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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

All work and no pay

On the rare occasions, now, that I actually go into the office I walk past a WeWork in central London. I was vaguely aware of what it was – a building within which various companies rent space for themselves, with some shared facilities; a few years back, Regis did the same – but thought little more about it. That was before I watched Jed Rothstein’s film WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn…

Released by Hulu in the spring, it opens with an unidentified young man with long hair, a white shirt and black suit standing in a large comfortably-furnished office space and attempting multiple times to deliver a speech to camera, often stopping, rephrasing or pacing. Crew members can be heard off-screen but other words are spoken as voice overs, and there is the odd intercut clip.

The man is Adam Neumann, who co-founded WeWork in 2010, and the film traces both its path and his. Both are intimately intertwined, as this Israeli who was brought up on a kibbutz arrives in post-Crash New York and starts a ‘co-working’ company that leases unused buildings and refits them for small young start-up companies to rent. Neumann sees his own as a tech company and, crucially, the ‘We’ part as fundamental to his vision – a communal enterprise that empowers people to grow their humanity through collaboration and connection but in the real world, not online. A physical social network, as he describes it, appealing to millennials. As a result the staff of WeWork businesses – described as members – not only worked in the same buildings but associated with each other, had access to kitchens, shared food and were supplied by Neumann’s firm with free beer – lots of free beer.

Employees and members contribute to the film, recalling their joy at finding something that allowed them to build their own companies within a community of like-minded entrepreneurs. They also liked the WeWork ‘summer camp’ Neumann established for members in a remote part of the US which, judging from the footage shown, was a cross between the actual teenage ritual of that description and that other American institution slightly later in one’s educational journey, the frat party. Applying the same values to residential accommodation saw the first apartment blocks established under the WeLive brand, albeit generating an insularity that meant many barely left the buildings in which they worked and lived and tended to treat ‘outsiders’ as exactly that.

Journalists and reporters also have their say, noting how they initially marked this as the latest possible billion dollar start up, the unicorn of Rothstein’s title and a rarity even in America. WeWork certainly became that, its market valuation climbing astronomically each year (as shown by onscreen graphics) to a staggering $47 billion by 2019. By that stage everyone seemed happy, especially the voluble Neumann whose personal wealth increased and whose personal statements became even more – yes – messianic (“Tell a man in his thirties that he’s Jesus Christ and he will believe you,” says one observer). Ironic for a man who stressed that ‘We’ was ‘Me’ turned upside down, a point already subtly made in the opening credits. His wife Rebekah, a former actress and film-maker, is shown as having her own credo of collective endeavour that tended heavily toward the New Age values of her cousin Gwyneth Paltrow. It included her beginning a child education company called WeGrow.

A private company and thus not required to reveal its finances, WeWork was in fact being readied for flotation on the stock market via a truly massive venture capital deal with SoftBank (owned by the richest man in Japan) when insiders and outsiders alike started to see the cracks. More and more cash was needed to fund aggressive expansion, yet income was drying up and new spaces weren’t ready. Complex ownership arrangements saw Neumann being paid by his own company to let it use certain real estate. Absurd deals were being done just to say a building had been taken (a former lawyer for WeWork, notably older than their typical staffer, recalls finding out that the company that couldn’t afford eight months’ rental and thus was given that term free was in fact Microsoft). There were rumours of lay-offs and then proof, whist Neumann remained simultaneously bullish and evasive. Rebekah began to act and be portrayed as though she had helped found the company (she hadn’t). The free beer dried up for members but the fuel kept flowing into the engines of Neumann’s private jet.

Which brings us back to that speech. It is revealed that this was one of many, increasingly despairing, tries by his team to get Neumann to complete the necessary promotion for that flotation. Analysts had already savaged the summary document – the same observer who made the messiah comment said it read “more like a novel written by someone who was shrooming”. Eventually Neumann pulled the flotation, WeWork’s value dropped by $30 billion in six weeks, a third of its staff lost their jobs and Neumann himself stepped down as CEO.

Narratively this is one of three twist endings, each of which Rothman nests smoothly and effectively inside the next. The second is the emotion shown by a former assistant of Neumann when describing how she felt not only betrayed but ethically directionless in the wake of what happened, noting how people have always been better together since the ancient Greek town square. The wider significance of that point becomes clear directly afterward when many of the contributors interviewed silently don facemasks, a reminder that events they have been describing came to a head with the arrival of Covid; news footage of a deserted New York from that time still chills. “I would give anything to be consumed with people again,” says that former assistant with impressive eloquence.

Rothstein’s film isn’t perfect. A clearer differentiation between who was a WeWork employee and who a WeWork member would have helped in the early stages, and none of the many film clips have any onscreen credit or provenance. As a result it is not at all evident whether the extensive sequences of empty and populated offices, often carefully deployed to make or reinforce specific points, are actual WeWork premises and if so in what circumstances they were filmed, generic locations or even mocked up. Details, as Neumann himself was fond of saying, matter.

But business hubris always makes good if sobering watching, from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to The Lehmann Trilogy, and this is no exception. Perhaps one day we might actually learn to see the next fall coming before it happens, and stop it.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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