WeWork: Hopeful Irony
An atypical burst of energy ran through my spine as I heard New York Times' The Daily podcast recap the media's consumption of the recent WeWork scandal. The breaking news got me thinking about the larger, and quite possibly, more important ethical questions at hand.
Those living in larger metropolitan cities may have noticed the WeWork brand appearing on buildings left and right--45 billion square feet of real estate to be exact. WeWork offers a trendy space for individual business owners, artists, and remote workers from all fields to come together to form community and combat the inherent loneliness that comes with a declining secure job market. Of course, it helps that WeWork centers come fully equipped with kitchens, food, cafes, internet, work stations, printing stations, and everything you might ever want in an office setting. It's practical, alluring, and hip.
The New York Times called them "one of the most valuable start-ups in the United States" and for good reason. A key Japanese investor, Masa Son, invested over $4 billion dollars to launch Founder Adam Nuemann's vision into reality. With dreams of taking the "We" brand above and beyond, Neumann hired thousands of people and started projects all over the world with the common goal of forming community spaces.
However, the communal ideal didn't quite live up to Neumann's expectations. The company's failure to launch was, in large part, due to the misidentification of WeWork's core industry. Originally pitching his business as a tech company, Neumann won over investors through his charm and big tech talk. However, investigators realized that the payoff didn't quite balance when WeWork's net loss started to rack up into the billions. CNN reports, "when The We Company filed its IPO paperwork in August, it set off a wave of criticism centered on everything from the company's staggering losses and the lack of a woman on its board to the unchecked power of Neumann and his numerous potential conflicts of interest." Eventually Neumann was asked to step down and leave his glamorous and reckless spending tendencies at the door. This news was shocking in and of itself, but the universal attention is now focused on Neumann's (not-so-) ethical decision making.
CNN reports that over 12,000 employees worldwide will be losing their jobs due to the WeWork's ambitious move to capitalize on community. Meanwhile, executives are offering Neumann a $185 million consulting fee, amongst other payout options as a way to stay involved and stay afloat. Critics and journalists alike have been attacking Neumann for accepting such a lifestyle whilst thousands of his employees go without jobs, benefits, or stability.
WeWork's irony is that people are losing their jobs. Furthermore, WeWork's target audience doesn't have the financial capacity to uphold the hefty office fees and continue sustaining a payout for community. This story is no different from any other story of the business owner who lives in the 1% of this nation's wealth. What sets this story apart is its attention to such a spiritual and humane value. The WeWork scandal poses a crucial 21st century question: Can we really reshape corporate to fit community values? Or, alternatively, is it okay to capitalize on community?
If community is something we're forced to buy into, then I'm not sure it's really community at all. If community comes at the cost of others, then is it really a practice of well-being? The millennial trend of independent work is pushed by this nation's economic struggle. While we are attempting to find our own footing, we carry with us values of holistic health and wellness. We care about what our companies are doing in the big picture. From an ethical standpoint, I'm not at all surprised by people's outrage in Neumann's loss. However, I think his idea is worth mentally investing into: How can we create accessible community spaces to foster work, creativity, and wellbeing in the workplace amidst a recessing economy?
If we want community, we have to make compromises. But I'm not so sure financial compromises are the key to this deeply spiritual and ethical issue. As I sit in our local public library writing this, I'm thinking that maybe we've had potential for ideal and ethical community all along. Maybe we can rethink Neumann's WeWork to work for those who need it most.