Designing work space for diversity?  Would coworking be a good tool?

The pandemic has been terrible for commercial real estate.  Worse, it looks like there will be a lot less demand for office space as we come out the other side, especially in city centers where the “prime” properties are.

The coming thing seems to be “flexible work” and “hybrid workplaces”, i.e., a lot more workers working remotely most of the time, and in person offices used less, and always in concert with remote work.  (E.g., see Microsoft’s take on things [1].)

On another front, we are wondering if remote working is better or worse for social equity in the workplace. So far, it looks like there are plusses and minuses.

Overall, no one really knows exactly what comes next.


In this uncertain environment, people who design workspaces are trying to figure out what to do next. 

If there will be fewer offices, and we will be using them differently, how should offices be designed?

Along these lines, I was interested to see what design firm Spacestor (“California Cool, London Design”) means by “Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace [2]. 

Inclusion and diversity are not only the flavor of the month for businesses, they reflect the defining political issue of our time.

So what does this mean for workspace design?

First of all, I noticed that their current product is not actually office space, but a phone booth for virtual meetings (“Residence Connect”).  Undeniably useful, I suppose, especially if office workers are going to spend a lot of time zooming with remote colleagues.  And I guess we can take this as sort of a ‘mini-office’.

But, what are the key design innovations for “inclusion”?

And what, in fact does “inclusion” mean in this context?

As it happens, this group is mainly interested in accessibility across a broad range of abilities.

“[T]he design of Residence Connect affords an equitable experience for all users, regardless of their abilities”

(From [2])

Hmm.  This is not as ground breaking as one might imagine.  I mean, the ADA is 40 years old in the US, so all office space is supposed to be accessible.

I don’t want to pick on this company or product too much, but I have to say that most of the “innovations” are standard stuff—lighting, color schemes, door handles.  And they mainly address mobility issues. 

This isn’t even particularly inclusive. People with limited vision gain little from fancy lighting, and people with limited hearing benefit little from fancy acoustics.  And, by the way, video conferencing is more and less unusable by people with various sensory abilities.

And, most of all, many of us were thinking about social diversity and inclusivity as well. 

I have to say that, how ever cool the video booth may be, there isn’t much about a one person office that encourages or fosters any kind of social interaction, let alone racial, gender, or any other equity. 

This fact is clearly acknowledged by Spacestor itself, who remark, “true inclusivity is a matter of effective leadership and the organization has to have a true culture of inclusivity and diversity.”

So, in fact, “designing for inclusivity” has relatively little to do with furniture, and everything to do with leadership and behavior.

It looks like Spacestor’s headline is mainly PR, catching attention by referencing an important issue that their produce isn’t really about.  Sigh.


So, what kinds of things would you do to really design for inclusivity in a “hybrid” working environment with lots of remote and rotating in person workers?

Well, this is one place where the experience of coworking spaces might be really, really relevant.

Because, what you might want to do is create community.  And this does not come from office design (see WeWork), it comes from authentic leadership and interpersonal relations.

Now, coworking isn’t guaranteed to create a perfect working environment, and certainly isn’t immune to the usual office hazards of excess testosterone, buddyism, racial a-holery, and so on.  But the good news is that it should be possible to boot up many small coworking spaces, so workers can vote with their feet, to choose their own poison.

And, by the way, it looks like there will be quite a glut of office space as we come out the other side of the pandemic, so it will be economically possible for a lot of people to make their own small, local, coworking spaces.

So—“hybrid workspaces” == coworking spaces?  Or at least, a coworking space is one good way to implement “flexible” work.


  1. Microsoft, The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?, in Microsoft Worklab, March 22, 2021. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/hybrid-work
  2. Spacestor, Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace, in Spacestor, March 5, 2021. https://spacestor.com/insights/industry-trends/designing-for-inclusivity-in-the-workplace/

Book Review: “Billion Dollar Loser” by Reeves Wiedeman

Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman

What is Coworking?”  WeWork is one way to do coworking, at least, they called it “coworking”.

I have been writing about coworking for quite a while now.  I think my own book, “What is Coworking?” (2018) may have come out right at the highest point of this wave of coworking [2].

(This article was posted earlier here.)

Rising in the great recession, coworking marched in step with the gig economy and the digitally enabled nomadic worker.  There have been lots of words spilled about the perceived merits of coworking, but my own view is that coworking spaces are, in the memorable phrase of Zachary Klaas, a “respite from our isolation” [1].  Gig workers and remote workers are often lonely, and when it works well, coworking helps workers to be less lonely.

This wave of coworking has crashed as the pandemic has enforced isolation and hollowed out the gig economy.  Freelancers are unemployed and broke, coworking spaces are closed and many will never reopen.  No one really knows what coworking will look like on the other side.

But coworking was already declining before the pandemic, because the business was cycling down, driven by the spectacular boom and bust of WeWork.  Over the years, I have criticized WeWork as misunderstanding the concept of coworking—coworking is about community, not about office space—and pursuing a debt and venture funded fueled drive to monopolize the business.

This was, as I said many times, bound to fail. And fail it did.  Spectacularly.

Reeves Wideman recounts this story, which is mainly about the man behind the curtain, Adam Neumann.


It’s not a pretty story.

If nothing else, this story shows us that access to too much money can be very bad for you and everyone around you.  Massive amounts of money to spend magnifies personal proclivities, and generally convinces you that you are and infallible genius.  You aren’t.

In this book, Neumann is portrayed as a great salesman, able to talk people into giving him absurd amounts of money. He was also able to talk subordinates into enduring absurd abuse.  I have worked with great salesmen <<link>>, and also not to mention a lot of people who incorrectly believed they are great salesmen.  Neumann doesn’t sound that impressive to me, but maybe I’ve grown calloused.

And this is anotherd thing we see in this book.  The people Neumann was mostly selling to were businessmen (yes, mostly men) within the culture of contemporary global venture capitalism and real estate.  This culture talks about capitalism and rational risk taking, but also admires a strain of swashbuckling, irrational exuberance.  In this case, too many people bought the sizzle.

What did Adam Neumann do that was so wrong?

From my point of view, his greatest crime was misrepresenting the concept of “coworking”.  In then end, WeWork was mainly a flexible office space company.  They dressed the enterprise up with the terminology of coworking, but this was never really what they were doing.

But since he had billions of dollars to play with, his misunderstanding was taken as gospel by far too many people.

This misunderstanding was expressed in many ways.

Coworking originated as a low tech, bottom up, movement—independent workers sharing a workspace and building a local, face-to-face community.   Community is central to coworking, but it is all about a set of people that you meet in person and know in person.  This is going to be no more than a couple of hundred people, probably fewer. That’s just an anthropological fact.

Neumann talked about community, but obviously did not understand what that meant.  He talked about “scaling up”, about creating a community of millions or hundreds of millions.  This is absurd.

So, in my view, WeWork’s basic idea could never have been achieved, in principle.  Scaling up “community” does not work, will never work, and, I would say, cannot work.

Second, WeWork’s efforts ‘community’ were sort of modeled on social media, so they worked on a lot of surveillance technologies.  For example, they toyed with tracking the behavior of their victims customers members in the space. While this data might (slightly) improved the efficiency of the office building, monitoring the behavior of your customers in this way doesn’t really benefit the customers.

(I’ll also point out that the prototypical coworker is a freelance, gig worker who generally does not want to work for an organization that will track his or her every move, the better to exploit him.)

WeWork had a serious streak of “cargo cult” about them. Their offices mimicked the luxurious workspaces of Silicon Valley, presumably hoping that this would attract the magic “cargo”, the exciting success of start ups .

Free food, game rooms, butcher block tables, beer on tap, parties. This stuff may have made their (self-selected) customers happy, especially when the rent was free.  But, as in this case of  Elizabeth’s black turtleneck, this is mistaking the appearances for the reality.

If anything, WeWork was a Potemkin village.  A fantasy of Silicon Valley startup workplace, to be available to every gig worker.  Their product was this stage setting, with little inside.

One memorable example is that WeWork designed their workspaces with really narrow hallways.  This layout is obviously good for the operator, jamming more offices into the same space.  But the company claimed, preposterously, that this design promoted “community”, by forcing people to interact as they walked the halls.  Bad design dressed up with dubious sociology.  No wonder they went down.


This whole story would be laughable had Neumann not been able to glom onto insane amounts of money, many billions of dollars.  And he showed us that any idiot can build an empire if he has access to infinite funding.  Give me 30+ billion dollars and I can buy and renovate hundreds of buildings, too.  Create a sustainable business?  Not so easy.

Unfortunately, WeWork did a lot of harm with the money, through its massive campaign of predatory pricing.  They would outbid competitors for space.  They would set up near a competitor and offer free rent to draw off customers.  They bought out competitors and made special deals to break up partnerships.

Again, if you give me billions of dollars to play with, I can put my competitors out of business.  This isn’t innovative, and it doesn’t create value or a viable business.

In face, WeWork bled money. They lost billions over the years, seldom making a profit.

How could they keep going so long?  In this case, the magic of venture capitalism operated as a form of Ponzi scheme, paying off early investors with money from later investors and current rents.  This game was made possible by a consistently dishonest management and accounting within the company, as well as abusively low wages and exploitation of their workers.

Growth was everything, no matter the cost.  This was a cancerous version of what Silicon Valley calls “blitzscaling”—spend whatever is necessary to capture customers as fast as possible, aiming to create a monopoly.

Blitzscaling is a dubious strategy in any circumstance.  But in the flex office business it was idiotic.  I could never work.

Of course, WeWork did lots of other stuff that should have been a warning.  Neumann took shares that had 10 and then 20 votes each, assuring that it was a one man show.  He consistently hired friends and family. Adam and spouse Rebekkah indulged personal projects and raked off obscene amounts of money.

And things evolved into some kind of spiritual quest, supposedly based on Kabbalah. By the end, the goal of the company had become “raising the consciousness of the world”, or something like that.  Whatever that means, it certainly isn’t “coworking”.

But the nonsense was enabled by willful blindness, ignoring the losses, the misbehavior, and the extreme implausibility of the sales pitch.  It couldn’t possibly last.

And the end did come.  Burning cash at an insane pace with no profit on the horizon, WeWork eventually ran out of chumps private funders.  They had to try to go public with an IPO.  Neumann waited as long as he could, because he would not be able to control a public company as a personal toy.

The problem is, an IPO requires real accounting and a real business plan.  Investors expect the company to make a profit someday.  Worse, the SEC and public investors are skeptical and do not swallow nonsense so easily.

WeWork’s IPO was comically rushed, incompetent, and disastrous.  To be fair to the people who worked hard on it, they were definitely swimming up stream.  WeWork was a shambles which did not resemble anything like a well run company.  Lipsitck on a pig, etc.

As the IPO was pushed off, it became clear that, absent that hoped for infusion of money, WeWork would run out of cash in weeks, not months.  And it was obvious that the impediment to finding new money was crazy boy Adam.  So he had to go.

With Trumpian chutzpah, Neumann received about a billion-dollar payoff to leave the burning wreck he had created.  (We are not surprised that the Neumanns are friends with another over-entitled, under-performing couple, the Kushners.)  That payout is in dispute, but the Neumann’s had already sucked about that much out of the company already, so they will not be starving.


I wanted to read this book to learn more about this most famous and most notorious example of “coworking”, which I considered to not even be real coworking.

I learned a lot that confirmed my early impressions.

I also learned a bit more about how venture capitalism works, especially at the highest levels.

We also see how the 1% self-deal and generally indulge their whims, without a qualm and without criticism.  These “makers” do not generate wealth, they pay themselves and their friends to destroy wealth, and to destroy lives in the process.

It’s truly disgusting.  It seems that if you’ve got enough money, you can do anything you want.


  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. 2018, Robert E. McGrath: Urbana. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/
  3. Reeves Wiedeman, Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork, New York, Little Brown and Company, 2020.

(This article was posted earlier here.)

What Should Coworking Become? Bring Your Own Cubicle?

Is this “The End of Open Plan Coworking Spaces”?

Most coworking spaces offer open plan office spaces.  (Tellingly, other options usually cost extra—the clearest possible indication of the relative value of open office space.)

Unfortunately, sharing a table with strangers is pretty much the worst possible thing to do during the pandemic.  Most coworkers work at home some of the time, so I’m sure that many have transitioned to working at home almost completely, even if their coworking space is open (which a lot are not).

If workers ever needed a respite from our isolation [1], we need it now. So what can be done?

The Global Coworking Un Conference (GCUC) folks have been seeking solutions (mostly through virtual connections). 

This fall they are promoting a gadget that might help.  As in many retail settings, the idea is to add a transparent screen, so coworkers can be near each other but not breathing on each other [1].

To me, this is basically a DIY kit for converting an open plan desk into a (cruddy) cubicle. Is this a step backwards? 

I.e., both the hardware and the safety protocols that go with it must surely negate much of the benefits of the open plan coworking. 

No hugging.  Very limited “looking over the shoulder”.  No standing around in the break area.  Heck, there may be no break areas.  So, basically, very, very limited coworking.

Still, needs must.  Even this limited social interaction may be better than nothing, and may help us get through this very bad two years.

Now, I personally still wouldn’t go into a coworking space, screens or not.  Indoor safety depends a lot on the air flow.  In a big room with shared tables, we’re probably all sharing each others’ used air and touching the same surfaces. That’s not safe, and these spit guards don’t do anything at all to change the air circulation or clean the air or surfaces.  So, these screens are really not that useful.

The bad news is that really good internal air quality is hard to achieve and generally very expensive, and cannot be reverse engineered into an existing building. The odds that a given coworking space has really good air are slim.

I guess the good news is that a large open plan space could be relatively safe, provided you keep the number of occupants low—and they don’t get close to each other.

So, you probably can think about entering a coworking space, but only a few at a time.  But it really cannot provide most of the critical social interactions that are the vital, beating heart of coworking communities. 

It’s going to be a hard two years for coworkers and coworking operators.

I don’t really know what things will look like on the other side.


  1. GCUC, CoScreen by GCUC, in GCUC Community – Shop, September, 2020. https://gcuc.co/product/coscreen-by-gcuc/
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

Coworking in an Urban Forest

This spring Nicolas Carvajal reports on a new coworking space in LA “in an Urban Forest” [1].

A green village of offices creates a community for the working individual surrounded by a dense urban forest in the middle of busy Los Angeles.” [1]

OK, this sounds pretty cool.  Goodness knows, a bit of “forest” would be very welcome in LA.

In fact, it sounds too good to be real.


First, this doesn’t look much like a “forest” to me, urban or otherwise.

It’s more building than trees (sixty “rooms”), and the entire area between buildings appears to be paved.  So, this looks more like a garden than a forest.

Other than the extensive gardens, the workspace and facilities are pretty similar to a lot of rental office space.  Presumably there is more external light and air than a office tower (though that is not necessarily all that great in the LA basin), and it seems to all be on ground level, so that’s good for those of us not in love with high rise buildings.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a workspace in a garden, IMO. In fact it sounds nice.

As their web site suggests, this is a “post-WeWork” space.  Or at least a “different that WeWork” space.  So yeah, that’s good.  Though I’m not really looking for a “WeWork” of any kind, myself.

I don’t live anywhere near LA, so I can’t easily visit in person to check it out.  Maybe the next time I’m there, I’ll pop in to see what it is like.


  1. Nicolas Carvajal, Co-Working in an Urban Forest, in Pop Up City, March 11, 2020. https://popupcity.net/observations/co-working-in-an-urban-forest/

Coworking Researchers Meet In Warsaw

The Coworking Library held a “meetup” in Warsaw in November [1].  The speakers discussed their current research on coworking in Europe.  I’m very glad to see that coworking is (finally) attracting attention of social scientists.  I’ve been saying for a long time that there is a lot of interest here, and these investigators are taking interest.

This particular meetup was fairly informal, a sort of “what have you been working on” session, rather than refereed papers.  (There are papers associated with the research, but those are reported elsewhere.)

So what have these folks been working on?

The overall impression is that the big picture hasn’t changed.  Coworking is still about “community, community, community”.  And the reported benefits are about the same as reported many times before, including in my book.

One of the speakers (Marko Orel) discusses a taxonomy of coworking, i.e., what do people mean by the term?  As he points out, the terminology has been evolving and mutation rapidly.  And, I would add, the terms were never sharply defined in the first place.  While creative ambiguity is beneficial for marketing and Internet yapping, it is problematic for academic research.  It’s not clear that any two studies are even talking about the same thing.  I look forward to his result in the future.

Another speaker (Viktoria Heinzel) is looking at “rural” coworking, which I’ve written about.  It’s not clear from the slides how this concept is defined or which specific “rural” areas were studied.  The summary of points seems consistent with other work on the topic, including the potential for ”recruitment & return of skilled workers/ young talents”.

Anita Füzi examined what attracts workers to a specific space.  The basic finding is that social factors; i.e., “community, community, community”; are what matters most.  And she points out that “One space is not better than the other”.  As I have said many times, there is no one right way to do it.

The fourth speaker (Miryana Stancheva) explores the idea of looking at coworking spaces as “a living organism”, specifically, through the ideas or Erik Erikson.  I’ve never studied Erikson in any detail, though I am familiar with the general topic.  This approach requires applying concepts such as “ego development” to coworking.  She seems to be trying to create improved coworking communities through this analysis.

I strongly agree with the importance of a developmental model.  She also considers the development of satisfaction and happiness, not just numbers and revenue.  But, I’ll have to reserve judgement as to whether this particular interpretive framework works well.

I mean, maybe a coworking community is like a child or a family, in some ways.  But maybe not in others.  For one thing, coworkers can walk away at any time.  For another, there is usually very little hierarchy.  And for another thing, the community is usually largely self-selected.  These features probably have a major impact on both happiness and the development over time.


Overall, it is useful to have this kind of academic exchange.  Too much of the discussion of coworking is Internet-grade natter, with little attempt at academic rigor or clarity.  Me, I like footnotes.

It is unfortunate that there isn’t an equivalent effort on this side of the Atlantic.  Perhaps it would be possible to add a virtual component, for those who don’t mind video-ing in from far away.


  1. Coworking Library. Researchers Meetup Warsaw November 13 2019. 2019, https://coworkinglibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Researchers-meetup-presentation-2019-Warsaw.pdf.