In the Before Times, the dominant story in the world of co-working was the implosion of coworking giant WeWork in the fall of 2019 — both a spectacular showcase of Silicon Valley’s worst impulses and an opportunity to rethink what made coworking work. The problem with WeWork’s model was not demand; in early 2020, 70 percent of the workforce worked remotely at least one day a week. But concerns about the spread of the virus along with mandatory lockdown orders cut off the market. Within the pandemic’s first month, coworking spaces reported a 50 percent drop in attendance.
But there are signs of a surprisingly strong future for coworking; 88% of employers are either requiring or encouraging remote work, growing what was already a healthy number almost overnight. That brings us to another story from the Before Times worth revisiting: the rise of coworking spaces designed for women. The most well-known is the Wing, which opened its first location in New York City in 2016 and raised $118 million in venture capital from Sequoia Capital and celebrity investors that include tennis legend Serena Williams and actress Kerry Washington. When the pandemic began, the Wing had 5 locations in NYC alone, plus a presence in six other U.S. cities and, most recently, London.
A Surreal Twist For Another Venture-Backed High Flyer
Like all coworking spaces in the wake of the pandemic, the doors to the Wing closed and expansion plans were put on indefinite hold; the company also paused membership dues, effectively cutting off the source of more than 95 percent of their revenue. Then, the company was beset by an internal perfect storm largely of its own making: insufficient support for staff laid off during the pandemic, a history of what former employees described as an abusive work environment, and what was perceived as a lukewarm response to the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, all of which culminated in a staff walkout in June and the resignation of co-founder and CEO Audrey Gelman.
Watching all of this unfold from my makeshift home desk was surreal and shocking. I had been a member of the Wing since their DC location opened in 2018 and, with the caveat that I’m a white woman, coworking there was largely positive for me. As I rethought my experience there in light of this new information, one feature largely untethered to the staff’s complaints stood out: the space’s design.
The Wing was designed with women in mind, a choice that became uncomfortably obvious when contrasted with the frat-like atmosphere of WeWork, where the flooring was such that heels — really, any shoe other than loafers — sounded like a herd of stampeding elephants. Sweaters in the office were necessary even if it was 90 degrees outside, because of the aggressive AC. Though there were free tampons and pads in the women’s restrooms, they were located outside the stalls.
These indignities are the corporate norm, rather than an affront unique to WeWork — but that was what made the Wing feel revolutionary. Their flooring muted most footsteps, the temperature was regulated to suit the average woman’s body (as were the size of the chairs and tables), and the single-stall bathrooms were not only stocked with tampons and pads (and mouthwash, and face wash, and contact lens solution), but adjacent to a full-service locker room with showers and a beauty room with everything from blow dryers to Chanel perfume. The first time I spilled coffee on a Wing table, at least 10 fellow members leapt up to grab napkins.
It’s not clear what role coworking will play in the near-term, as social distance measures continue to be necessary. But in the long term, the shift toward remote working and people’s exhaustion with home offices points to a positive future for the communal aspect of co-working.
“Coworking spaces fill a professional need for space to go to do work productively, but more importantly, coworking spaces fill a social need that people have regarding work,” explained Gretchen Speitzer, a University of Michigan professor who has studied coworking spaces, in February 2020. “They’re a place to go where there’s stimulation, somebody you can share an idea with or ask for help on a question. People might join for professional needs or a cool vibe but what keeps them paying monthly fee is being part of a work community.”
Maintaining Members Online
Those communal elements have allowed other women-focused spaces to adapt.
On the community-building end, two other women-led coworking spaces are maintaining their members online as they consider what comes next. One is the Riveter, similar to the Wing in its Instagram-friendly branding. Since its launch in Seattle in December 2016, the Riveter has raised $27M and seven opened locations, all on the West Coast. Prior to the pandemic, they had plans to open more than 100 by 2022. Since March, founder Amy Nelson and her team have doubled down on virtual events and community-building, rebranding themselves as “a modern union of mothers, sisters, daughters and allies, fighting together for equity of opportunity for all working women.”
The second women-led space is the Hera Hub, which opened its first location in San Diego in 2010 and now has 7 locations in the US and 1 in Stockholm. It has not publicly disclosed its financials. Unlike the Riveter or the Wing, each Hera Hub location is operated independently through collaborative licensing agreements.
“Felina [Hanson, the company’s founder] made the specific decision that she wanted the people who ran the locations to have their own businesses, so they can be a business owner and really understand what their members are going through,” said Julia Westfall, who runs the Washington DC Hera Hub location — which also has adopted an online community approach during the pandemic. Westfall’s background as a finance and HR executive made her a perfect fit for the demands of running a Hera Hub, which include the location’s finances, recruitment, and programming.
As the coworking world reckons with the post-pandemic future, it’s the design elements that point most strongly toward the next phase. If it chooses to push forward, the Wing clearly has a lot of work to do to address the concerns of its former employees, develop anti-racist internal practices that will attract and retain new talent, and regain the trust of its members. But the community-building piece is only part of the future of coworking. Before the pandemic, the Wing spun off the team that curated its women-centric atmosphere into a design studio to work with other offices to export the touches that make it feel so different.
The Case For Relevant Design
If the Wing itself does not survive, its approach to design absolutely should — it’s now more relevant than ever. As coworking spaces look ahead to a future where a vaccine returns life to a new normal, design elements like the spacing between desks, limiting the number of shared tabletops, and a decentralized model for employees.
Both the Riveter and Hera Hub allow cisgender men to join as members (the Wing only permitted cisgender men in their spaces as guests). Riveter founder Amy Nelson estimated in 2018 that about 25 percent of their membership was male-identified.
I was a Wing member for more than a year before I brought a male guest, but the experience was instructive: by centering women, these spaces further equality when they ask men to navigate them as seamlessly as I had to navigate WeWork’s temperature and inconveniently-placed menstrual products. As I gave my male guest a tour of the space, I watched as he slowly but perceptibly adapted his movements and mannerisms to a world made for women. Imagine what could happen if we rethink coworking with this approach in mind.