During a recent visit to one of the two WeWork coworking office buildings in Seoul's Gangnam district, I was met with DJs setting up speakers in the meeting space we normally use. "There's a party here later. Let's head to the 10th floor, they have a new craft beer in the lounge up there," I was told by employees of the start-up I had come to meet with. In case it wasn't clear from past encounters, WeWork was underlining that there's is not a traditional office culture.
At WeWork's head office, in New York's fashionable Chelsea district, the wide range of plants and technicolor sofas is overshadowed by a maze of staircases housing their floating "sky-lobbies." These features are not just PR stunts to generate hype in the millennial driven start-up generation; they are the result of data analysis driven inspiration.
“Most architecture firms design offices as one-off projects and rarely collect feedback once the spaces are occupied, but because WeWork both designs and manages their co-working spaces, the company can collect post-occupancy data,” says Jonathan Hilburg of The Architect’s Newspaper. “Through the collection of data via user feedback and integrated sensors, the company has created a massive pool of information from which to build its design guidelines.”
Desk layouts at WeWork sites are developed by algorithms, not interior designers or office managers. These algorithms do not simply calculate the maximum number of desks per space but draw in data from a broad spectrum of factors, including occupant flow and human interaction rates to maximize what they call "circulation space." That circulation can "help guide and divide the energy of the floor, keeping raucous lounge get-togethers distinct from the more subdued private call booths or conference rooms," says Hilburg.
Not only is the initial planning of WeWork's office space highly digitized and analytical, but it is also under continuous review based on tenant feedback. At the head office in Chelsea, NYC, the maze of staircases dominate the center of floor spaces on each floor. According to the data, however, the staircases are the anchor point upon which the flow of people is forced to circulate. New design strategies at the head office then trickle down to other sites as they are built or redesigned, it works like “software updates,” says Federico Negro, senior VP and head of design at WeWork.
Some may see this digitization of the planning process as overly rigid, while others may consider the increasing flexibility of data analysis as the reason it can broach office design strategy. Either way and in combination with other theories such as biophilia and natural lighting theory, it would be hard to argue that the spaces produced by these strategies aren't unique, appealing and even beautiful.
"The design of each location changes accordingly based on a user’s needs," says Hilburg. "Underutilized conference rooms can either be reconfigured to make them more appealing, cramped rooms can be reorganized and dark rooms can be lit differently or repurposed into different uses entirely. There’s no reason that a lesser-used conference room can’t be turned into a lounge if it draws tenants."
Feedback is not just on a site-by-site basis either, all the data from the 283 WeWork coworking spaces worldwide are aggregated, and the resultant analysis guides strategy in all sites. Considering their global reach, WeWork also makes sure to leave space for cultural nuances. Only 90% of the aggregated data-driven strategies are used across all sites. The remaining 10% is left to adapt to the needs of the local market.
"When WeWork expands into a new city or state, it hires local architects to adapt its traditional model. This might mean a long communal table in Scandinavian offices as everyone gathers to eat lunch together, or larger meeting rooms in China, where one-on-one meetings are eschewed for team gatherings," says Hilburg, who has been investigating WeWork's pioneering strategies, attention that has been brought on by success.
WeWork’s membership now exceeds 250,000 in the 75 cities it operates in around the world. Approximately 25% of that membership is made up of enterprise clients like IBM. Its 283 sites are soon to be joined by 183 more, currently in various stages of development, another sign of the massive expansion the company has undergone in the past year. In fact, it was precisely 12 months ago that Masayoshi Son and his Japan-based, SoftBank Vision Fund, invested a staggering $4.4 billion in the project.
The question on the lips of many in the commercial building sector is, "when do we stop looking at this as a fad and start treating it as a new era in commercial real-estate and office design?"
"The popular office design of a particular era is not just the result of more advanced theories being put into practice," explains our comprehensive report The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era, which explores theories on workplace layout and how new technology is changing the way offices function. "Office design is a reflection of the condition and evolution of the economy, it is influenced by safety and labor rights legislation, and it serves as a rebellion on the common office layout thinking that it replaces," the report explains.