Why is WeWork so popular?

WeWork Dupont Circle

For people who aren’t that familiar with the concept of coworking spaces, if they’ve heard of one, they’ve likely heard of WeWork. WeWork is the fastest growing coworking concept in DC, if not the country. In the past few years, WeWork has quickly expanded from 1 to now 10 locations across the metro area, with more on the way. With locations such as White House, Manhattan Laundry, and Crystal City, when I started this project, I knew that WeWork would be one, if not several, of my stops. I’ve been incredibly curious about what’s made it so popular, and to some in the entrepreneurial communities I’ve been connected with, a bit contentious as well. I visited their Dupont location to find out.

Expectations and First Impressions

When I arrived at WeWork Dupont Circle on a Thursday morning, I came in with a sense of curiosity, but admittedly a bag of preconceptions as well. I had heard that WeWork’s spaces were drop dead gorgeous and had a “cool factor” that made them the trendiest spaces in town. But I also heard that they could be crowded, noisy, and lack a sense of community.

I arranged to meet my friend Jon, who works with a research, design, and development startup called FastRope on the 11th floor of the building. On my way to meet him I thought, “Where in Dupont is there an 11 story building??” In fact, there are 12 stories in the building which houses WeWork, located in the northern edge of the Dupont neighborhood, directly across the street from the Washington Hilton. WeWork occupies 4 huge floors in the building. I had no idea it was so large.

I met Jon in the 10th floor elevator lobby, and after a swipe of his access card in the elevator, Jon brought me up to the 11th where he works. Another swipe got us from the elevator lobby into the main coworking space on the floor, and yet another swipe through a door to access the private offices area. After tailgating up to meet Jon, I counted 4 controlled access points in order to get to his work space. I’m all for security, but the abundance of locked entries made my first impression of WeWork be that it was more exclusive than it was open and welcoming.

WeWork Private Offices

Through the last access point, we walked down a long corridor of glass encased offices that forms a loop down and back from the common space at the entrance. For all I had heard about WeWork’s popularity, it was shockingly quiet. The common space was largely empty. Many of the private offices were vacant. Others contained a few people diligently typing away on their laptops, many with headphones on as they got into their zone.

As we walked the halls, the vibes I was picking up were industrious, young, and dynamic. The quietness and the empty offices felt more in transition than devoid. Along the way, Jon’s comments to me were along the lines of “This office used to have…” “This company expanded over to…” “This space will soon be…” Nothing was static.

Form vs. Function

The private offices were nearly all the same. Floor to ceiling glass walls with standard issue desks and chairs. Some were adorned with trinkets and wall hangings that tried to give a sense of identity in a world that was otherwise dominated by the WeWork aesthetic. That aesthetic was hard to escape. Each and every corner of the space felt more “WeWork” than anything else.

WeWork describes their Dupont space as “a confluence of inspiration [where] the smoky allure of ‘Mad Men’ meets the sharp minimalism of Scandinavian design, all made welcoming by the warmth of a café-like atmosphere.” To me, the sterility of the private office spaces contrasted greatly with the modern and welcoming aesthetic that WeWork describes. They seemed like an entirely separate world from the communal areas which I can confirm are hands down gorgeous.

The main work space is filled with modern furniture and industrial artwork. The bathrooms are decorated with bright blue wallpaper that reverberate music ranging from techno to hip hop throughout the day. The hallways are lined with alcoves and private phone booths sporting plaid covered benches and “On Air” occupancy signs.

WeWork Bathroom

The amenities are just as impressive. Open kitchens have cold-brew coffee on nitro tap and beautiful glass water dispensers lined with fresh cut citrus. The 12th floor houses a fully loaded game room and a mini golf course (yes, a mini golf course). It’s definitely is a space you’d be proud to host a meeting or show off to a visitor.

Of all the amenities, the one that stuck with me long after my visit was the aforementioned “fruit water”. Explicitly listed on WeWork’s amenities list, the attention to detail of this dispenser meticulously rimmed with lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit really struck me. But what struck me most was that I found myself questioning the intention behind this detail. Was it for flavor or for looks? Form or function?

In any other environment, I wouldn’t think much of this question at all. But in the first few hours of my visit I also noticed that soap dispensers in the bathrooms didn’t work, and the cold-brew coffee keg was kicked. What’s the point of having fancy stuff if you can’t use them? I started to question the intention behind everything. Was the space curated to cultivate an environment of comfortability and productivity? Or was the shiny design just to attract new members and create the impression of a “cool factor?” There’s no one answer here. A reminder of the power of perception, and mine kept switching back and forth all day.

The only constant is change

After finishing Jon’s tour of the space, we got back to his office where he graciously lent me a desk. I got to work. By lunchtime I had gotten a good deal accomplished. The name “WeWork” is definitely fitting. When you’re in the space, you feel like you’re meant to do work. The message is literally written on the walls. Part of it too, I felt, had to do with the glass walls; it feels like you’re productivity is on full display. I caught myself looking into offices and eavesdropping on conference room meetings as I walked through the halls. There’s a sense that you can easily fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others at WeWork. I wondered if others felt similarly, and how this environment that WeWork curates affected the experiences of those who work there day to day.

WeWork Office Space

After lunch, I decided to move from Jon’s office into the communal coworking area. The silence of the room that morning had been replaced by a buzzing of people and activity by the afternoon. I took the opportunity to strike up conversation with Jon about his own experiences in the space. We talked about the sense of community I had heard WeWork lacked and about the realness of connections that are made. I asked him if he ever struggled to find focus through the noise. He told me stories about people he knew that left the space because of the noise, but he and others I met didn’t seem to have that problem. I personally know of a friend who used to work in WeWork and felt alone among the many. But the way Jon spoke of the people and businesses he knew in the space made him, and the community, seem very well connected. I started to get the impression that Jon’s experience was very much his own, and that the experiences of others who work in the space were unique as well.

Though there are clearly differences in how people perceive the work environment of WeWork, I did pick up on one thread of consistency, which was simply how little consistency there was. The community is constantly changing. People and companies don’t seem to stay in the same place for very long. Companies move in, they outgrow their space, they move to new offices and new floors, or they move out of WeWork entirely. Some do incredibly well, others pivot or fail. Some people start at one company and are then poached by another company who also works in the space. Everything about WeWork feels dynamic and that one snapshot in time will never look or feel like another.

There are clearly implications of an environment whose most defining characteristic is constant change. It inhibits the development of deep personal relationships. While other coworking spaces felt to me like a community of individuals, WeWork feels like a community of businesses. The community is certainly there for those who want to connect, but the relationships I saw felt very transactional. Even the WeWork staff were more like custodians of a physical space than stewards of a community of individuals. I saw staff members cleaning floors, restocking fruit baskets, and refilling coffee (I was thrilled after lunch when someone finally came to re-tap the cold-brew coffee keg!) But I didn’t see a single meaningful interaction between a WeWork member and a staffer.

I don’t mean to suggest that WeWork felt cold or impersonal. It didn’t. Everyone I met was incredibly kind and welcoming, and the staff were upbeat and personable. But it in an environment of constant change, it’s more expedient to ask “what do you do?” than to take the time to learn about “who you are.”

The “Realness” of Popularity

WeWork is a paradox of sorts. It’s manufactured yet dynamic. It’s sterile yet vibrant. It’s exclusive yet welcoming. In so many ways, these dichotomies reflect the world we live in. In fact, of all my visits thus far, this one seemed to me to most accurately reflect the nature of DC’s entrepreneurship community and the new coworking economy.

WeWork reflects the core values that the American workforce reveres — industriousness, hard work, and success. And it does this in a context that’s framed by trends in pop culture and the millennial brand of entrepreneurship. Open work spaces, modern design, amenities that buck the norms of corporatism. This is why WeWork is so popular.

Things become popular when the right people or groups adopt them and others copy in the pursuit of being fashionable and admired. Like it or not, the silicon valley brand of business defined by the likes of Google and Apple has taken hold. And we look to Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg — all entrepreneurs whose businesses became their lives — as the model for what success looks like. WeWork has brilliantly reflected these trends and in turn has attracted those who follow this mold.

So does that make WeWork “real?” What makes something real in the first place? Is something that reflects the nature of our community and society real? Or is realness something that’s stripped down to it’s core, not hidden behind trends or fashion? As the saying goes, perception is reality, and depending on yours, WeWork can feel super fake or incredibly real.

In the end, everything I heard about WeWork was right. It’s cool. It’s cold. It’s connected. It’s community-less. It’s embracing. It’s exclusive. It’s sexy. It’s soulless. There’s no contradictions, only differences in perception.