This year was not like most. No one could have predicted at the beginning of the year just how different our lives would look at the end. In early 2020, a new virus quickly proved to be devastating, bringing a sudden change to how we spend the majority of our days: going to work. With abrupt directives to work from home, we left our desk plants, monitors, and commutes behind. As employees adapted to working from their kitchen tables, the economy dipped into recession and hundreds of thousands of people died from COVID-19.
While some welcomed not having to go into the office, others struggled. On Ideas by WeWork, we published a blind research study that showed how collaboration—and hence innovation and the health of an organization—declined when individuals weren’t able to be together.
As the summer months brought a slowdown of new virus infections, businesses started to bring employees back to the workplace—tentatively at first, then more strategically by incorporating employee feedback on their comfort levels. Organizations tried out new office models: splitting the headquarters into several smaller offices, or setting up entire satellite campuses in cities around the world. We published a second research study, also blind, about what made a return to the office successful for those who did return in the fall.
Throughout the year it became apparent that there was deep and profound change underway. Amid global protests spotlighting racial injustice, we launched a new column on Ideas, Black-Owned and Proud, which tells the stories of Black entrepreneurs. As it became clear that we would have to be creative in order to get work done, we launched The New World of Work column. It shares stories of those using flexible solutions to alleviate the myriad challenges of working from home.
This year, WeWork members, like businesses of all sizes, have suffered and have had to pivot. Despite the hardships, many of these businesses focused on not just navigating huge economic challenges but also on doing good: in organizing, showing up for their communities, and standing by their personal missions to make the world a better place to the best of their abilities.
Next year will undoubtedly be another unprecedented one. The values espoused by these members—as well as the newfound resiliency we are all ending the year with—will remain essential. These are some of the member stories that kept us inspired throughout 2020:
Feeding the hungry
World Central Kitchen usually sets up relief kitchens in countries around the world to provide hot meals to people following natural disasters. But this year, with the COVID-19 crisis, the nonprofit started by renowned chef José Andrés began delivering meals in U.S. cities like New York City and San Francisco. By partnering with local catering companies, the organization brought fresh meals to first responders, medical professionals, and those in need of food during the early days of the pandemic. That even included forklifting food to those trapped on a cruise ship outside Oakland, CA, in March. The nonprofit is based at WeWork 655 New York Ave NW in Washington, D.C., and has served more than 50 million meals since its founding in 2010.
A global, grassroots printing network
When the pandemic hit, hospitals and healthcare workers were woefully under-equipped with ventilators, hospital beds, and personal protective equipment (PPE). To help fill the gap, the hobbyists stepped in. Sewers turned on their machines to make masks for donation. And those with 3D printers made face shields. Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a maker community and WeWork member in Tel Aviv and New York City, rallied to design, prototype, and iterate on designs for PPE. It shared the designs via a global grassroots network, so that 3D printers anywhere could be used to make PPE, like face shields. It wasn’t a far stretch from what the organization did before the pandemic, creating prosthetics and equipment for the disabled, elderly, and poor. The effort resulted in tens of thousands of pieces of PPE donated to healthcare workers around the world.
Helping youth find and keep jobs
The pandemic plunged the global economy into a recession, and thousands of people became unemployed. For those with disabilities, the situation was even worse—one in five of those with disabilities lost their jobs, as opposed to one in seven without disabilities. For nonprofit Bridges From School to Work, the situation underscored the urgency of its mission. Since its founding in 1989, Bridges has helped over 19,000 young people with disabilities find and keep meaningful jobs. The organization pairs young adults ages 17 to 24 with Bridges staff who act as mentors, job coaches, and case managers. Bridges works across 12 cities in the U.S., including in WeWork spaces in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
Entrepreneurship is 21st-century activism
For Doll Avant, business is personal. She started Aquagenuity, a company that makes it easier for people to find out the quality of their tap water, with a deep understanding of the systemic inequalities that govern water access in America. (Black and brown communities, with higher levels of failing infrastructure, disproportionately face more water security issues.) Aquagenuity, a member of WeWork 101 Marietta St NW in Atlanta, pools together data from disparate sources to generate a more comprehensive rating of water quality. Part of Avant’s mission is fighting for environmental justice; she sees her work as an extension of her activism, raising awareness of the many racial injustices that still exist in the U.S. today.
Bringing change to the face of business
The pandemic shined a light on many of the inequities in our society. A disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic people became sick from COVID-19, and one study found that these populations made up over half of all deaths in the U.S. This year, WeWork recognized 200 of our Black-owned business members with a grant to help them navigate the economic headwinds and continue to grow. From launching a digital health resource targeted to African Americans, to establishing networks for female entrepreneurs of color, these entrepreneurs are working to correct inequities built deep into society.
Celebrating representation with pride
Cee Smith and Aria Sa’id have dedicated their lives to amplifying underrepresented voices. Smith is a lifelong entrepreneur with a goal of creating an LGBTQ+ economy. A member at WeWork 80 M St SE in Washington, D.C., she’s launched several businesses, including the country’s first LGBTQ+ record label. Sa’id is a transgender advocate and cofounder of the world’s first transgender district in San Francisco (called The Transgender District). For both, the key to shifting culture toward wider acceptance is through advocacy, through “leading those conversations, creating those solutions, and addressing our disparities ourselves,” says Sa’id.
Connecting brands with those in need
When New York City became the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. in March, Cole Riley was a few months into starting a media company that worked with food brands. But after reading so many headlines on how healthcare workers and facilities were badly overstretched, he put his plans on hold. He instead used his relationships with food and beverage companies to set up a logistics network so they could get their snacks and food to healthcare staff, an initiative called Founders Give. Over 10 weeks, the effort delivered more than 2 million products to over 100,000 healthcare workers and patients in NYC hospitals.
Caring for the most vulnerable
COVID-19 caught so many communities off guard and unaware of the right measures to take to protect against the virus. But for international humanitarian organization Care, working to stop the rampant spread of disease is not new. The organization was on the front lines of fighting the Ebola, Zika, and cholera outbreaks and has delivered critical aid in dozens of countries. While people in developed countries were able to stay indoors to protect themselves from the spread of the disease, many in developing countries could not. In these places, Care drew upon its experience to provide relief, which included setting up soap and handwashing stations and distributing protective gear to healthcare providers.
Making it easier to get critical information
As news about the novel coronavirus moved fast in the beginning of the year, governments scrambled to communicate necessary information to their constituents. Voicify, which provides software that integrates with smart devices, simplified that process. It offered its platform to U.S. state governments for free so that governments could easily disseminate information via voice-activated smart home devices. That way, people could directly ask their devices about things like COVID-19 symptoms, where to get tested, and the latest news about the virus. Voicify has offices in WeWork spaces in Boston, Seattle, and New York City.
All of these organizations lent their time, energy, and expertise to combat a new virus, fight injustice, and do what they could to support others in their communities. They are among the many businesses around the world that stepped up this year. They were joined by the esports company that used supercomputers to conduct research on COVID-19; the family car service owner who accompanied a blind client to the client’s father’s funeral; and the countless restaurants and caterers who delivered food to those in need—and those are just the WeWork members we know about. They showed that despite how hard this year has been, it was also filled with acts of bravery and grace.
Anjie Zheng is the editor of Ideas by WeWork. Previously, she was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Her work has also appeared in Fast Company, Quartz, and LitHub.