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.
  2. Spacestor, Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace, in Spacestor, March 5, 2021.

Fukada on Playfulness At Work

Everyone is willing, wanting, waiting to get back to work.  But we are all wondering what it will be like.

I’ve noticed that even a global pandemic can’t stop the never ending supply of advice about how to improve work and office life.  And the supposed improvements don’t change, even though we can’t even have a person-to-person meeting these days, even if we wanted to.

This month I read a piece by designer Takuo Fukuda,  “The surprising tactic that could help workplaces recover in 2021” [1].

The “tactic” he is talking about is playfulness.

What does he mean by playfulness?

Sometimes this is an actual game.  Sometimes it is just a non-standard, less formal situation, e.g., no “deliverables”, open agenda, brainstorming, etc.

I’m pretty sure that the critical factor is permission:  permission to depart from existing convention, permission to explore ideas without penalty for failure, and so on.

So it could mean lots of things.

Setting aside precisely what “playfulness” means for a moment, he is mainly concerned with the inevitable “disruptive forces” that will force changes, wanted or not.  (Like I said, the discussion isn’t really different than before the pandemic, is it.)

The essence of the argument is, that playfulness can “help engage employees and give them more buy-in to the changes”.  (This sounds suspiciously like tricking people into swallowing the medicine they don’t want, but then I have a real bad attitude about work.)

He makes three main claims.

Playfulness helps overcome a fear of change

“Playfulness lowers the stakes and provides permission to take risks,”

Playfulness encourages creative thinking

“Playfulness opens the door to new experiences that are more sensory and impactful than reading a presentation. This provides a fresh perspective and encourages creative thinking.”

Playfulness unites us

“playful moments foster stronger bonds and a shared sense of accountability.”


These claims are far from self-evident to me.  Even from my own limited experience, I can think of cases where this kind of “playfulness” had the opposite effects.

“Overcome fear?”  When the fear is justified, e.g., in the face of layoffs, playful meetings can be more a form of denial. 

“Fresh, creative thinking?”  If the playfulness brings out deep problems, it may exacerbate problems.  There also is no guarantee that you can come up with good ideas, especially in limited time, e.g., a single “playful” meeting.

“Unity?”  Games can reveal deep dissent and differences that divide rather than unify.  “Permission” to think and create freely can unleash personal biases, cultural rifts, and all sorts of divisive behavior. (See, for example, the internet.)

Of course, playful meetings, with permission to be creative can be fun.  In fact, I could ask why most meetings aren’t permissioned.  If the answer is, “because we need to get this work done now”, then I think we understand that the enterprise is probably poorly managed.

One thing that struck me the most about Fukada’s claims is that all of this playfulness and permission only works if there is significant trust, especially between management and workers. 

For example, if management has already decided that change is coming and what the changes will be, then having playfull sessions for workers to imagineer “change” is just sugar coating.  Asking for creative ideas is a sick joke unless the ideas will be taken seriously and hae a chance to be implemented.  I.e., workers have to believe that management actually cares about their ideas.

So, ironically, if play is not for real, it is a waste of time or worse, an insult.

Does playfulness create or enhance trust?  In my experience, not in itself.

What matters most of all is what happens after the play.  If the group successfully creates some new ideas (and possible solidarity, etc.), then this must be followed with encouragement and resources, and a real effort to try to make them real.  (And, by the way, this can be quite challenging to do.)

If management ignores the creative ideas, then the playfulness was an insulting waste of time, and probably damaged the organization.

So, I say playfulness + follow through is what is needed. 

Is this going to be especially important in 2021? Not really.

But in 2021-22 we’re all going to be embracing (sometimes literally) the opportunity to actually be together in person. So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some playfulness, for the human contact if nothing else.

  1. Takuo Fukuda, The surprising tactic that could help workplaces recover in 2021, in Fast Company, December 23, 2020.

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.