My Book Is Obsolete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.
  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.
  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.

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.
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.

Katz on the Value of Learning Stand Up

This month Michael Katz writes about “What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing” [1].

He makes several good points

1. Content and delivery are not the same thing.

2. The audience decides what’s funny.

3. The only way to get better is to practice.

And, of course, “The most important, I think, is to just get started.

On the first point, he emphasizes that you need to decide “who you are”, what he case “voice”, for purposes of a specific message.

And the second point is, of course, you need to pay attention to your audience.  And, as they say, the customer is always right, and you have to pay close attention.

The third point is obvious.  But he also notes that there is always more to learn, and a humble, beginner’s attitude goes a lot way toward getting better.

And, of course, doing something out at the edge of your comfort zone is scary.  Screwing up the courage to do stand up to a bunch of strangers is really hard.  But, compared to that, pitching your own stuff, stuff that you really know and care about, should be easy, right?

This is all good advice.

I’d add a deeper point.  Stand up comedy and improv in general not only force you to put your self out there, they force you to act.  Whatever you try to do, but especially something multifaceted like freelancing, you will do well to act the part.   If you act like a talented, confident professional, then people will treat you like one—and you’ll be a step closer to being good at doing whatever you are trying to do.

Speaking as a psychologist, I’ll note that you are acting out roles in improvised little plays all the time anyway.  It’s called life.  So why not study and practice to be good at this skill?

Furthermore, as I have pointed out many times, coworking can be viewed as a form of improvisational theater, in which workers enact “the future of work”, making it up for themselves.  (See the book!)

So yeah, improv is something I would recommend to everyone*.

By the way, I also recommend pretty much everyone learn a bit origami, just because there are so many useful design insights, and it’s 3D and it’s self-organizing and it’s parsimonious with materials and…  You get the idea.

  1. Michael Katz, What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog, June 23, 2020.


* Of course, I am far, far too shy to take this advice myself.  But then, I am not a successful freelancer, am I?  Do as I say, not as I do.