What was We thinking? That’s the only question worth asking now about the clowncar start-up known as The We Company, the money-burning, co-working behemoth whose best-known brand is WeWork. What’s a WeWork? What WeWork works on is work. The We Company takes out long-term leases on in-demand office buildings in more than 100 cities across the globe (lately, it’s even been buying its own buildings).
I’ve been hung up on how all this happened: How did so many people put so much money into something so many were warning would end up so badly? What was We thinking? And then it hit me: We wasn’t thinking. WeWork? Not really. WeCan’t! We’reTooDistracted! Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees.
But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.
The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space. As a socially anxious introvert with a lot of bespoke workplace rituals, I used to think I was simply a weirdo for finding modern offices insufferable.
I’ve been working from my cozy home office for more than a decade, and now, when I go to the Times’ headquarters in New York — where, for financial reasons, desks were recently converted from cubicles into open office benches — I cannot for the life of me get anything done. But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work.