How WeWork and other flexible office providers are striving to save office life
At a time when most offices lie vacant and the vast majority of consumers are still working from home, co-working providers such as WeWork are in a tough spot. But the brands are looking to stay afloat by reinventing themselves with social distancing upgrades and new marketing that pushes their space as the flexible solution businesses need as they downsize their office holdings and desperately renegotiate leases.
WeWork, notorious for brand baggage that includes a failed IPO and ousted founder, is debuting a new marketing campaign called “That’s How Tomorrow Works.”
“The objective of the campaign is to wake up interest again in flexible workspaces,” says Roger Solé, who joined WeWork as chief marketing officer in April. “One of the most amazing features of WeWork that we need to resurface is it’s extremely adaptable to the post-COVID world.”
It’s certainly a new tomorrow for WeWork. The New York-based brand, which was born a decade ago following the recession as a coworking space to serve the office needs of startups, is trying to shed the “noise” of its past, as Solé says, as it looks to the future. The company's much-publicized disaster of an IPO last fall followed its promise to double its marketing expenses as it pursued expansion. WeWork suffered revenue losses, massive layoffs and staffing changes. It hired former Publicis’ Groupe CEO Maurice Levy as interim chief marketing and communications officer late last year to try to restore the brand’s image.
The new work is the first creative push from VaynerMedia, which has been WeWork’s media agency since 2017 but will now handle a larger marketing role that includes the creative duties formerly performed solely by WeWork’s in-house marketing team. Solé, who was most recently chief marketing officer of Sprint, is spearheading the reinvention. He replaces Levy.
“It’s starting a new decade with a new crisis,” he says. “We’re trying to redefine what the future of work is for this new decade.”
An industry in flux
While the residential real estate market is enjoying a boom in many suburban areas, particularly around New York City, real estate experts fear office leasing may never return to what it was. That could still be problematic for coworking sites that still have to figure out the right financial formula.
“From a tenant standpoint, a completely flexible office space solution sounds perfect. Something that can flex up and down on a monthly basis as needed,” says Mike DelPrete, a real estate tech strategist. “However, the challenge with WeWork is the business model behind this solution,” he adds, noting WeWork’s “massively unprofitable business.” DelPrete says the challenge for WeWork, and others of its ilk, lies in not just delivering a solution for customers, but also in how to deliver such a solution profitably.
WeWork is not the only flexible office space provider hoping to capitalize on the new needs of clients. Knotel, a competitor with its own share of reported woes, is also marketing itself this month. The company will launch an out-of-home campaign called “Knotel New York Was Built For This” next week. The local push, which will appear in print on phone kiosks and digitally on bus shelters in Manhattan, focuses on “the importance of flexibility in getting back to the office,” according to a spokeswoman, who notes that the current situation makes “long-term leases even less tenable.”
The Wing, a membership-based coworking space for women that recently came under fire for its treatment of minority employees—a backlash that led to the resignation of its founder in June—is also aiming to reinvent itself. The company’s website says it was established in 2016, but re-established in 2020, while promising that “A whole new Wing is coming your way.” Representatives did not immediately return an inquiry requesting comment.
The new normal
Of course, experts agree that the office, and the face-to-face collaboration and fostering of creativity that goes with it, is still an important piece of corporate puzzle. The shape of that piece, however, is changing.
“We think that socialization and collaboration are a big part of why people want to be in an office,” says Kenya Watson, an intelligence analyst at CB Insights who recently co-authored a report around the importance of the tech-enabled office in a post-COVID world. “Even though it’s possible to still do the same work from home, it doesn’t always have that same dynamic.” Watson and her co-author Oliver Yu, who is also an intelligence analyst at CB Insights, expect that companies will explore a variety of office formats, like a downsized headquarters and regional offices closer to hubs. Workers will likely come in only a few days a week, rather than full-time, and many companies will need less space.
A critical factor is how office managers execute social distancing, particularly in the near future. Yu says air circulation systems and the importance of indoor air quality are critical, as are stickers and work space barriers.
Both WeWork and Knotel have redesigned their layouts with distancing in mind. Solé says WeWork has widened the layouts of its 800 global locations, particularly for its enterprise clients, those larger businesses that represent half its customers, and added directional dots, signage and hand sanitizing stations to ensure safety.
The new campaign, which will run digitally, includes a 60-second video that shows workers returning to the office. “Back to work. Something we used to say without much thought—now, it’s never carried more weight,” a voiceover says. “How do we build a business without building an office? And transform the workspace from a place to come to work to a space where work comes to life?” The spot showcases how WeWork will provide the answer, as masked employees in its offices collaborate from a distance as a cover of “Tomorrow,” the Annie showtune, plays.
The commercial will also air in 30-and 15-second versions. WeWork will also run localized out-of-home campaigns in select cities including New York, Seattle and Los Angeles.
“The idea is to show confidence that in this space we are the market leader,” says Solé. “We have been working to develop the platform that we believe is the most appropriate for this new world.”