Digital Nomads In a Pandemic World?

The pandemic has pushed many workers to remote work, and many workers will continue to work remotely at least some of the time.

Remote workers are, of course, the folks who invented and populated the first wave of coworking spaces.  For many, remote work was a necessity, or at least a choice driven by circumstances.

But for some workers, remote working has been a lifestyle choice / philosophical stance.  These digital nomads eschew not only conventional offices, but the very concept of a permanent residence.  These transient workers are happy to work from anywhere, including coworking desks.  Of course, they prefer to be somewhere cool (or warm in the winter).  Some just like like to travel, some are seeking to live permanently “off shore”, independent of “the man”.

So, are we going to see a lot more digital nomads in the post-pandemic “hybrid” working environment?

The technology is here, as it has been for a while.  Many workers need little more than power and wifi, which they can get a lot of places.  And if you already work remotely, you can work just as well from Hawaii or Bali or Croatia as from you kitchen table.

So, is nomadism going to take off?

This summer Bryan Lufkin discusses the not-so-clear future of digital nomadism [1].

First of all, there are different levels of “nomadism”.  Lufkin notes that during the pandemic, some workers were able to retreat out of the city, to work from relatively healthy rural abodes.  If the clubs are closed, why put up with living in the city?   These remote workers may or may not be especially mobile, so this may or may not be a nomadic lifestyle.

Lufkin points out that true nomadism is a very privileged situation.  You not only need a high paying remote career, you need political and social capital.  Blithely bebopping around the world is fine if you have money and a passport, but a lot harder for poor people, AKA, “illegal immigrants”.  And in a lot of places borders are closed and will remain closed.  Good luck trying to work remotely from New Zeeland if you aren’t already there. Heck, I can’t even go to Canada from the US these days.

(Some digital nomads have surely been trapped in place by the pandemic, spending a year or more in what was supposed to be a short visit.  That was not so fun, and could happen at any time in the future.)

In any case, most jobs involve real world, physical activities.  Most workers have to show up at work. And even in the commonly envisioned “hybrid” workplace, workers have to come to the office some of the time.  Maybe they will have fewer but longer commutes, but how many workers will be allowed to just phone it in from anywhere they want? Not many.

This is really a highly privileged lifestyle.

So yeah, rich kids may continue to bebop around the world, “working” remotely.  But most workers won’t.

I’ll also point out that the entire mind set–eschewing a permanent home, living a permanent spring break–is a whole lot more prevalent among young adult (rich and poor) than older people.  Soon enough, kids grow up and want a family and a home. 

OK, some retirees go nomad at the other end of the lifespan : – ) 

But the point is that a lot of the noise about digital nomadism is from Internet media that are written by and for twenty somethings.  It was never, and will never be, a thing for most workers.


  1. Bryan Lufkin, Is the great digital-nomad workforce actually coming?, in BBC News – Worklife, June15, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210615-is-the-great-digital-nomad-workforce-actually-coming

The Future of Work: Office of the Future (Some thoughts)

As we go back in to work after the pandemic, everybody, including me, says ‘hybrid’ offices are the next thing. The idea is that offices closed by the pandemic will not reopen as they were.  Basically, some workers will be in the office some of the time, working remote other times. 

This spring, John Seabrooke discusses what office designers are thinking, and how this might actually work [2].  His piece has inspired me to think a bit more about work space “design”.

The main goal of the ‘hybrid’ model is to use the in-person office time for what it is necessary and/or good for, e.g.,:

  • Some meetings, especially with clients and stakeholders
  • Group culture
  • Training of new hires
  • Serendipity

Other activities, including many routine meetings, can be done remotely, or with some workers collocated and others remote.

  • Many solo activities, including research, coding, and writing
  • Routine checkins and team meetings
  • Some conversations and collaborations

What Should We Shoot For?

So, what kinds of things should the office and remote try to optimize?

In my view, an in-person office space should try to maximize (in no particular order):

  • Visibility and equity in decision making
  • Promote group cohesion
    • Positive feelings, especially in public
    • Private channels for negative communication
  • Hi security/privacy
  • Specific facilities, i.e., shop/lab/kennels/etc.,
  • Hospitality (e.g., for clients, customers)

And a remote work experience should emphasize:

  • Productivity (individual and group)
  • Work/life balance
  • Reduced commuting, etc.
  • Reduced cost of office space

What can go wrong?

Well, as Seabrooke makes clear, you can always manage to get the worst of both worlds. : – (

Remote workers can easily become isolated, lonely, and depressed.  Distributed work groups can become unmotivated, disorganized, inequitable, and prone to the special digital hell of what we used to call “flame wars”. 

At the same time, the in-person part of a hybrid work environment is prone to all the woes of any conventional workplace, made worse by low and inconsistent attendance. 

There can be crappy work conditions, bad meetings and that special analog hell of antisocial behavior. And, these days, people sit in office working remotely with headphones on.

I would say that any in person office, but especially partly occupied ‘hybrid’ office is prone to anti-serendipity–i.e., random acts of social disfunction.

What does this tell us about the future of coworking?

I note that the coworking “industry” is whole-heartedly embracing the ‘hybrid’ space concept.  This make sense because this is what coworking has always been about.

Coworking spaces are actually pretty good models for what a ‘hybrid’ office should look like.  And, as I have written, it’s not the layout of the space, or any specific amenities that matter.  What matters is the people and how they get along [1].

And successful coworking communities are generally no larger than 200 people, which stands as a guide for all office design (which Seabrooke notes, too).

A coworking space (at least pre-pandemic) has one interesting feature that designers should pay attention to:  participation is optional.  Unlike corporate offices, workers inhabit coworking spaces that they like, and leave when they don’t like it.  This means that a coworking space succeeds by meeting the needs of its workers, whoever they are. 

There can be (and have been) many different coworking spaces, meeting the needs of different groups of workers.  But each one needs to work hard to recruit and satisfy a community of workers, and this is what successful coworking spaces do well.

In contrast, a company can only have one or a few in person office spaces, and workers generally don’t have a lot of choice about where to work.  And this is a challenge, because everyone is different, and no single office can be perfect for everyone.  (It is quite possible to be awful for everyone, of course.)

So, I would say that an organization needs to understand how its workers work, and what they like, and try to do that. 

There is some circular logic here, because organizations select and shape their workers to their own ways.  So there is tangled feedback of what workers are used to and what workers want.

Worse, people who don’t fit the official or most dominant ‘culture’ face marginalization and can be driven out.  This isn’t good for the workers or the organization, and can easily be flat out illegal when any group is treated unfairly.

Coworking spaces deal with these issues with strong community leadership (see Chapter 5 of my book [1]). In a conventional office, “culture” is promulgated by managers and HR who work for management.  Coworking “culture” is promulgated by leaders who work for the space, which means that the workers are their customers, not their employees.

This seems like a very significant psychological difference to me.  Corporate “culture” is too often something that arrives via email from a boss.  Coworking community culture is something that arrives via personal conversations and introductions.

Hmm.  Which one would you like better?

So, here’s a thought. 

Don’t worry too much about the layout of the office.  Instead, hire people whose job is to make workers happy in the space, and specifically, to get people to like each other.

This role is inspired by coworking ‘community managers’, but can’t be quite the same.  The really tricky bit is to make these people mostly responsible to the workers, not to management.  I.e., this cannot be a classical HR position (concerned with enforcing policies) or line manager (concerned with meeting goals).  This is something different, and it doesn’t even have a name.

Can this be done?  Will it work?

I dunno.

But I think it might be the right way to go.


  1. 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/
  2. John Seabrooke, Office Space: The Post-pandemic Future of Open-plan Work, in The New Yorker. 2021, Conde Nast: New York. p. 40-49. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/01/has-the-pandemic-transformed-the-office-forever

My Book Is Obsolete

This blog has slowed to a crawl this year.

The pandemic has been a brutal blow to the global economy, and no sector has been hit any harder than coworking.  A coworking space has only one business, bringing workers together in a face-to-face community.  And that’s the one thing that just isn’t safe to do.

In addition, the customers of coworking spaces, freelancers and independent workers, have been pounded by the shutdown.  And, worse, these independent workers generally work at home part of the time, so they are positions to WAH 100% if needed.  So the customers of coworking spaces are uniquely prepared to forgo the service for extended periods.

Coworking spaces have closed, and many will never reopen.

All this means that my book, “What is Coworking?” (2018) [1] is pretty thoroughly obsolete.

“What is Coworking?”  It’s over, is what it is.

What’s Next?

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.)

Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrends 2021

It’s time for year end prognositications, and as always, I pay close attention to Sensei Liz Elam’s Megatrends [1]. 

Elam is the leader of Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC), and at this time, she is looking forward to whatever will be “the new normal”, as vaccines roll out and people can travel and meet again next summer.  This will certainly create a sense of relief and new beginnings everywhere.

What will this mean for work and workplaces?  She agrees with me that there will be an increased desire for togetherness.

“As we transition to the new normal, we will see an unprecedented return to shared workspace”

(From [1])

We’ve all learned how to work from home, and a lot of people don’t like it, at least not as the whole picture.  And for many workers, this will mean choosing a local coworking space.

Elam also sees opportunities for “Internal Corporate Coworking”, which is essentially trying to provide the coworking experience for employees of a single organization.  I’m not so sure that this can be successful, but it probably is an opportunity for coworking operations to sell their expertise—possibly a life saving source of income.

Elam wants to see healthier office spaces, spacing people out as needed, and attending to air quality and other environmental quality.  She also sees an further explosion of “low touch technology”.  For workers and users, this is healthy, for companies this is profitable. 

But the most important thing remains “Community and coworking will win.”  I’ve been saying it, Sensei Liz has been saying it, and it’s still true.

What did we learn from being locked down by the pandemic?   We learned that we don’t like being socially isolated.  Working at home is better than unemployment, but after a short time it is brutally punishing for workers.

We already craved community, and after the pandemic we will desperately seek community.

Coworking spaces are all about community, and I expect they will snap back stronger than ever.

The details may be different.  Many spaces will have closed, so new ones will open.  And who can guess what the job market will be?  But workers will want coworking, and workers will get coworking.

  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrends 2021, in GCUC Blog, November 24, 2020. https://gcuc.co/coworking-megatrends-2021/