What we can learn from WeWork Fishbowl officees
We can learn a lot from the WeWork fishbowl offices

In our New York WeWork office yesterday our GenX General Manager overheard someone two or three offices down the hall tell his colleague, “Yeah. Interviewed one lady today. Good background, knowledge and everything, but she’s a dinosaur.” It was all she could do to not walk down the hall to the neighboring company and give the guy the finger. Ok, truly, she would never do that; I might, though. (I’ve posted about this topic before here.)

I won’t tell you which WeWork she was in, because, frankly, it doesn’t matter, I’ve been in over 15 WeWork offices in five different cities and the dynamic is similar in each. Each location has a large number of fishbowl offices with glass walls that house between one and 30 people for a single company. Some companies have hundreds of people in multiple offices on multiple floors – others have one person toiling away by themselves.

In each WeWork, startups and established companies from a wide range of industries, well-funded and not, with a wide range of circumstances, all work side-by-side, within eyesight and earshot of each other, sharing open spaces, conference rooms, and kitchen areas. Each group has its own ecosystem of values and behaviors within the culture of that particular WeWork. If I was getting an advanced degree in psychology or sociology, this is the culture I’d study.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s really valuable to have a growing office in WeWork.

It’s been fascinating to build a team with a specific culture there within the bigger culture of the building. I’ve witnessed: companies succeed and fail (literally find out they had to close the business, pack up and leave, on the same day); employees struggle and overcome – or not; managers work hard to be understood by people unwilling to learn or listen; teams collaborate well and others disband because they could not work well together (I refer you to number five below); people deal with language and cultural barriers successfully and less than satisfactorily. I’ve been so impressed with how many people resolve conflict quickly and with respect, and then amazed at the disrespectful behavior and attitudes that some people seem willing to tolerate. In the fishbowl of WeWork, every different fish seems to exist and we can learn from them all.

7 Things I’ve learned after 18 months in a WeWork office:

  1. The future of the diverse workforce is at WeWork now. Diversity, which is often hard to achieve within a company or even an industry, is alive and well within the floors of WeWork offices. Age, race, ethnicity, language – those characteristics of a diverse population that are easy to see and hear – are self-evident. What you overhear from people from different backgrounds – education, interest, region, economic, family – than your own is enriching and illuminating. The United States is getting increasingly diverse, and the more we can all get exposed to diverse workplaces, the more relevant we will be faster..
  2. A sense of humor is incredibly valuable. Offices that have laughter seem to thrive while offices without laughter seem to wilt.
  3. Everybody grumbles. I’ve witnessed people whom I believe are strong leaders, and others who are incredibly weak leaders, in action. And then they leave the room and the people in the office talk about them – complain about, make fun of, imitate, and invoke them – loudly, and often. Strong leaders are respected, yet are still talked about. Lesson: if you’re a leader, people are talking about you. Make sure they’re talking about you with respect.  
  4. Values Drive Behavior. Of course, I already knew this. At Double Forte we have expressed our values through behaviors that demonstrate that someone is working in-line with the values of the company. For example, in the behaviors for “Get Sh*t Done Well” value, we have:
    1. Is accountable for his/her own work, words and actions
    2. Does not leave people hanging – if s/he says it, s/he does it to the best of their ability; and
    3. Learns from trial and error; does not repeat mistakes, and a few other things.   It’s very clear when we’re in and out of alignment with our values.   A single WeWork floor might have 20 companies with 20 different sets of values AND 20 different sets of behaviors that describe a single value. Those are evident in interactions everyone can see all day long. Take a look at the BEHAVIORS on your team and make sure they’re the ones you want. You can read more about values in the workplace here and here (I might have written a book or two about it).
  5. Good leadership is much less common than bad leadership. Wow. When you find a good leader with respectful behavior, stick with that company as long as you can! You will learn more about what TO do, not just what NOT to do.
  6.  Co-existing is hard work and most people want to. Anyone who lives in an apartment building knows this, but the challenge of working with many different business cultures on the same floor and in the same building is exponentially more complex. You can’t choose your neighbors in either scenario, but at WeWork the walls are glass and you can hear everything. One company’s rude is another company’s normal. One company’s fun is another team’s offensive. One team’s loud is another team’s quiet.

          In my experience, positive, respectful relationships build among floor-mates when there is conversation and compromise. Finding ways to respectfully ask other  companies to adjust their volume is excellent training for talking with people with different points of view. Except that guy who wouldn’t stop talking on speaker phone on the 8th floor common area at the top of his lungs when the area was full even though multiple people asked him nicely to use his headphones instead…yeah, he can go suck it.

And

  1. While the law may say one thing about discrimination, we have a long way to go before everyone is evaluated just on their ability to do the job.

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