Adam Neumann speaks at a WeWork event at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Jan. 9, 2019. (Photo/JTA-Michael Kovac-Getty Images for WeWork)
Adam Neumann speaks at a WeWork event at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Jan. 9, 2019. (Photo/JTA-Michael Kovac-Getty Images for WeWork)

Hulu’s new ‘WeWork’ documentary hits me where I worked

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Sitting at my desk in the corner of my living room, I often have found myself wishing for a better office space. It would be somewhere more professional, with abundant coffee and clean, stylish desks in a space that would help me combat freelance solitude by providing a community of the like-minded: devoted to innovation and creativity, committed to getting the work done and invested in creating new relationships and working as a team.

So when a friend offered me a free trial membership to a local WeWork, I snapped it up.

In the beginning, it was the best.

I felt cooler walking into the building (albeit less attractive, considering the highrise also held Hollywood offices). Coffee was always available, adjacent to a big, glass dispenser of fruit-infused water. There was beer, for the people who liked that kind of thing.

It felt special and fun and creative.

I had heard that the co-founder was Israeli and came from a place of kibbutz inspiration, which made me feel even more connected to the space’s purpose and origin.

While most WeWork members were likely taking the experience at face value, the company was operating closer to chaos than to community, a point that is hammered home by Hulu’s recently released documentary, “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.” (This is not to be confused with the forthcoming “WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork,” a TV drama that will follow the launch and fall of WeWork starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway.)

In its examination of dynamic WeWork co-founder and frontman Adam Neumann, the documentary, directed by Jed Rothstein, shares some emotional DNA with the flurry of recent series delving into sex cults (NXIVM) or flashy projects (the Fyre Festival) and their eccentric leaders.

Even with the cultish loyalty that Neumann had inspired in employees at the company’s start, WeWork’s $47 billion value fell to $10 billion, its IPO was canceled and, in 2019, Neumann resigned.

The company has been plagued by accusations of gender pay inequity and racism among other charges, some of which are detailed in the documentary. WeWork is now owned by SoftBank, which bailed out the company when Neumann left; co-founder Miguel McKelvey stepped down in June 2020. The new CEO estimates that WeWork will achieve profitability in 2021, and may revisit the IPO then.

The documentary shows Neumann laying out his vision. In a nod to his and McKelvey’s roots on communes in Israel and Oregon, WeWork would be a “capitalistic kibbutz” that meets everyone’s needs through sharing, but better compensates those who are willing to work harder.

In interviews, Neumann trafficked in esoteric language that is infuriatingly obtuse.

WeWork was “not a real estate company, but a community of creators,” he says. “We create an environment for entrepreneurs and freelancers, leverage technology to connect people.”

“It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about being something bigger than yourself,” he says, essentially giving “love your neighbor as yourself” a corporate spin.

A supercut of Neumann proudly repeating the same anecdote — that when he met his wife, she told him, “You have a lot of potential, but right now you’re full of shit” — emphasizes that he is more talk than substance, and the story is not as charming as he seems to think it is.

Neumann repeatedly promised that WeWork wasn’t just about sharing space; it was about changing and empowering the world through collaboration. The branding was slick and appealing, urging members at every point — on mugs and other merch, in art on the walls — to “do what you love.”

I drank from those mugs (coffee, not Kool-Aid) several times a week for months, and the message always landed.

But the promised community never materialized.

Small talk in the kitchenette almost always failed. Building events were attended by company teams, and I was on my own. A freelancer with a hot desk had no perceived value at WeWork (unless a company tried to sell me on a video marketing package or virtual assistants).

There was no ‘we’ there, so I got back to work. When my membership was up, I left.

There was no “we” there, so I got back to work. When my membership was up, I left.

WeWork trafficked in hope and dreams, of humble roots that would grow and deepen. And when you’re used to the modus operandi of startup bootstrapping, cramped offices, giving time and investment capital and lower salaries in exchange for stock options are par for the course. The draw was the mission and Neumann’s enthusiasm.

The 104-minute documentary ends with several of the interviewees donning and removing protective masks, re-anchoring us to the isolation of the past year.

This We concept of togetherness seems of another era, from what people sometimes call “the before times.” As Neumann’s former assistant Megan Mallow points out, community is “crucial to our survival as human beings … what are we if we don’t have each other?“

In retrospect, former employees interviewed in the documentary are able to see the red flags that they ignored. Liron David, a special events planner, describes Neumann as “a very convincing guy” who told him, “Don’t worry, you know, we’re going to grow. We’ll be big. You’re going to stay with us and do a lot of work with us, you’ll see.”

Former WeWork lawyer Don Lewis compares him to spiritual leaders who “think they can cure the plague by touching your head.” Bestselling author and business professor Scott Galloway says, “If you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.”

One journalist who visited WeWork headquarters in New York City shares an illuminating anecdote. Neumann ordered a latte from a barista and then grabbed the journalist’s cappuccino, insisting it was the latte he had ordered. An employee apologized and explained that, per Neumann, they referred to cappuccinos as “lattes” and vice-versa.

The truth is, Israelis and coffee is a complicated thing with many opportunities for cultural confusion. (Is “cafe hafuch,” literally “upside-down coffee,” an inverted latte or an inverted cappuccino?)

But the point is made: Some people insist the world is a certain way and are so confident about it that some of us might grant them the win or chalk it up to charm and eccentricity. Either they’re right, or their vision is so strong and well-intentioned that it doesn’t matter that they’re wrong.

Sometimes following a confident person on their mission pays off, especially if their motives and drive to make the world better are sincere, and they make the effort to ground community in relationships instead of propaganda.

With those experiments, even if the success is minimal or of limited duration, it’s not something to regret.

But Neumann’s story shines a light on how susceptible we are to believing those who speak confidently, even if their words seem less than concrete. The promise of community is aspirational, but creating those connections takes more than an ambitious space-sharing plan. It takes commitment to people and relationships that, in the case of WeWork, were deprioritized in favor of expansion and what David calls “money blindness.”

While few of us will start companies that have billion-dollar IPO potential, we all have the ability to do what this documentary shows Adam Neumann, for all his confidence and ambition, failed to do: prioritize relationships, and refocus on the “We” over the “Work.”

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.