“Workspace + Worklife.” I used this tagline in the early days of BEAHIVE and was reminded of it while reading “The Rise of the WeWorking Class” in the New York Times Magazine.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus spent a year visiting various WeWork locations in “six or seven” cities. (He couldn’t remember exactly how many because they all look alike?) The result is a 5,000-word deep dive. While his focus is WeWork, WeWork is really just the photogenic celebrity poster child of what the coworking movement has represented since its emergence in the mid-aughts.
Besides spending time at several spaces and experiencing what it’s like to be there, he also places the current evolution (and future) of work culture into its historical context, touching on sociology and anthropology as much as organizational management and economics.
What he discovers through all this exploration is that, at its core, “The co-working [sic] giant’s real product isn’t office space — it’s a new kind of ‘corporate culture,’ built for a 21st-century economy in which workers are on their own.” That’s a deeper realization than what most observers experience.
“When people at the company try to explain that culture, they invariably resort to talk of positive energy sources and the obligation to heal the social fabric — a vocabulary traditionally associated with utopian architecture, 1980s academic communitarianism or ayahuasca experimentation. They affirm that all the ostensibly small incremental niceties add up to more than the sum of their parts, and on some level I couldn’t help agreeing.”
Lewis-Kraus does a respectable job capturing the true essence of the coworking movement — or at least of us idealistic pioneers in the “movement” versus most of the later entrants attracted by what has become a mushrooming sector of the real estate “industry.”
Changing Nature of Work
I’ve talked (and written) quite a bit over the years about the changing nature of work, in part reflecting the changing nature of our economy.
For example, I wrote about a comprehensive 2017 study that showed that at its current growth rate, the majority of the US workforce will be freelancers by 2027. This workforce grew at a rate 3x faster than the US workforce overall since 2014 — and more than half of them started freelancing just within the last three years before the report.
No doubt this has major ramifications for our economy, politics, and culture — and is a major factor contributing to the explosion of coworking in recent years.
An Idealistic Vision
My vision for BEAHIVE since launching in early 2009 (before WeWork, I might add) was only partly inspired by the coworking movement. The larger aim is to inspire and facilitate new thinking and action to address community issues and economic development in a sustainable way that meets the needs of all our citizens.
That said, coworking is an integral part of the mission, leveraging the energy and skills and perspectives of the internal community of members and driving foot traffic and energy to contribute externally to community vibrancy and the local economy.
Coworking is also the basic business model that supports the larger vision — what Lewis-Kraus labels, in WeWork’s case, “‘office culture’ as a service.” He proffers, “The conviction behind the rapid growth of WeWork is that the office culture of the future is likely to be the culture of the future, full stop, and that it is WeWork’s special vocation to bring it to market.”
While I’ve often referred derisively to the 800-pound gorilla as the Starbucks of coworking, we have to give them mad props for mainstreaming the movement’s near-utopian community ethos.