I published my very first post on Interconnected in late February 2020. Back then, the coronavirus in China was in full swing, but the rest of the world has yet to grasp the gravity of this pandemic.
In that post, I talked about a future where remote work and remote consumption will become mainstream due to COVID-19. It was not an uncommon sentiment, especially if you work in tech. It was also a future that was mostly touted with a utopian sheen. Now that this future has largely become reality, it’s time to address some of the darker, more challenging elements of distributed remote work and the next phase of this evolution, which I call “perpetual hybrid work”.
Two years into this pandemic-turned-endemic, addressing these challenges is particularly timely given that multiple tech CEO’s have shared hiring data that validates the increasingly dispersed nature of technology and knowledge workers. This “perpetual hybrid work” future also bodes well for one specific company that has been the laughing stock of tech: WeWork.
Global Tech Talent Dispersion
For anyone who works in tech, especially if you are in charge of recruiting, hiring, and managing people, you have probably intuitively felt the physical dispersion of coworkers in the last two years. Last week, several CEOs voluntarily shared some numbers on Twitter that support this intuition. Here is the comparison of the percentages of hiring done outside the San Francisco/Silicon Valley, pre-pandemic versus the present day, among three top-tier tech companies:
- Q1 2019 (pre-pandemic): 39%
- Q4 2021 (most recent quarter): 74%
- Q1 2019: 30%
- Q4 2021: 89%
- Q1 2019: 48%
- Today: 78%
Now, remote work and global hiring is not necessarily new in tech, especially if you work in pure software. Notable companies like Automattic and GitLab have been remote-first from day one. What is noteworthy with Stripe, Coinbase, and Cloudflare validating the same trend is that all three companies have committed serious commercial real estate investment to the SF/Bay Area. (I have been to all three companies’ offices pre-pandemic; they are nice!) So this transition is more painful and costly to them, which underscores just how real this trend of global tech talent dispersion really is.
San Francisco and Silicon Valley are no longer the default physical center of gravity. But what replaces them is not no physical center of gravity whatsoever, but many smaller physical centers of gravity to alleviate the struggles of distributed remote work.
Remote Work Struggles
I have been working in a distributed remote work setting since 2017, so I’ll share some of the challenges and difficulties that are unique to this way of working.
These are not hypothetical struggles you read about in an MBA case study or HR handbook. These are struggles I have personally seen, felt, and experienced as an operator over the last five years, categorized from the eyes of three common personas:
If you are an employee who is early in your career, you struggle with:
- Receiving quality mentorship and career guidance
- Building a support network with other similar employees
- Managing and balancing workload independently
- Building a professional identity
If you are an employee who has a young family, you struggle with:
- Balancing work and family responsibilities (especially if your school or childcare option is unreliable)
- Concentrating without distractions at home
- Feeling secure that having your child/children appear unexpectedly in your video calls don’t negatively impact your career advancement
If you are a manager, you struggle with:
- Understanding each team member’s goals, aspirations, struggles, and incentives
- Running productive meetings, planning sessions, and brainstorming exercises
- Establishing cross-functional collaborative relationships with other managers
- Balancing meetings across many time zones, oftentimes across many countries
The manager struggles I laid out are especially pronounced if you manage team members with whom you don’t have a previous working relationship with (very likely, given the high level of current turnover and competition over talent in the tech industry).
This list of struggles is by no means exhaustive. Many of them existed pre-pandemic and pre-remote work. Many of them have been exacerbated during the pandemic when distributed remote work became the norm, but new norms have yet to be formed to address these worsening struggles.
Regular (but not daily) in-person work cannot solve all these problems but can alleviate many of them, especially ones that have to do with relationship building, creative collaboration, and knowing your colleagues on a deeper level. They require intuiting people’s emotions via their body language, facial expression, and other observations that are almost impossible to gather over hours of Zoom calls. They are, however, essential to tech and frankly all knowledge work industries.
Knowledge workers are done with 100% remote work from home. People need offices, just not all the time. That’s what “perpetual hybrid work” means.
But with the single corporate headquarters structure becoming obsolete, as Stripe, Coinbase, and Cloudflare’s hiring practice suggests, where can these smaller, dispersed physical centers of gravity pop up?
A WeWork Future
WeWork is still the most recognizable commercial real estate brand in the world and in a largely positive way. Despite its massive and well-documented first attempted IPO failure, most entrepreneurs and operators don’t really care. They just need easily accessible and well-designed office spaces – cheaply and flexibly. Even well before the pandemic, when I had conversations with entrepreneurs who were looking to expand to new markets overseas or set up their first work location somewhere, the solution was not “find an office”, it was “get a WeWork”. When I visited Mexico last February to explore the local tech ecosystem, the WeWork building in Mexico City where Didi’s local office is located was humming with activities.
Although WeWork is definitively not a tech company (it now calls itself “the leading flexible space provider”), it is the most tech-friendly, tech-enabled commercial real estate company.
One case in point is Coinbase, one of our “perpetual hybrid work” protagonists, is a large WeWork customer. Catering to Coinbase and the fast-growing crypto space, WeWork announced in April 2021 that it’ll accept many forms of cryptocurrencies as payment. While there are other smaller, local co-working spaces that also accept crypto, like Primalbase (the Netherlands), Hub Hoi An (Vietnam), Krakow (Poland), WeWork is the only one with a real global footprint that accepts crypto to my knowledge. With offices in literally every city that has a modicum of tech, you can basically visualize where all the smaller centers of gravity are by looking at WeWork’s clusters of office distribution:
Accepting crypto is a shrewd move given that $33 billion of VC money has been poured into the crypto industry in 2021 alone. All of these well-funded crypto startups recruit, hire, and work in a distributed remote work way. All of them will need to get more than a few WeWork’s to build their company. The same goes for most software companies, especially ones that have no large office lease commitments.
Well-designed physical spaces where people can meet, work, collaborate, and create in-person still matter. Whether you call it offices, co-working spaces, hangouts, or whatever is cool and appealing, people still need to see people beyond their screens.
WeWork went public via a SPAC merger last October at a modest valuation of roughly $9 billion. This successful public listing received much less fanfare than its first failed public listing, but the “perpetual hybrid work” macro environment could not have been more favorable for WeWork.
WeWork projects that it will become profitable sometime within 2022. Now, I don’t know enough about the commercial real estate business to say whether this projection is yet another “old WeWork's Adam Neumann puffery” or a different “new WeWork pragmatism” led by Masa Son's lieutenants, Marcelo Claure and Sandeep Mathrani. But if WeWork does not become profitable, it will not be because of a lack of opportunity or tailwind.
“Perpetual hybrid work” is still in its early days, and globally-available flexible office space is the key to making it all work. It’s a tailwind that will be blowing for a long, long time.
- Q1 2019: 30%
- Q4 2021: 89%
- Q1 2019: 48%
- Today: 78%
- 打造一个职业身份（professional identity）
WeWork仍然是世界上最知名的商业地产品牌，而且品牌印象总体还是很正面的。尽管它在首次尝试上市时遭遇了巨大的、有据可查的失败，但大多数创业者和运营者并不在乎。他们只需要一个便宜、灵活、容易获取和设计良好的办公空间。甚至在疫情之前，当我与许多创业者交流时，他们在希望向海外新市场扩张或在某城市设立第一个办公地点时，通常的结论不是 "找个办公室"，而是 "找个WeWork"。我去年2月访问墨西哥，去探索当地的科技生态，就看到墨西哥城的WeWork大楼，也是滴滴当地的办公总部，热闹非凡。
一个例子就是Coinbase，我们的 "永久混合式办公" 的主角之一，也是WeWork的大客户。为了迎合Coinbase和快速增长的加密货币行业，WeWork在2021年4月宣布，将接受多种形式的加密货币作为支付手段。虽然有其他较小的，更当地的共享办公空间也接受加密货币，如Primalbase（荷兰）、Hub Hoi An（越南）、Krakow（波兰），但是据我所知，WeWork是唯一一个真正具有全球规模的接受加密货币的共享办公空间供应商。WeWork基本在每个有一点科技生态的城市都有办公室，看WeWork的全球办公点密集程度，就基本上可以看到所有的“混合式办公”的小重心所在处了。
去年10月，WeWork通过SPAC合并方式上市，估值不高，为大约90亿美元。这次成功的上市比其第一次失败的上市受到的关注要少得多，但 "永久混合式办公" 这个宏观大环境对WeWork来说再有利不过了。
WeWork预计将在2022年内达到盈利。我对商业地产业务了解不多，也不敢说这一预测是又一次 "老WeWork的Adam Neumann吹嘘"，还是一家不同的、由孙正义的大将Marcelo Claure和Sandeep Mathrani领导的"新WeWork的务实"。 但是，如果WeWork不能实现盈利，原因绝对不会是缺乏机遇或顺风。