Well-watered. Abundant. Delightful place.
Two large stickers on the glass façade of the building display the company’s slogan: “Do What You Love™”. A colourful mural of skulls, roses, and tropical leaves serves as
the background for the wide, brown leather sofas and black marble floor tiles of the foyer. Past the security checkpoint, dance-beat music plays while one waits for the elevators,
and once inside, there is a poster with all the events happening that week: free breakfast on Community Floor because, one is reminded by the black floating balloons that frame
the breakfast table, “Thank God It’s Monday™”. There are ten floors dedicated to Private Offices, which are rented by small and medium companies. Every floor has its own ample
lobby, which features a kitchen with free single-origin coffee in a variety of roasts, and a hall with plenty of seats and tables surrounded by catchy neon phrases and posters of
illustrations and inspirational quotes. An all-glass corridor leads to the all-glass private offices, and with only a few glances one can see everyone and everything that’s happening
Floor eleven, the Community Floor, is one vast room where the only walls are those which define the building’s transparent contour. There is fruit-infused water, free
coffee, and free beer; ping pong and foosball tables; free manicures on Tuesdays; yoga classes, conferences with entrepreneurs, and artists making on-site interventions. The
ambient is filled with intermittent laughter, continuous chatter, and music that ranges from Julieta Venegas and Bomba Estéreo to Alex Ferreira, Sotomayor, and Technicolor
Fabrics — a soundtrack that gives away the t-shirt-wearing Millennial-bourgeois employees, entrepreneurs, and freelancers who spend their days at this WeWork building located
in one of the central corporate districts of Mexico City. It is a building that could be any of the approximately two hundred shared-space office-buildings that WeWork has grown to
manage around the globe since it was founded in 2010.
Distraction by Design
Distraction can be loosely defined as the diversion of attention, and diversion means to turn something aside from its course. In the context of work, the adequate course
of employees’ attention is defined by the management. And, since distraction is defined in function of the adequate course of attention, the management, by extension, defines
that which is considered undesirable distraction. Distraction is undesirable for work’s management because it means employees’ attention is diverted from the activities for which
companies pay wages. Activities that companies pretends to make profits from.
If concentration is exchanged for money, the wage that employees receive seems to justify the management’s efforts to control and colonize employees’ attention. Framed
that way, distraction is a rebellious act that reclaims the freedom to decide for oneself what the adequate course of one’s attention is. Given that WeWork is characterized by the
infrastructure it provides for activities that have been traditionally considered non-work, e.g. playing and socializing, it seems that the contract is different: less controlling, more
free and more human.
On their website, WeWork claims, “Now, hiring, retention, innovation, and productivity need not only coffee, but also yoga; not only printers, but also art
installations.”(translation mine) Yoga and art, along with taps of beer, and ping pong and foosball tables are amenities that characterize WeWork’s ambiance, and the central
message of WeWork’s advertising is the access that its amenity-heavy spaces provide to community. CEO’s of global, continental and national levels are in tune in this matter of
community. As a speaker at a technology conference in New York City in 2017, Founding Partner and CEO of WeWork Adam Neumann said, “Community, being surrounded by a
group of like-minded individuals, being part of something bigger than yourself, inspires people to work harder, spend more time at work and just have fun doing it.” This claim
stresses process, not product. What’s important in the WeWork creed is to work harder, spend more time at work, and have fun doing it. This tendency towards increased
engagement at work can also be sensed in what WeWork’s CEO for Latin America said in an interview, “Companies bring their people here because they realize they are happier
here. Something has changed in the world, and it’s a change that millennials started: people want to enjoy life. Here in WeWork we have that vibe; Companies have a way of
ensuring that they keep their people happy and that their employees don’t leave.” (transcription, translation and italics mine) [i]. Similarly, the General Manager of WeWork Mexico
stated in an interview for a marketing magazine that “WeWork aims to understand the new trend of millennials [...] looking for a new way of working that is more collaborative,
transparent, and that, by creating a community base in your life, allows an exponential growth in your professional activities. [...] People want flexible contracts, flexibility in their
lives, community [...]” (transcription, translation and italics mine) [ii]. The conception of community as something that both inspires people to spend more time at work and allows
for professional growth, and the use of people’s longing for happy lives to make sure employees don’t leave, are textbook examples of the commodification of play, affect,
friendships, and social networks in general —non-work activities that have been re-coded as professional opportunities.
Displayed on their ubiquitous coffee mugs, WeWork’s gospel of work reads “ALWAYS Do What You Love”. The assumption follows: if workers are supposed to be doing
what they love, then there’s no reason to stop working. Hence the capitalized ALWAYS — an exhortation to passionately do and remain engaged with work, whether it’s auditing a
business model, supervising the space around you every time anyone moves in the transparent spaces, or networking over a beer or a ping pong match. WeWork Chief Brand
Officer and Founding Partner, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, expressed this fusion of do and love quite accurately in an interview for the fashion platform Coveteur: “Working with
my husband is the biggest perk of the job. There is no separation between work and life. So the fact that everything is seamless and integrated has been awesome. It’s been
amazing for us, for our kids, and also for our relationship because we’re always pushing each other both personally and professionally. Those divisions between work and life
don’t exist anymore”. Published under the subtitle “LIFE AND WORK AS ONE”, this quote is telling of the eroticized conception of the office as the space for consummating love.
WeWork is a place where work should feel not like an imposed obligation, but like an opportunity for self-realization.
In his book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, the German-Korean philosopher Byung Chul Han points to the limits of the Foucauldian analysis
of biopower to make sense of power in the twenty-first century. He writes, “The freedom of Can generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should, which issues
commandments and prohibitions. Should has a limit. In contrast, Can has none. Thus, the compulsion entailed by Can is unlimited.”[iii] Han continues: “Technically, freedom means
the opposite of coercion and compulsion. Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself, which is supposed to be the opposite of constraint, is producing
coercion.”[iv] Something similar is happening with distraction in the context of WeWork. Annexing distraction as a modality of working is a way of increasing engagement in work.
Distraction has not replaced focused work; rather, it has been captured as a form of intensifying work. Instead of being a rebellious act, distraction has been stripped of its power
to give employees a critical distance from work.
Distraction as Ideological Displacement
WeWork differentiates itself from the traditional office, which they render as the grim, dull, and boring space in which employees lead grim, boring, and unhappy lives. As
one of WeWork’s Office Interior Design employees put it, “I used to work in a gray cubicle office space. I hated it.”[v] Beyond antagonizing the interior design of the traditional
office, the CEO of WeWork, at the United States Conference of Mayors in January of 2018, expressed a more fundamental — yet more abstract — antagonism: “As mayors, as
leaders, as CEOs, it is our responsibility to set the trend for the future, and the trend of the future is We versus Me” (italics mine) [vi]. This claim implies that the WeWork
commodified “community” is fighting the fight versus the anonymous employee and the solo freelancer. In his rereading of Walter Benjamin’s “Aestheticization of Politics”, Sami
Khatib asserts that phantasmatic antagonism is the site onto which class struggle is displaced in order to keep the overall conditions untouched. Khatib’s essay focuses on
fascism and how it “can be framed as the articulation of a pseudo-rebellion against capitalism in order to keep capitalism in power” [vii]. Following Khatib’s approach, WeWork’s
successful efforts to differentiate itself from individualism and the grey cubicle office can be read as a form of phantasmatic antagonism. The seemingly paradoxical incorporation
of games-and-beer-distraction in the workplace and the use of discursive (branding) and spatial (architecture and interior design) aesthetics of collaboration, community,
openness, and transparency grants expression to the people’s desires and demands for freedom, flexibility and community, while preserving and even intensifying the underlying
conditions of politics. The OECD reported that Mexico is the country in which more hours are worked per capita in comparison with the rest of the members of the OECD [viii].
According to the same report, the number of hours worked by Mexicans has increased since 2012, the year in which Mexico passed the labour reform as suggested by the
Secretary-General of OECD two years earlier [ix]. Meanwhile, the country remains at the bottom of the OECD ranking of productivity [x] and occupies the top position in inequality
[xi]. In the light of these facts, the claim that community inspires people to spend more time at work illuminates how even those in the most privileged working conditions of the
spectrum participate in making Mexico the country that works the longest hours with the lowest productivity in the OECD. Adam Neumann’s labour paradise makes work and play,
love and do, indistinguishable and distraction the means by which WeWork transforms dissatisfaction in the workplace into unwitting compliance with the neoliberal order. In the
traditional office distraction meant disengaging from the managerial control over attention. In “the cool office”, the emancipatory potential of distraction has been aestheticized
and transformed into a psychopolitical tool.
The Devil’s Workshop
Well-watered. Abundant. Delightful place. These are the meanings that etymologies of the word ‘Eden’ suggest [xii]. The mythological utopia of Eden explains original sin as the
origin of work. The conception of work as toil, sorrow and punishment has its roots in the fact that the experience of work has implied, from slavery to feudal and industrial
economies, physical and psychic abuse and punishment. The workshop, the factory, and the office have earned their reputation as places of misery. While explicitly oppressive
work conditions remain today a reality for millions, in the capitalistic incorporation of diverse forms of immaterial labour, and intellectual and affective modes of production and
consumption, the types of spaces dedicated to work have diversified immensely to even include workspaces with free beer and ping pong tables. Has Adam Neumann, CEO of
WeWork, built Eden for work? If the attention of labourers has become the medium through which managerial power circulates in the context of immaterial labor, can distraction
be reclaimed as a means for emancipation? Which forms should striking take in the context of attentional engagement? Khatib asserts that the “weapon against ideological
displacement is further displacement, which shifts the original displacement to another scene”[xiii]. Following Khatib, to counter the ideological displacement happening at the
distracted office, further distraction is required —distraction that takes the original distraction to another scene. In his essay In Praise of Profanation, Giorgio Agamben explains
that the sacred is that which has been removed from the free use of men. Profanation, he argues, is achieved through the “entirely inappropriate use of the sacred: namely, play”
[xiv]. Following this, the fact that (even when the aesthetics of the ludo-centric office do not resemble any traditional workplace) the fundamental conditions of work (long hours,
and generally low but extremely unequal pay) have remained untouched — and thus unchanged — points to the sacred status of labour and its functionalized forms of play and
distraction. Given that our analysis of the WeWork office has shown that play itself has been consecrated as work, our “inappropriate use” of work must take other forms. In the
book of Genesis, humanity’s tenure in Eden is sabotaged by the devilish serpent. In order to free ourselves from the Eden built for work, in order to escape paradise, we may
muster the devil’s tricks once again. Drawing upon the popular saying ‘An idle brain is the devil’s workshop’, idleness appears to be one such diabolic trick. In the essay In Praise
of Idleness Bertrand Russell observes, “Having taught the supreme virtue of hard work, it is difficult to see how the authorities can aim at a paradise in which there will be much
leisure and little work. It seems more likely that they will find continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.” [xv]. WeWork
exemplifies the freshest scheme to sacrifice leisure at the altar of productivity. At first glance, the fact that having fun at work is not only permitted but actually expected seems to
represent a battle won over the history of work as toil. Upon closer scrutiny, the development of “the cool office” turns out to be a transfiguration of ludic distraction into a form of
enhanced engagement at work. The gospel of work hasn’t changed, only diversified to integrate distraction as yet another mode of being industrious. Failing to have fun and
perform passionate work at WeWork constitutes the sin in this renewed gospel of work. Eating the forbidden fruit is the inappropriate use of Eden and with it came the knowledge
of being naked. Since WeWork annexed play as one of its central appropriate uses, being idle at an engaging work is one such inappropriate use which might bring about the
opportunity to imagine and to consider, for example, how to organize to realize Bertrand Russell’s proposal of a four-hour workday.
Thanks to A.V., C.R.S. and M.D.L.L.C., current and/or past members of WeWork, for the interview on their experience in the space.
[i] Digital Castle (2017, November 21) Entrevista al CEO de WeWork para Latinoamérica Patricio Fuks. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ-efmFbja8
[ii] Revista Merca 2.0 (2016, September 8) El Coworking en México: Entrevista exclusiva con WeWork. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUNfM_4p6mM
[iii] Han, B., &; Butler, E. (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power. London: Verso.
[v] Gross, A. (2015, August 3). How Our Design Team Creates the WeWork Look. WeWork CREATOR. Retrieved July 23, 2018, from https://www.wework.com/es-LA/creator/grow-
[vi] WeWork. (2018, January 26) Adam Neumann on the “We Generation”. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOb_ogQJWeI
[vii] Khatib, S. (2015) The Aestheticization of Politics: Rereading Benjamin’s Theory of Fascism. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/12225411/The_Aestheticization_of_Politics_Rereading_Benjamin_s_Theory_of_Fascism
[viii] OECD (2018), Hours worked (indicator). doi: 10.1787/47be1c78-en (Accessed on 31 May 2018) Retrieved from https://data.oecd.org/emp/hours-worked.htm
[ix] Gurría, A. OECD (2010). A Labor Reform: More and better employment for Mexicans. http://www.oecd.org/fr/mexique/unareformalaboralmasymejoresempleosparalosmexicanos.htm
[x] OECD.Stat. Level of GDP per capita and productivity. Retrieved from http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=PDB_LV#
[xi] OECD (2015). Inequality. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/fr/mexique/unareformalaboralmasymejoresempleosparalosmexicanos.htm
[xii] Millard, A. (1984). The Etymology of Eden. Vetus Testamentum,34(1), 103-106. doi:10.2307/1518211
[xiii] Khatib, S. (2015) The Aestheticization of Politics: Rereading Benjamin’s Theory of Fascism. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/12225411/The_Aestheticization_of_Politics_Rereading_Benjamin_s_Theory_of_Fascism
[xiv] Agamben, G. (2005) Profanaciones. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama.
[xv] Russell, B. (1935). In praise of idleness: And other essays. London: G. Allen & Unwin.