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WeWork Prepares For A Second Act — Banking Its Future On The Rise Of Remote Work

作者:Bobby Allyn 发布日期:7-21-2021

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Office sharing company WeWork was once the darling of Silicon Valley. In 2019, though, it went from the second most valuable U.S. startup to the brink of collapse. Now as remote work grows, the company is launching its second act. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Say WeWork, and one person comes to mind - Adam Neumann, the lanky former CEO with flowing black hair who went all woo-woo about the energy of the company's workspaces, like here at a 2017 conference in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM NEUMANN: And it's an energy of people doing their own thing while actually still being part of something greater than themselves. We like to call it the we generation.

ALLYN: Sounds wacky, but established investors believed it and wrote him checks for billions. Neumann had another side, too, says journalist Eliot Brown. He wrote about it recently in his new book, "The Cult Of We."

ELIOT BROWN: He really embraced the party boy lifestyle. With investors, he would - at 9, 10, 11 a.m. when they'd come in, he'd immediately offer them shots of tequila. He had a cigar bar-type vent installed in his office to suck out the marijuana smoke.

ALLYN: What emerged out of the weed smoke? A company investors pegged at $47 billion.

BROWN: He created the country's most valuable startup, but it was essentially just a mirage.

ALLYN: Here's how the business model was supposed to work. Get good deals on long-term office leases, and then make a profit by subleasing them on short-term contracts. Inside, WeWork spaces had the look and feel of a hip Brooklyn cafe. But was there any assurance all of this office space would be occupied for years to come? What if a recession hit? Those questions went unanswered. Eventually, WeWork hit the skids. Its plans to go public went out the window. Neumann was ousted. The company nearly went bankrupt. Now WeWork has a new boss, former real estate executive Sandeep Mathrani. He's trying to clean up a Silicon Valley mess. But when asked about Neumann on CNBC, he replied...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDEEP MATHRANI: It's noise in the background as far as I'm concerned. My focus is to right this ship.

ALLYN: But he's trying to right the ship during a time when the future of the office is very much up for debate.

BARBARA DENHAM: It's one of the most uncertain times for the office market probably since the '70s, when so many corporations left major cities.

ALLYN: That's Barbara Denham. She's an economist at Oxford Economics. She says the popularity of remote work since the pandemic has companies canceling office leases and downsizing others. She says that could be good for WeWork, which offers office space literally by the hour.

DENHAM: The demand for the WeWorks of the world, the coworking space, the flexible office lease market is huge.

ALLYN: If office life springs back, though, author Brown says WeWork might have some trouble with its hundreds of leases around the world.

BROWN: WeWork is positioning itself as the company that's going to capitalize on the changing world of office space. But they really don't know, and neither do we.

ALLYN: Outside of a downtown San Francisco skyscraper, Samir Kapoor is leaving a WeWork to grab lunch. He says the space is better than any office he's ever worked in - stunning views, kombucha on tap, even nooks to nap in. Kapoor is a startup founder.

SAMIR KAPOOR: You get to see other founders, get to see other people who are working, never know who you're going to meet. That's kind of an added plus.

ALLYN: But if something more affordable came along, Kapoor says he'd be fine to ditch WeWork.

KAPOOR: It's not hard to replicate what WeWork has done. I mean, it's just kind of some nice modern furniture, some nice desks and some great coffee, and you got it. And so I don't have any brand loyalty for sure. And so if there's a cheaper alternative with just as many locations, I'd be happy to go with them.

ALLYN: WeWork is still reeling from the high-flying Neumann era. It says it left 17 buildings and renegotiated leases on more than 50 others in the past two months alone. Another change - it's no longer saying its goal is to, quote, "elevate the world's consciousness." It now says it's a real estate company.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAPHNI'S "LIFE'S WHAT YOU MAKE IT")

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