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2021-02-09 — wired.co.uk

... because the exponential growth was built on WeWork signing long, expensive leases on space it rents out in a multitude of short-term deals, the company has exposed itself to a near-ruinous level of risk. As a broadly positive report from market intelligence firm CBInsights noted in January 2019: "WeWork's big selling point of office space flexibility is also one of the greatest threats to the long-term stability of its business. Members can pick up and leave if they want to, leaving WeWork on the hook."

That risk has become existential after a year in which a large proportion of the company's members have picked up and left: figures provided by WeWork show that its total membership fell by 11 per cent in the third quarter of 2020 alone.

That was made possible by another flaw in WeWork's strategy: its over-reliance on the freelancers and startups whose year-long contracts can be broken after six months rather than larger corporates -- otherwise known as enterprise clients -- who had to keep paying for unused office space right through the pandemic. (WeWork says it was "able to offer concessions to the overwhelming majority of member businesses that have requested one".) During the pandemic, the company has been accused of "profound hypocrisy" over its appointment of debt collectors to pursue customers at the same time as the shared offices provider is negotiating with its own landlords over its liabilities.

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Papadakos believes that close to 100 per cent of clients with a handful of desks have now gone, taking with them a large chunk of WeWork's income for the year. The average renter had six months left when the UK entered its first lockdown, he says. "As that came to an end they didn't renew. Income will be down by about a third." WeWork company did not provide projections of its financial performance for the full year, but said that global income for the third quarter of 2020 was down by 13 per cent, from $934m to $811m.

That was before countries around the world started locking down all over again. In its 2019 accounts, WeWork made a point of saying that Covid-19 was likely to have a negative impact on its 2020 results. "WeWork Inc as a whole, including its operations in the United Kingdom, is facing a period of uncertainty and expects there will be a material impact on the global demand for our space-as-a-service offering in the short-term, which may adversely affect the 2020 results for the company," it wrote.

Papadakos begs to differ. "It's not Covid that's the problem, but the expansion itself," he says. "[WeWork] was losing money before because they were trying to think like a tech firm in a real estate business." In other words, WeWork was posing as a high-growth company in order to attract investment and making bullish statements about strategy, when in fact it was operating in a low-growth sector.

Paradoxically, the risks it took with strategy could mean it doesn't survive to see the wave of the growth its segment of the real estate sector is expected to see in the wake of the pandemic.

Ben Munn, global flexible space lead at commercial real estate firm JLL, says the shared-office sector will boom as corporates reassess their property needs after more than a year of having employees based almost entirely at home. "Undoubtedly the last year has demonstrated that companies don't need an office for all the work they need to do," he says. "When demand comes back it will be for great space on flexible terms and with a level of choice for employees that has not necessarily been there before. The flexible world is really well positioned to provide that."

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