On April 28, 2021, WeWork chief executive officer Sandeep Mathrani and WeWork chief communications officer Lauren Fritts sat down for a fireside chat at the first-ever WeWork Innovation Summit. A year after COVID-19 struck, Mathrani reflected on his first year with WeWork and shared his unique perspective on the term “flexibility,” the role it’s played for the company, and why he views it as a tenet of the future of work, particularly in a post-pandemic environment.
Below is a brief excerpt from their conversation, edited for clarity. You can watch the full session here.
Lauren Fritts: Why did you join WeWork?
Sandeep Mathrani: WeWork is synonymous with flexibility. When you think about early 2020, I don’t think people thought of flexibility the way they think about it today. People thought flexibility then meant coworking. It didn’t mean flexible hybrid solutions for the future of work.
WeWork had a really good balance sheet. SoftBank came in, in November of 2019, and provided over $5 billion of liquidity. WeWork had an upside-down cost structure, but it had revenues that were continuously growing over the past decade. So it was a business that had a place in the commercial sector. It was a disruptor of probably one of the last bastions of commercial real estate. I said if you could actually turn this business around, which really meant correcting the cost structure, that would be a good way to ride into the sunset. So I decided to take on the job and take on the challenge.
Fritts: What companies are coming to us, or what do you see on the sales side in regard to flexibility?
Mathrani: When I looked at the business early on, I never viewed us to be coworking. Coworking is somewhat misunderstood. People think coworking is a bunch of hot desks. You sit in the common area, and people from different companies pile on top of each other. But that’s certainly not our business. Ninety-nine percent of our revenue comes from dedicated office space. So we’re actually flexible, dedicated office space. If you want to come in here, you’ll actually get your own premises. You get your own space. And the common area you see is almost akin to a lobby of a hotel. Then when you go upstairs, you go into your own hotel room. You don’t go and stay in a dormitory, if you will. And therein lies the big difference.
I always knew this was about flexibility. And as the pandemic hit, the first thing I thought was: Will people take on long-term leases? If there was an option to have flexible office space, all those who had very long-term leases actually wished they had a flexible option, because they feel that they didn’t utilize the office for the past year to 18 months. Would it not have been better if there was another option available for them?
Very quickly we started to separate ourselves from the word coworking to flexibility, and of course, coined the term smart flexibility. We’re actually flexible, whether it comes to space (you can flex up and flex down), flexible for time, and more importantly now, flexible with our cost structure, which means that if you sign a lease with us or a membership agreement with us in location A, but you decided location A was wrong for you, you can take the remaining dollars and move it to location B. This is resonating with the client base.
As we are starting to come out of the pandemic, there’s tremendous demand because people want to come back. But they have no idea what the future workload holds. They know it’ll be different a year or definitely two from today. And therefore they don’t want to make very long-term commitments as long as a space is available for them to suit their needs.
In December and January, we saw small- and medium-sized businesses leading the pack. They’re the first ones that need to come back into the office. They’re the first ones that need to start to rebuild their revenue stream. We started to see our desk sales in the first quarter equate with the first quarter of 2020, to pre-pandemic levels.
In the second quarter, our enterprise business has picked up tremendous steam. The acceleration of the vaccination has been an acceleration of our business. I don’t think anyone expected America to have the opportunity to be vaccinated by the month of May for anyone who wants to get vaccinated. So all of a sudden now, business plans have changed rapidly, and the move to flexibility is the name of the game.
Fritts: What are you hearing from those CEOs in terms of what their employees are asking for?
Mathrani: Effectively people want a hybrid way of working. They want to come to work, whether it’s three, four days a week, and then have the flexibility to work from anywhere for a day or two a week. I think the leadership is having an interesting time trying to figure how to make that happen, because what they don’t want is a four-day workweek. What they don’t want is half the workforce to be on Zoom and half to be in the office. So it’s not as simple a formula as people make it sound.
I think people are going to experiment with different ideas, whether you work from home Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and come in on Monday or Friday to prevent a four-day workweek. But CEOs are hearing consistently from their base that they want a hybrid way of working. They want flexibility, but they want to come to work for all the reasons we talk about: collaboration, innovation, culture, mentorship. And they’re very afraid to lose that aspect of it.
I think everyone believes in the office. They all believe you need to come in to collaborate, innovate, mentor, build a culture. So effectively I think everyone is in a trial period. Everyone’s trying to figure this out, which again is why it is such a tailwind to our business.
What is ironic is, for our business, enterprise clients today are, on average, signing terms of two years. Small- and medium-sized businesses sign for 10 months. So for us, that is actually a longer period of time than it has ever been. But for enterprise companies, it’s one-fifth the length they’re usually used to signing. They usually sign 10-year deals. If they can actually get something for two years with no capital investments in a plug-and-play environment, and can amend the environment as they go (because even our furniture is very flexible), they benefit. We can socially distance. We can collaborate. We can innovate. We can move things around. And this provides them every option that they need.
Watch the full conversation here.
Sandeep Mathrani is the chief executive officer at WeWork. Lauren Fritts is the chief communications officer at WeWork.