Creating a world where people want to work to make a life not just a living is no small undertaking. That is the driving force behind the commercial explosion that is WeWork and was the subject of a recent LCCI breakfast discussion with Dave Fano, the company’s Chief Product Officer and Chief People Officer John Reid-Dodick. Helen Gray was there.
WeWork was established in the United States in 2010 and is now the largest provider of co-working space worldwide. Founders Miguel McKelvey and Adam Neumann both experienced communal living in their formative years, on a commune in Oregon and in a kibbutz respectively, which helped shape their approach to work spaces.
Where other providers might think breakout areas, the entire WeWork model is predicated on creating holistic communities where businesses, and individuals, can thrive and prosper. It’s less about the space and more about the mission.
So when we take a place in a WeWork space, whether as a company base or just to visit, are we truly sitting in the workplace of the future? According to Fano, spaces dedicated to particular types of activity are becoming outdated, along with concepts like urbanization. WeWork think in terms of work/life integration, rather than work/life balance. As he says: “the distinction between working and living won’t matter if people love what they’re doing”. The future will revolve around a new task-based type of space, used in an ad hoc fashion as and when it’s needed. In short, businesses do not necessarily need to invest in what they do not need, for example lengthy and expensive property leases.
It’s a model that clearly works, evidenced by the phenomenal growth rates not least in London which is second in size only to New York. With 14 locations in the capital, set to expand to 20, London WeWork doubled in size in 2016 and 2017 and is primed to do the same next year. Initially attracting small firms and start-ups, larger firms and corporates are now choosing to take space, with companies embracing WeWork concepts as a means of recruiting and retaining the best staff. For example, WeWork has seen a rise in firms choosing to hold their interviews for new team members in their space rather than their own sites and, if optional, employees are choosing companies’ WeWork space as their location of choice. Fano and Reid-Dodick cite evidence of higher levels of employee retention, business success and new lead generation from a base in WeWork.
But it’s not all plain sailing. One of the biggest challenges facing the company is future-proofing technology and ensuring it delivers best in class. Fano: “It’s a challenge when you have to take a very generic approach because the individual firms who make up the community are operating different systems”. This risks lowering the bar in terms of what you can do and makes technological innovation more difficult than it might otherwise be within an individual firm. Garnering business intelligence is more important than ever.
Has there been a seismic shift in generational attitude towards work? Do we need to understand the mindset of the millennials, and the centennials hot on their heels, to future-proof the workplace?
According to Fano, having grown up in the context of a digital world, “millennials are more purpose-orientated and more connected than previous generations of workers with a very high tolerance, verging on excitement, for change.” They are the We Generation. Emotional connections are important. They expect their leaders to be known and they seek connectivity in the workplace. It is the networks that are important, the technology is just the means to create them. However Reid-Dodick is quick to point out that this approach need not be defined by age. We can all participate in the We Generation regardless of in which decade we were born.
Future-proofing has also lead the company to adopt an integrated approach to design, procurement and construction, creating a vertically integrated in-house team, streamlined by technology and with an agile and fully integrated software system.
So where next? Continued rapid physical growth is a given with expansion into growing markets such as China and India together with less obvious choices closer to home, such as the recent foray into Detroit – embracing, or perhaps shaping, a future renaissance in America’s rust belt. And conceptually, Reid-Dodick invites us to think of the organisations of the future as much more porous than they are today. “Companies will need to engage with their eco-systems and build in the organisational agility necessary to do that”. WeWork is a physical manifestation of how organisations will work in the future. As we become more and more collective, we will continue to learn, with leaders simply the orchestrators of the business eco-system, eating last and leading from behind.
Helen Gray is a consultant to LCCI