walk/Wheel - engineer opportunities for people to get up from their desk and do things like go for a walk. Some workplaces have groups that go running at lunchtime, but try and keep your outdoor activities as accessible as possible.

Whiteboard of opportunity - this is like a permanent manifestation of the rodeo concept. Have a whiteboard somewhere that people can up write up opportunities to join projects or hand on work they don’t have time or skills for.

Manage quiet versus chatty time - some places have sufficient space to have a quiet room and a noisy room. This allows coworkers to move between rooms depending on their mood or their tasks for the day. If your building doesn't allow for this, there are mechanisms to work around this. Individuals can signal when they are open to chatting and when they need to be absorbed in a task without interruption. Figure out your own mechanism for this, but one example that has been tried was to put a cone/pyramid on each member’s desk. If the cone is vertical, they are not open to chatting. If they tip it over, they are open to chatting. Now by chatting I don't just mean, "Hey how was that party you went to?" It can also be stuff like, "Hey I see you use Figma, I'm thinking of switching to it, can I ask you a couple of questions?"

Picture board - have a photowall where each member introduces themself with a picture and a bio. I know you’ll have a digital version of this in your coworking space management tool, but nobody will look at that. Your staff will and should. Members won’t. Some members may not even show up at the space very often. A photowall helps build connections between people who are looking for particular skills, but are rarely if ever in the building at the same time.

If you can implement some of these and listen to your members then you’ll start to see real connections flourish in your coworking space. If that’s not for you then just acknowledge that you’re in the business of real estate rental. There’s nothing wrong with that and there’s plenty of scope for the two to coexist.

WeWork wasn’t actually a steam pile of co-dung

WeWork did actually deliver value for its customers. It just didn’t manage to capture enough value for itself to recover from the horrendous mismanagement of the early years. It believed its own hype and ignored business fundamentals and by the time that people who understood that it was a personality cult, not a business were at the helm it was only fit for managed decline. WeWork's incarnation #1 screwed over a lot of employees along the way, but the customers loved what it offered; but not because it was coworking.

All counter movements are eventually subverted in the name of marketing

Before I go, a quick loop back to Adam Newman, SoftBank and the downfall of WeWork. One of the greatest films ever, that everyone should watch multiple times, opens with a fake quote from Mark Twain.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Coworking was (is?) a movement. The mainstream real estate sector saw its success/hype and latched on to it without understanding it. Blind faith in hype and even worse, blind faith in your own hype leads to downfall. Unfortunately, it can also take down others. I hope WeWork's long demise doesn’t leave a stain on the coworking landscape that leads people to conclude that coworking doesn’t work. It does, you just have to do it right and for the right reasons.

I've written about coworking in the past. If you go this far, you might like those too.

2014 A tale of two coworking spaces

2012 The magic of coworking