For a couple of years my office was in a WeWork building and I loved it. Every morning it was exciting to be part of a new emerging work culture. You can just imagine then my reaction when I learned that WeWork might declare bankruptcy and disappear. If WeWork ceases to exist what was once a completely new way of understanding the workplace will vanish with it.
But let me go back for a moment to my workdays even before I discovered the magic of WeWork. My many offices in New York reflect a changing office culture in the city. Even the present day and the future seem to be a mirror of an evolving reality.
For years I worked in the New York office of Italy’s L’Espresso. I vividly remember the day when I visited for the first time the space that we were soon going to lease in one of the most prestigious locations in Manhattan — 444 Madison Avenue, otherwise known as The Newsweek building. The name of the famed news magazine was on top of the historic high-rise which stood one block away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The office space on the 32nd floor was spacious, comfortable, and exciting, but within a few years we felt the need to operate right next to our sister publication La Repubblica on the 21st floor. A space became available next door and we migrated down eleven floors. That office was not going to remain permanent. A few years later L’Espresso and Repubblica combined offices and moved to a glorious space on the 36th floor.
In addition to more space, we had a breathtaking view facing south, with dramatic sunsets that almost daily brought us to snap another gorgeous picture of the sky turning orange.
Those were the years when commercial real estate in midtown Manhattan could command just about any amount of money the landlord desired. Businesses were willing to pay premium dollars for premium locations, but things had already started to turn iffy in the media world and the management of La Repubblica and L’Espresso decided that a prestigious address like 444 Mad was no longer essential. We moved again, this time to a commercial building on Broadway just south of Times Square. We were in a nondescript ninth floor office that served its purpose without leaving anyone in awe.
Meanwhile WeWork was beginning its rise in New York and beyond. The year was 2010 and two young entrepreneurs — Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey — had created a business model that was quite revolutionary for people like us at La Repubblica and L’Espresso, used to have our own office space.
The idea behind WeWork was to lease entire office buildings and reconfigure the inside into smaller offices of different sizes to rent to small companies or individuals who required maximum flexibility. To attract tenants WeWork invented a new office culture that included communal lounges, trendy cafeterias, and cool drinks offered for free 24/7.
Shortly thereafter I joined the magic world of WeWork. La Repubblica/L’Espresso cut cost by vacating the office on Broadway, I set out on my own as a freelance journalist and joined forced with two British journalists. We had a blast. The new work environment was invigorating; the interaction with other WeWorkers was exciting; and going to work made me feel downright cool.
Rent was reasonable; WeWork guaranteed maximum flexibility of terms; and the freelance or startups world was thriving. By the time my own needs changed, and I left behind my desk at WeWork, the pandemic was still a few years away.
Meanwhile, the expansion of WeWork was going crazy. By 2019 the company was the largest private tenant in New York, so much so that Neumann and McKelvey were feeling ready to take the company public. But the IPO never happened and in one year WeWork went from being a shiny star among startups valued at $47 billion, to a scary shadow of itself valued only $7 billion. But the worst was yet to come.
A few months later the pandemic hit the entire world and New York became a ghost town. Overnight, office workers disappeared and high-rises all over Manhattan sat virtually empty for months and months and months. To this day, the city has not recovered. Office towers like 444 Madison Avenue are at best at 60% of their pre-pandemic occupancy and there is no end in sight to the crisis of the commercial sector. Think of giants in the real estate business, like Vornado. Since the pandemic it has lost 75% of its value. It is not an exaggeration if we use the word “Apocalypse” to describe the state of commercial real estate in New York.
In this broken environment, can we even imagine a future for WeWork? Larger corporations are resigned to the hybrid office model at best and continue to scale back. Smaller companies are greatly reducing their office space and freelance workers have gladly embraced working from home and meeting on Zoom.
WeWork, now owned by a Japanese investment holding company, is clearly seeing its future, and it is not bright. A few days ago, they issued a statement that contained three telling word: “a going concern.” At first read, they sound like pretty innocuous words. But in truth they are loaded with meaning. They indicate that the company sees the possibility of bankruptcy within a year.
By 2024 WeWork could cease to exist. Gone. Wiped out. And with it my desk in a building next to Penn Station, down the hall from a fun cafeteria where I could help myself to coffee, beer or wine all day long. Gone will be that cool lounge on the top of the building where I could sit on comfortable couches and read or even stretch out on cots and take a nap. I never did, but loved the idea that I could, if I wanted to.
Now, I work from home. Before the pandemic I was in hybrid mode. Now, I have set up a comfortable office at home and wonder whatever will happen to the building on Broadway from which I worked for several years. It is one of those buildings that is sending jitters among real estate investors. Built for cheap in the 80’s and 90’s they hold no hope of being converted into residential buildings because too much of their space is away from windows; thus making it impossible to turn windowless offices into bedrooms and living-rooms.
I can sadly conclude that “my” office buildings — the buildings from my working past — are all obsolete. Maybe New York itself has become obsolete. We cannot imagine a world without New York at the center of it. And yet things change in enormous and unexpected ways. Who would have ever imagined a world without TWA? Who would have ever imagined a world without Kodak? As nostalgic as I feel about it, it is perhaps a lot easier to imagine a world without WeWork.