Co-working Is Back, But This Time It’s Really Boring

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A few years ago, I had a pretty good scam going that got me a co-working space for a cut rate. I paid $35 a month for an app that gave me access to various co-working spaces that relied on an honor system for users logging their hours — sometimes I logged my hours accurately, sometimes I did not, and sometimes I “forgot” to log them altogether. In my defense, I was a struggling freelancer living paycheck to paycheck in New York, barely making rent, and it was difficult for me to see it as anything other than a victimless crime. The space I was “stealing” was luxurious, almost certainly flush with VC money, and never more than half-full; I didn’t feel guilty for sitting in a chair that otherwise would have been empty, quietly typing away on my laptop. Besides, paying to work is something of a scam to begin with — a scam that now, in a post-pandemic world where many are disillusioned with work full stop, feels particularly grating.

Still, with the office class slowly being dragged back to the actual office, co-working is rebounding from its pandemic slump too — but spaces are no longer even trying to sell us on the idea that sitting in their shiny Wi-Fi-equipped chambers is aspirational. Remember WeWork? The Wing? The capitalist’s kibbutz and the girlboss empire? Instead, the many spaces that have hefty new investments or expansions are just frankly boring. Is the post-pandemic worker craving a place to do their job outside their apartment so badly that they’ll pay a company called Industrious — Industrious — for little more than a desk? Not me! Not this time!

When I was paying to co-work, I was essentially paying to sit in a quiet room, which wasn’t even always quiet — most days, start-up meetings took place at neighboring tables and tech bros paced nearby, speaking loudly into their phones. I went because it was not my apartment, the library was too far away, and the coffee shops were too crowded. In my long-ago past life, which included a salaried job, I was paid to come into an office along with my colleagues; co-working, I was paying to come into one where I knew nobody, and that felt fundamentally sad. In post-pandemic life, the contrast is even more heightened: We are contending with the decisive shattering of a very American illusion that work is inherently virtuous, rewarding, dignifying. Many who worked through the pandemic are now depleted and burned-out; others are ditching their jobs to reshuffle their priorities and enjoy their lives more. At the same time, the rigid office policies of many employers are being softened, and long-term remote work is increasingly an option after a year at home tested its effectiveness. That’s why many are betting on a growth in co-working spaces in 2021, particularly big commercial real-estate developers.

There are plenty of spaces to choose from in New York City alone. There’s Green Desk, which touts environmental friendliness and fruit-infused water; Regus promises spaces designed for collaboration, like “shared breakout spaces” that look an awful lot like café booths. The Farm, a succulent-heavy space with a rustic origin story (“In the farmlands of Southern Missouri, we discovered a century-old barn and carefully transported that barn piece by piece to New York City”), may be more visually interesting, but is ultimately still only a place to work. So it’s fitting then that two of the biggest new co-working players are those with the most jarringly capitalist names, including Industrious and another called Workville. In February, CBRE Group, Inc., the world’s largest real-estate services company, forked over $200 million for a 35 percent stake in Industrious. And Workville, which just opened a new 60,000-square-foot midtown office space, touts a number of “best co-working” accolades; its co-founder called it the Cheers of co-working spaces.

As their names suggest, these places are straightforwardly utilitarian — they are providing you a nice place to put your laptop, so you can work in peace. While you can have your pick of locations and aesthetics among co-working spaces, there’s no amenities race, no attempt to make co-working into anything more than work. There isn’t even free beer anymore. This is all in stark contrast to the previous co-working boom. WeWork and the Wing were selling a lifestyle, maybe even an identity, in addition to a place to put your laptop — it’s how they managed to brand co-working as an exciting trend that could enrich you personally and professionally. Nowadays, the most exciting offering from Workville seems to be a tie between “plenty of natural sunlight” and an outdoor terrace. Industrious wants to sell you “elevated spaces that inspire productivity,” which include such amenities as oak desks, phone booths, and fully stocked fridges. These places dare you to imagine utopia as a place where you get a lot of work done.

After many of us have been locked in our homes with little more than our jobs for company, that doesn’t feel like nearly enough. With a plague at our doors, many have come to the conclusion that the time we spend working is the least meaningful part of our existence. The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, declared that “YOLOing may be the year’s defining workforce trend” after having interviewed both a lawyer who abandoned his high-powered job to spend more time with his wife and dog, and a buyer at a clothing company who chose to eject from his promising career trajectory and six-figure salary to explore such alternative paths as “move to the Caribbean and open a tourism business.” And why not? We’re all hurtling toward death, after all — our time on this rock is finite, our bodies are decaying, and the future is uncertain. Are we going to devote what little time we have to toiling away for the enrichment of some corporation? After surviving a pandemic? I think not.

Perhaps the implosion of shared-desk-as-lifestyle hubs plus the clarifying effect of living through a pandemic has led to a necessary wake-up call: At the end of the day, a co-working space is just a place to get work done, and anyone trying to convince you otherwise is, well, obviously trying to sell you something. But now that the illusion of co-working-as-lifestyle has imploded, just in time for the illusion of work-as-lifestyle has imploded, co-working spaces have never looked less enticing. I don’t see myself paying for a place to put my laptop anytime soon.

Co-working Is Back, But This Time It’s Really Boring