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WeWork: Manufacturing Serendipity


It’s been awhile since we’ve done an exploration on workspaces, and for the ones we did we’ve been focusing on the office designs by particular companies. I want to explore today a theme I’ve been noticing at the place where I work: WeWork. WeWork is a real estate development company that specializes in designing flexible coworking spaces for startups and medium-sized companies. They take out long-term leases on entire floors of office buildings, design the space into smaller units, and sell memberships to startups like Eventful Enterprises who need flexibility much more than square footage. They were founded 7 years ago and is now worth $20 billion, a growth trajectory virtually unheard of outside the tech industry and certainly remarkable for a real estate company that started with nothing.

The ambition that WeWork founder Adam Neumann has been saying in many interviews is that he wants to fundamentally change the way we work, that this company isn’t a challenge to “competitors” like Regus and Liquidspace, but rather a challenge to the incumbent concepts of corporate real estate itself. I have to say, after about 2 years of working at WeWork, I really think they’re onto something really special. I could imagine that at some point companies incubated at WeWork might outgrow this type of workspace, but during the incubation phase itself, the most significant asset of being a WeWork member is having access to all the opportunities of what I call “manufactured serendipity” at the WeWork offices.

Manufactured serendipity is one of the tenets of event design for creating networking opportunities to attendees. Whether it’s at a conference, or a trade show, or a mixer, any type of event really, the design of the event space plays a deceptively instrumental role in influencing where people go and how people interact during the event. Bar counters induce people to interact with strangers, hightop tables induce lengthier conversations with friends, seating areas provide a breather area for people to check their phones, digital screens and interactive visuals create opportunities for people to stand next to each other yet keep mutual engagement optional without being awkward, artwork and still visuals give people the easiest excuse to talk to the strangers next to them. Take a look at these things next time you’re at an event; it’s really fascinating to see how powerful furnishing and space design in influencing people’s behaviors. As we like to say in the events industry, “a person is unpredictable, but people are always the same”

WeWork’s design model (here in Manhattan at least) can basically be summed up as taking a whole floor of an office building, putting private offices on the perimeters that account for about 95% of the floor, and having one large common area that account for the other 5% of the floor. In the building where I’m at, each floor is about 40,000 square feet, and the common area looks like a luxurious 2,000 square feet.

Since the WeWork model runs on membership instead of rent, they allocate by desk space for companies that rent private offices. That way, each person is allocated about 30 square feet of space, which with WeWork’s provided furniture is remarkably enough to feel spacious. A typical office allocates about 150 square feet per employee. At WeWork, they call that a 5 person office. It’s the common areas in the middle where most of the magic happens.

The common areas look almost like those living room in private lounges, with booths and couches and tables and a kitchen, and always some sort of entertainment amenity. On my floor it’s a ping-pong table; in other WeWork spaces, there are arcades, bocce courts, screening rooms, and all sort of other things that makes us feel like we’re working at the Googleplex .

It’s not even that these amenities themselves are anything special; it’s actually the brilliant coupling of the large common areas and the small private areas that gives WeWork companies our most unique sense of community. On a floor like mine, there are hundreds of people from dozens of companies, and the familiarity we develop over time with each other through the facilitation of these common area amenities is all brilliantly designed by the WeWork company. Leads for recruiting, for sales, for complementary services; WeWork produces micro-events every single week for people based out of the office, and it also runs a mobile app that’s like a social network of all WeWork members around the world. Together with the office design, this place is really proving to be a truly special place to work.

See you at the next exploration!



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