It is a paradox many start-ups struggle with: how to retain the can-do spirit and casual disregard for rules and processes that made you innovative as you mature and diversify as a business. For WeWork, that challenge is made even more acute by the fact that being agile and entrepreneurial is the very reason it exists in the first place.
As the largest and fastest-growing provider of co-working spaces across the globe, it operates in around 140 locations in 48 cities across 16 countries, offering small businesses or freelancers a seat and access to facilities in offices that might otherwise be beyond their reach. But if that makes it sound like a property company, its USP is that it builds communities, or ‘physical social networks’ (for example, by hosting events), which reflects the ethos that sparked its inception in 2010: one founder, Miguel McKelvey, grew up in a commune, while his partner, Adam Neumann, was raised on a kibbutz in Israel.
One of WeWork’s London locations, yards from Old Street underground station, embodies these ideas; it’s bright and open, with private offices alongside bar stools and armchairs, and staff scurry around in T-shirts that tell customers to ‘do what you love’.
It’s a mantra New York-based chief people officer John Reid-Dodick is keen to espouse when he pulls up a stool. As the business spreads, he says, it will evolve naturally: “Our focus isn’t on maintaining our culture as we grow globally – it’s on enriching it.”
The people team alone has grown from two staff to almost 80 over the past three years, and its focus is on bringing in the right people to a high-growth business. “As we’ve grown, we’ve increasingly planned ahead for our growth trajectory,” says Reid-Dodick. “We’ve invested heavily in building a people platform of systems, processes and analytics to enable scale efficiencies and a superior employee experience.”
WeWork has culture and employee engagement functions to ensure scale is managed in the right way. Both are managed by McKelvey, which means the business’s origins are at the heart of day-to-day operations. “It’s a privilege to have a co-founder so engaged on these topics,” says Reid-Dodick. “The feedback loop he creates with employees ensures we continue to improve communication and change management to remain agile.”
Events and socials are the glue that makes it all work, he adds. One of them is known as TGIM (or Thank God It’s Monday), a weekly event that encourages teams to come together on a Monday evening to have dinner and share their plans for the week ahead. “It’s anchored in what happened when WeWork began. Our founders ran the building for members during the day and ran the business itself at night,” says Reid-Dodick.
The company also hosts two annual events: one is a summer camp-style retreat open to all staff featuring learning opportunities, games and a music festival. A separate summit involves workshops and performances and is open to both employees and members.
Back in the offices, wellbeing events are held for employees and members three or four times a week, including yoga classes and guest speakers. “It helps to nurture our relationships,” says Reid-Dodick. But wellbeing alone cannot maintain culture; with 120,000 members and more than 2,000 employees globally, he admits the issue of transitioning from “being small enough that everyone knows everyone” to something more corporate is tough.
“There’s a widespread notion that you can only have meaningful relationships with a few people, so any company that is expanding has to find ways to specialise, while maintaining working relationships,” says Reid-Dodick. At WeWork, leadership is key. The business views senior roles as fluid – leaders are encouraged to rotate between offices and to hire their own replacements. Their stories are also vital to onboarding processes: “Our values are instilled in every team member, and our people team strives to find people working towards something bigger than themselves.”
Technology matters, too. More than 80 per cent of the workforce are millennials, and Reid-Dodick says a generation that has “grown up mobile” has expectations about where and how they work. He spends much of his time on the road, using conference calls to stay connected, and expects HR to “keep evolving and stay ahead of trends”.
And that means, he says, that he feels like the “personification” of the evolution the business has gone through. Having begun his professional life as a lawyer at Reuters, he has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, including a stint as chief people officer at AOL, before joining WeWork last year. Today, he is an evangelist for a different way of working. “At Reuters, I had a huge corner office on the 40th floor with views over Manhattan. But now I really embrace open-plan offices.”