How the temptation to go all in on this shared work space fad could be compromising the long term strength of your brand
The moment you enter the reception area you immediately feel transported to another world. One, maybe two, cool receptionists are eager to assist you. Warm Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling and every wall is emblazoned with trendy wall paper. There is exposed brick, reclaimed wood and the sounds of lattes entering the world. Its industrial chic, aesthetically pleasing and instantly instagram-able. Each detail has been carefully considered and scientifically planned down to the tiny glass offices buzzing with single workers synchronously typing away while nodding their heads to whatever song or podcast is pumping through ear pods or cans. This place is bustling and full of life. I can almost hear David Attenborough’s voice narrating the scene as if we were staring inside an ant colony.
Welcome to WeWork, the newest alternative to traditional offices and hottest player in agile co-working spaces. I can immediately count many companies that have adopted this collaborative work space model and several small shops that have turned to renting space over signing a lease of their own. This is a growing trend and shared spaces like WeWork seem to be the future. At least for now. Forbes estimates that by 2020 there will be 26,000 of these shared work spaces hosting almost 4 million people. This is a fundamental shift in the way people live and work. But how long will it take for an entire generation of workers to realize that the long term costs may outweigh the benefits. I guess first, you have to ask about and understand the target. I ask because I’m not at all averse to new ideas. To the contrary, I thrive on them. I just can’t help but question what feel like questionable ideas.
The benefits of shared workspaces speak to their target audience
It starts with understanding the target: Millenials. What is the Millenial mindset? What drives them? What are their work habits? Expectations? Experiences? After researching and pulling on my own experience supervising staff over my 20-year career in television I deduce that one of the biggest drivers is fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of commitment. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of making the wrong decision. Fear of failure. Fear of independence. Fear of the system as a whole.
WeWork and other shared space models seem to satisfy a renewed desire for meaningful careers from a generation of workers who has rejected the traditional 9-to-5 and for whom the boundaries between their social life and work life are often blurred. They are searching for meaning and purpose, to be inspired and more importantly, to belong. They want to be part of a community and this is the added value that is both promised to renters and sold to investors.
How did harnessing that desire to belong turn into billions?
This workforce not only craves a space fitted with a few tech bells & whistles, but that are designed for interaction and positioned as a world away from the traditional boring office space providers. One that offers the promise of a vibrant community. “Being a part of something” over “being at work” is an added psychological perk here, as is chugging a few IPA’s at the common area tap. Eugen Miropolski, WeWork’s European Managing Director (and former head of Air BnB’s international operations) sums up their mission this way, “we want to empower people to make a life, not a living.” That sounds like an awesome catch phrase, but what does it mean?
To a group of people who have made it their mission to regress, “making a life” means going against the one thing success in America has represented for all previous generations to have come before them. It means fighting against the goal of independence.
Millenials like convenience and socializing. And these kinds of spaces tend to be located in urban locations. Having a work space close to public transportation, bars, restaurants, apartments and grocery stores is a huge plus. And everyone loves convenience, this is not exclusive to Millenials. The previous generations were just more enamored with the idea of working at a big established company. The fantasy of climbing the corporate ladder all the way to that corner office was a driving force. That dream was destroyed for them hence the resistance to traditional offices and the perceived “grind.”
By that I mean that this wave of co-work space converts is likely in response to an economy in which independent work is more of a default than a decision. The 2008 economic crash forced small businesses like mine and larger corporations alike to cut hours and positions. This created a swell of self employed workers hustling for investors, space, jobs and networking opportunities between large and small companies. It also costs less to rent space than traditional leases (believe me, I know) and you have fewer responsibilities and commitments. You don’t have to deal with water, electric and sewer bills. No climbing up on a ladder to fix those fancy Edison bulbs (what is it with us and ladders?)
I was talking to a fellow business owner a few weeks ago (not in my field) and he was scratching his head over how he could have moved his business into a brand new building which was larger and more suited to all their needs while concurrently losing a majority of his staff. Why? Because he moved off a major thoroughfare into a space neatly tucked away from foot traffic. And although that foot traffic didn’t always yield business or even new customers, it did give his staff the opportunity to feel busy. They interacted with more people each day and as sales people- they thrive on that human interaction to feel satisfied. And when they no longer had that, they left.
The sublet idea is not new but the idea of a co-working space committed to being a community is the more recent trend. I read that the ‘collection of like-minded renters’ idea began with the European hacker spaces of the 1990’s where programmers swapped coding skills. One article called it “techno-anarchism.” In America, the first space of this kind was formed in 2005 in the form of a feminist collective in SF’s Mission District and was called the Hat Factory. They described themselves as a “community office space for geeks and media hackers” and was co-founded by the man who came up with the “hashtag.”
Just kidding. But how is this at all sustainable? How is WeWork, now worth almost $20billion, making money? Some observers in the real-estate industry say WeWork is overvalued and expansion plans are unrealistic because they own few physical assets. Instead, they sign long term leases for a good bulk price and then charge premium rent over the more traditional rentals. But remember, these workers aren’t paying for office space. They are paying for a lifestyle and a sense of community. They are getting the popular open office plans, attention to trendy aesthetics and a business model at an attractive price point perfect for freelancers, start ups and remote groups. And these space were built to be the perfect work community devised using a very scientific approach to design. The architects of these shared spaces studied collaboration and used their huge reams of data to determine which areas were working and where people were sitting by constantly monitoring underutilized areas and changing plans accordingly.
So although I feel as if they have nailed the art and the science, this model still commodifies design into a pre-packaged one size fits all office with industrial surroundings that are perfect for the gram but don’t communicate a unique brand if everyone is sharing the same aesthetic.
The bigger threat: a loss of your brand identity
This one is hard to grasp when you pride yourself on having created a community at your small business like my partner and I have at AlterEgo. Something I find very hard to achieve nowadays. But I do know that your brand is potentially the most important facet of any company. It’s your identity. And it’s essential to design. I recently read an article by two women working in architecture and interior design focusing on workplace research and they asked why any business would buy into a generic branded environment that speaks zero to your unique positioning. They cautioned that although they recognized the appeal of a trendy and attainable option, they cautioned that it is not right for everyone and more importantly for investors, it won’t be cutting edge forever. They begged the questions, what could this mean to one’s reputation over time and claimed that to throw away your brand at the front door is potentially short sighted and dangerous.
As much as I see the appeal and understand the rise of the WeWork model, I have to agree with them when it comes to this.
In my field I have two audiences- my team and my clients. We have also recently rebranded. And the physical manifestation of our identity, values and mission could make or break us. Foregoing a physical well branded space could ripple through into business development, recruitment, productivity and morale. And although I recognize that so much can be done remotely, and some of our clients may never physically come to our shop, we want its appearance to send a message to clients and staff alike- we are investing in you and what we do here. We are putting a stake in the ground for our long term future crafting a brand and conveying it consistently. We represent quality. We stand for something. We have a vision and you can trust that we will be here to see it through.
And in the production work we do, whether it be live action, edit or design, we use design to solve problems. It is not just for instagrammable beauty. Design is a tool in our arsenal that we use everyday to help our clients shine. We understand that by its very definition, good design is tied to each client’s unique challenges and goals and we are thoughtful in crafting a custom solution that will last over time. This means something. I can’t imagine hiring a doctor or a lawyer that presents anything short of permanence and commitment. Not to mention the confidentiality issues associated with shared space.
But we can all agree that WeWork is winning at trends. And there is no arguing that shared agile spaces can be a great solution for individuals, start ups and remote workers. But at some point we are all eventually pushed out of the nest and asked to vacate mom’s basement so she can have that craft room she’s being dreaming of . It’s time to move on from that post college era group house and get your own place.
And that place needs to be designed to reflect your brand and that represents your team. Who are YOU? Here at AlterEgo it’s the hand made Alaskan Cedar wall crafted by woodworker Jason Fox. The midcentury credenzas rescued and lovingly restored by the artists who run PegLeg Vintage in College Park and the custom art of MasPaz, CHELOVE, One9 and Caia Coopman. WE create custom WORK. And that is not only something, it is everything.