4 July 2019

Bringing politics back to the workplace

Co-working spaces like The Wing and Ethels Club are positioning themselves as radical entities. Are they solid businesses, too?

In a short space of time, co-working has come a long way. When WeWork launched in 2010, people were sceptical of the concept of rentable desks and free beer on tap. Fast forward almost a decade and the company has more than 400 locations across 26 countries.

It’s even convinced stuffy blue chip companies to spend vast amounts of money (it’s estimated that corporates account for 40% of WeWork’s memberships), while its founder Adam Neumann has become a poster-child of ‘do what you love’ entrepreneurship.

In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Neumann was using company money to amass a portfolio of investments aligned with his personal interests and hobbies, taking a $13.8m (£11m) stake in a wave-pool company and launching a private school (WeGrow) after struggling to find satisfactory education options for his own children.

As WeWork has become more powerful, flashy and exclusive, dissent has rumbled in the background. Now, co-working spaces promising a more progressive antidote to WeWork’s ‘bro culture’ have emerged.

Hot-desking as activism

The Wing is one of the most prominent examples of a radical office space. When its first site opened in 2016 in New York’s Flatiron District, it did so with a provocative women-only policy for members and guests.

It’s not the only brand carving out co-working space for marginalised groups. In Melbourne, LaunchPad caters to Jewish entrepreneurs. Tuechtig, in Berlin, is designed to be completely accessible for physically and mentally disabled users. In New York, co-working clubs specifically for people of colour have appeared. One, The Gentlemen’s Factory, has amassed more than 100 members since it was founded in 2017. It will soon be joined in Brooklyn by Ethels Club, a beautiful co-working space that’s due to start offering memberships in August. It describes itself as a ‘third space’ – in which an underrepresented group can come together and map out their own advancement.

The office of tomorrow

It’s a whole lot of ideology for a collection of desks and meeting rooms, but there’s business savvy here, too. These are founders who understand their customer inside-out, having walked the same path. The Wing has raised well over £90m to date in venture capital funding and has 12 sites open or in the works. It’s reported that Ethels is already oversubscribed with a waitlist of more than 3,000 people, and it’s scored investment from black feminist icon Roxane Gay.

While the need for such spaces may not be immediately obvious to some (won’t people just stick with WeWork?), Ethels founder Naj Austin (pictured above) argues that: ‘Right now, there aren’t many places that centre the identities and experiences of people of colour. Ethels Club does. As a member we want you to experience that another world is possible – one that centres and embraces people of colour.’

‘There will be chairs and wifi so members can work, but we are not centring our offering around that,’ she adds. ‘You are coming to Ethels because you are looking to better your soul, not because you need to fax something.’

Progressing the cause

Still, they will need to prove their models. Despite the progressive drumbeat, they’ve received criticism. Their membership fees have been called out for excluding those on lower incomes, while membership policies which are deemed discriminatory can end up becoming a financial burden. The Wing has already sent lawyers to court to defend its membership practices, while the club has also been subject to investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Conservative blue-chips, as a result, may be more keen to keep spending with one-size-fits-all co-working options, making it harder for the new entrants to achieve a growth trajectory anywhere near that of market leader WeWork.

What’s more likely, perhaps, is that these spaces will influence the future of office design. The Wing has already announced that it’s designing inclusive spaces for external office providers.

Taking a cynical view, this makes sense. If the likes of The Wing and Ethels can demonstrate how their new-paradigm workspaces can improve productivity and allow a wider proportion of society to thrive professionally, then it would be foolish not to follow their lead.

Of course, the biggest question of them all is if any co-working space – from WeWork to the upstarts – can make their economics profitable in the long run.

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