Mumbai: In May 2008, when Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey started GreenDesk, an “eco-friendly co-working space" in Brooklyn, the New York City neighbourhood was beginning to ferment as a hub of literary salons, independent bookstores, writers and pundits. The time for rethinking space was ripe.
Following the economic meltdown, when there were many empty spaces in Manhattan and a big freelance and start-up workforce was beginning to grow, Neumann and McKelvey took their start-up to Manhattan and renamed it WeWork.
WeWork now has 6,000 employees and offices in 21 more countries—its members are entrepreneurs, freelancers and small businesses, as well as middle-market and Fortune 500 corporations. In July 2017, WeWork India started operations in Bengaluru.
The company is the originator of the idea of co-working, which is gaining momentum across the world.
Ryan Bennett, chief WeWork officer, 36, who heads the India operations, spoke about being a culture-specific and low-carbon emission organization at the same time, and how space design can change lives. Edited excerpts:
What’s behind WeWork’s success? Do you adhere to a singular design philosophy?
WeWork’s first and foremost objective is the functional and emotional needs of our members. With our objective being an inclusive member-driven experience, this means designing a space that is both useful and enjoyable to diverse types of companies and workers.
When we started WeWork in 2010, we wanted to build more than beautiful, shared office spaces—we wanted to build a community. A place you join as an individual but eventually become part of a greater community. A place where success is measured by personal fulfilment, not just the bottom line.
As our community focus is reinforced through design, we are evolving space into experience. We focus on every design element to provide our members with spaces that have the right mix of design and function.
While the overall aesthetic varies slightly by region, everything is designed to foster community. We have a global interdisciplinary team of 600-plus specialists that work cross-functionally to take the office environment and living design to a new level.
The moment a space is in our possession, our design teams begin researching the location. They will visit the site, get to know the area and neighbourhood. What they learn about the building, history of the area, the community and neighbourhood can translate into design elements (i.e. wallpapers, custom artwork, furniture) specific to that location.
We use our own technology to provide the best member experience possible. However, when we enter a new market, we also learn about the local market and bring in local designers and architects to think through the needs of our local members and the unique characteristics of each building and neighbourhood.
Your company recently told its employees worldwide that it won’t pay for any meals that include red meat, poultry or pork. Can you tell us more?
As our WeWork co-founder and chief culture officer Miguel McKelvey recently communicated, new research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact—even more than switching to a hybrid car. As a company, WeWork can save an estimated 16.7 billion gallons (63.1 billion litres) of water, 445.1 million pounds (201.9 million kg) of carbon dioxide emissions and over 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at our events. We are energized by this opportunity to leave a better world for future generations and appreciate our partnerships as we continue the journey.
How would you define the brand identity of WeWork?
Understanding and providing for the “We Generation"—a largely millennial workforce who demand more from their work than just a job is the core of our brand identity.
We talk a lot about the We Generation, that’s our name for individuals that reflect and respond to the same values that WeWork has. It’s not shorthand for millennials, the We Generation is ageless. It’s about people and companies that have a mindset of openness and a willingness to create, collaborate and to contribute to a thriving creator community in both work and living space.
As you have expanded, how has the company changed or evolved? Do you have a culture-specific approach?
WeWork values culture deeply. Culture is what enables us to create the community that makes members choose culture as an output resulting less from amenities like free lunch, foosball tables and on-site massages, and primarily from inputs that are deeper, more profound, and also more systemic and integrated.
We have a set of values and a strong belief system. We believe in connecting people, and that we are better together. Culture is not a fixed thing. It’s an organism that exists throughout the company and is capable of change.
What have been some of your findings about workspace cultures around the world?
WeWork strives to create a culture that is very collaborative and global in nature. That being said, there are elements such as design, decor and personal habits that vary across different parts of the world. For example, work environments in the UK prefer dropped ceilings and raised floors. Offices in Brazil like brighter colours, while WeWork spaces in New York enjoy natural materials and getting as much light as possible.
Eating habits influence work environment culture significantly too. For example, in India, Argentina, Israel and the Netherlands, workers tend to take lunch together and prepare their own meals, and hence these locations need larger pantry areas. On the other hand, in New York, people tend to eat in smaller groups and often use food-delivery apps.
Is co-working a concept that is catching up in India, and what do Indian millennials and post-millennials expect from a co-working or working space?
India is an emerging market due to its thriving economy, growing start-up ecosystem and widening talent pool. As businesses, both big and small, continue to mushroom and spread their wings, expensive real estate along with an acceptance of a new way of working has only spurred the demand for collaborative spaces in India.
People are moving to cities, seeking community, purpose and the opportunity to create their life’s work in today’s age of changing millennials. There has been a macro shift toward a new way of working and living—people are focused on meaningful connections and being part of something greater than themselves.
Co-working is a more evolved concept in the West and is now becoming a popular trend in the Indian community. The sharing economy trend in India is gaining traction as more consumers are finding co-working convenient and cost-effective. The idea of an open, communicative, barrier-less office culture is finally catching up on this side of the economic ecosystem.
What are some of the exciting projects of WeWork in India now, and are you working mainly in the big cities?
Since WeWork’s foray into the Indian market a year ago, we have set up nine facilities across three cities—Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi NCR. From catering to 2,200 members in our first space, WeWork Galaxy, we today have over 10,000 members in India. We plan to expand within cities as well as to other cities in order to meet the need of people and companies looking to expand their base without investing heavily in real estate or infrastructure. We plan to expand in Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune by next year.
Have you travelled in India? What are some of the cultural and social trends in India that interest you?
Culturally, the thing that jumps out at me about India is how community-oriented the culture is. From eating together on the streets at food stations, to families living together and big weddings, everything is focused around being together. The second thing that stands out is the “hustle" that is built into daily life. There is this energy in the air that makes one feel like anything is possible, and that the future of India is limitless.