We go through one little global pandemic, and all of a sudden "the future of work" is all anyone can talk about. Will remote work be here to stay? How will our experiences with COVID shape the future of offices as we prepare for the inevitable future pandemics? How will cities be reshaped after the mass migration toward the suburbs and smaller metropolitan areas?
With all of these questions and conversation floating around, you'd think that the current CEO of the company that both shaped and vilified the citadel of millennial professional work — the co-working office — would be poised to share a unique and well researched perspective. Perhaps even a mindset that could reshape our views of the one-time golden company and regain some of its former sheen. You'd be wrong...
In case you haven't heard, the current CEO of WeWork, Sandeep Mathrani, made a rather volatile statement recently during an interview with Kate Linebaugh of The Wall Street Journal. Linebaugh asked, "Can you describe how office work is going to change?" Mathrani's ~90 second response was highlighted by this statement:
“Those who are uberly engaged with the company want to go to the office 2/3 of the time at least. Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.”
— Sandeep Mathrani, CEO WeWork
He also talked a bit about flexibility, hybrid work plans, and Zoom fatigue, but it was the statement above blew up the internet (surprisingly without mention of his use of "uberly" 👀 ). Here's just a few of the reactionary articles that have cropped up in relation to Mathrani's comments:
Not to mention the responses on LinkedIn.
Missteps and questionable statements by CEO's are nothing new. And let's take just a moment to give credit where it's due: answering lofty questions on the spot in an interview is absolutely nerve wracking. However, if you're the CEO of WeWork, I'd hope that you're prepared to answer that question with grace and in a manner that doesn't appear to solely support your business interests ahead of all else.
The obvious cringe moment, and likely the catalyst for such strong reactions, is that Mathrani has an undeniably vested interest in moving people back into physical offices because it has been the basis of WeWork’s core business. His statement, however, misses a huge opportunity. Research indicates pretty clearly that companies' future plans for offices look dramatically different than they did pre-COVID. Hence all of the conversation around "flexibility" and "hybrid work models."
Ironically, what folks tend to describe when they talk about "the office of the future" sounds a lot like what WeWork promised to be in the first place. The utopian vision that WeWork originally peddled was more like a clubhouse of like-minded disruptors out to change the world but ever-ready to take a coffee break and wax philosophical on technology or whatever. In spite of the reality where WeWork looks more like college dorms for "startups," the utopian ideal was attractive. The notion that the digerati could hold their own Roman forums whilst birthing future unicorns sounds pretty awesome.
It also sounds very similar to visions of the "hybrid work model" that are beginning to emerge. Jessica Walsh (of &Walsh) summed it up nicely in a recent post, based on feedback from her team:
“This new office will serve as a place for gatherings, client meetings, and more – rather than a place we expect everyone to clock into regularly. ”
Think: communal workspaces and meeting areas, a few flex desks that don't "belong" to any single employee, few or no private offices, and probably a lot of whiteboards. Essentially, office-as-meeting-place for the occasions when team members need to be face to face in order to tackle a big problem that would be more productively handled in-person. Like a clubhouse for your company or an even more private version of Soho House.
And therein lies the hugely missed opportunity that is grounded by Mathrani's statement. WeWork could be that ☝️ ☝️ for all of the companies that don't want to go back to an office of yesteryear. They already have the infrastructure and a team used to recreating flexible mini spaces within WeWork properties. They already have the design vibe down to attract the audience that's looking for this type of space. And they've already disrupted (🙄 ) the workplace once. Here they've been presented with a perfect opportunity to reestablish relevance by doing so again.
In the fallout of his interview, Mathrani has gone on to clarify his statement:
“It was not my intent to cast a negative light on those who are working from home... What we know, from this new report [published in April]...is that the future of work is hybrid and it is flexible - and our intent is to enable both.”
However, what is unclear is how WeWork plans to enable this new hybrid, flexible future. As best I can tell, not much has changed at WeWork. A quick comparison of their current website vs. a snapshot from December 2019 demonstrates that, while the page design has changed, WeWork's offerings have not. Private/dedicated offices are still at the top of their "Workspace Solutions" page. The homepage nods to early COVID concerns like cleanliness, but offers little insight into the future of work (or WeWork).
The only area where WeWork seems to be demonstrating investment in a view of the future is in their content. Searching WeWork.com for "hybrid" reveals 53 results, all of which appear to be blog posts talking about our hybrid future. Even the study mentioned by Mathrani in his apology statement focuses on statistics that support the need for flexibility without making those numbers actionable. In fact, the only nod to action that I can find is in the title of the post:
Study: Nearly Two-Thirds of Employees are Willing to Pay for Access to Office Space to Support Hybrid Work.
Excuse me? You want the employees to start footing the WeWork bill? No thank you.
At Apollo 21, we operate a ROWE (Results Only / Results Oriented Work Environment) that is fully remote. We don’t care where you work from. As long as you’re communicative about availability and don’t miss scheduled meetings, we don’t care what time of day you choose to work. We don’t have an office (and I’m not sure we ever will).
Certainly there are some trade-offs. I do miss the camaraderie and social interactions of being in the same space together with our team. I miss impromptu happy hours and afternoon coffee runs. But overall, for our needs, focusing on building a functional and effective remote culture is more important. This frees us up to hire smart people from anywhere in the country without concerns about relocation. And it allows people to maintain a clearer work/life balance. Need to walk the dog? Go for it. Need to run to an appointment? Do it.
In my opinion, this is flexibility, and it stems from trust. Trust the people you hire to do the work they’re tasked with in a manner that works for them. Rely on the tools that enable communication (we use it all — email, phone calls, Meet, Slack, Miro, Figma, etc.) and a team can function effectively this way. It’s not perfect…but what is?