On Monday 6th November, WeWork, once a $47bn firm, filed for bankruptcy after accruing $2.9bn debt. For all its retrospective faults, WeWork normalised a new world of work, but what’s the next frontier of coworking? We argue human connection is what’s missing.
WeWork is a modern day business drama. Explosive growth and investment spearheaded by a controversial tech bro, Adam Neuman, took it to the peak of a $47bn valuation. But Neuman’s resignation in 2019, quickly followed by the unanimous shift to remote working during the pandemic, punished the company, ultimately leading to the news that it is filing for bankruptcy.
First of all, WeWork cleared the way for the rest of us. It normalised coworking and a shift away from the corporate office to more agile work spaces. It’s important to recognise that.
But, WeWork is symptomatic of the polarised views within the future of work space, which ultimately serve us badly. Let me expand. It’s no secret that WeWork was over-extended (and overvalued) against the backdrop of real estate investment, impacted heavily by real world events – be they pandemics, inflation, or various wars. It threw all its eggs into real-estate and suffered the consequences.
But this “all or nothing” approach is not only the reserve of bricks and mortar.
A reflection of what people want
During the pandemic, this over-extension and over-valuation swung from bricks and mortar to virtual events. In 2020, Hopin was Europe’s fastest growing company, and was a “double-Unicorn” by the end of the year, ultimately realising a valuation of $7.8bn and fuelled by our need to connect when we couldn’t physically. Scroll forward to 2023 and the digital fatigue is real. Virtual events companies are suffering: in August this year, Hopin Sold for $15 Million, and other pure-play virtual events companies are closing and making layoffs.
Whilst these two use-cases might appear very different – one bricks and mortar, the other purely online – we believe they are both symptomatic of a very missed market opportunity: optimising for how humans really want to connect at work.
In short, whilst the WeWork office was a new concept and offered agile leasing, it was a standardised offer and did not focus on human connection. And whilst virtual events companies did an amazing job of connecting us when we could not in-person, the experience was ultimately generic from one platform to another. (Ironically, this is how many remote jobs are experienced now when not enough emphasis is placed on crafting unique company culture).
So, what does this all mean for the future of work?
We believe WeWork AND virtual tool literacy helped pave the way for distributed work to become mainstream, following the fantastic work of Dame Stephanie Shirley and many before her. So, the future of work is distributed.
We also believe that where distributed work is a given, the capital of in-person experiences has risen exponentially. This will become even more important, as we experience ever greater digital and AI immersion.
So, what do these in-person experiences look like? Warning! This doesn’t mean a) having to see one another every day (groundhog day) or b) having to see one another in the formal office.
No, team performance isn’t about optimising purely for the virtual experience or dragging people back to the office. The frontier of how we work as a team lies in the effective modulation between the two, and a more meaningful effort at in-person connection.
In fact, we like how Jeremy Utley, professor of innovation at Stanford D School, says of business innovation and performance “The best outcomes are when we modulate being alone and being together.”
What does this mean for human connection?
The good news is we are starting to see data on this come through like Atlassian sharing the impact data that 3-4 times a year was the optimum cadence for their distributed teams in 13 countries to meet in-person, leading to a 4 month long-tail of improved team connection by 27%.
At WorkTripp, we are capturing more information about what teams want. They want: 1) connection and belonging 2) improved productivity and communication and 3) forward planning and alignment, and we are helping them achieve goals like familiarity of team up 76 percentage points or full clarity on shared values up 40 percentage points.
Our plea to the investment sector?
Let’s not create another myopic view of Future of Work or HR Tech investment. Whilst we rightly should invest in all of these incredible tools that help us experience and benefit from distributed work (Slack, Miro, Figma, Jira etc.) let’s start to match investment in platforms which help human and team connection, build shared purpose, and achieve ambitious goals together.