The secret weapon $16 billion startup WeWork plans to use to change how you work

Dave fanoWeWorkWeWork’s Dave Fano

Dave Fano’s mantra is that buildings equal data. In every office building, there’s data just floating in the air about how, why, and when people use space. The problem is we simply haven’t done a good job capturing it in the past.

No one in the building industry has adequate information about space, Fano says. People have a gut instinct, then they build, then they live with it for at least 10 years. Experience and talent help, but there are still a lot of expensive mistakes. There is waste.

Fano, who trained as an architect and is now WeWork’s Chief Development Officer, has been obsessed with eliminating that waste for a long time. Before joining the coworking space startup, Fano cofounded a consulting firm, Case, which gained a reputation for its ability to fuse architecture and technology. Case worked with WeWork for three years before the $16 billion startup decided to just buy it in 2015.

WeWork is New York’s largest startup by valuation, and has over 50,000 “members” who pay for desks and access to communal space and amenities (either at the company or individual level). But WeWork doesn’t just think of itself as just an office-rental startup, but rather, a “platform,” Fano explains. “Our wedge happens to be space.” Space is an increasingly valuable commodity, and one that hasn’t been subjected as fully to the rigors of data.

The future is data

Critics often question how much of a tech company WeWork actually is, as opposed to primarily a lifestyle business. But when Fano talks about the future of WeWork, his answer becomes clear: data.

Fano sees WeWork buildings as one giant sensor for data collection, he says, and he wants to map them down to the object. Understanding the space means understanding how to make it more efficient, and better for members.

WeWork has, so far, been fairly limited in its ability to observe how people use its buildings. The company has often had to rely on “analogue” data collection (counting) for things like understanding how its tenants use conference rooms, Fano says.

But Fano wants that to change. He talks about a future where various sensors can work to help his team figure out how WeWork can improve its buildings.

Here are a few observation initiatives Fano mentions WeWork could pursue:

  • Heat: Fano talks about filling a building with various thermostats, to understand how to customise a comfortable office temperature down to the person level. Fano says this is a particularly tricky challenge, but one he hopes WeWork will one day crack. I suspect anyone who has worked in an office can relate to the struggle against temperature.
  • Sound: Fano wants to measure the decibel level of sound, to understand how noise travels through the office. While WeWork’s office plans are “open,” Fano says there is too much focus on the “open” versus “non-open” office debate. WeWork has had success with shared private spaces, like “phone booths,” and one can imagine an understanding of noise factoring into plans like these.
  • Occupancy: Fano says that tracking the movement of workers through a building can help not only with understanding what types of spaces are best, but also with being as energy-efficient as possible (lights, heat, and so on).
Wework floor plan

A WeWork program for optimising desks.

The product

So what is all this data meant to accomplish? Since WeWork opened in 2011, one major premise has been that a highly efficient use of space can create a better working experience for the same (or less) money than a “normal” office.

The design process starts when WeWork uses a 3D scanner to take stock of a leased building to millimetre accuracy (WeWork is not doing ground-up development yet). Then WeWork runs tests to determine what the optimal arrangement for the office is, to minimise waste and encourage interaction. Before actual construction starts, everything is “built” on the computer in 3D. Currently, most of the construction is then done on-site. But eventually Fano hopes the majority of the construction will be prefabricated (made off-site and then put together on-site).

Building scanWeWorkA 3D scan of a building.

Bodies and square-feet

WeWork’s entire business model is based on how many seats it can fit in a floor plan, Fano says. WeWork thinks in terms of desks and bodies, and of the experience people will have in the workplace, not in terms of square feet.

Space matters because of the utility it provides. Here’s the idea: If you have half the space at your desk, but feel like your workspace is actually more pleasant, WeWork can give you better communal amenities and save money at the same time.

Since WeWork opened in 2011, this focus on maximizing desks and utility has led the company to develop a few design principles. Two main ones are access to light and large common spaces. WeWork puts up glass walls that don’t block interior offices from natural light, to make the offices feel open and uncramped. And a WeWork staple is big common areas — kitchen-like lounge areas — that emphasise socialising.

Socialising is particularly central to the entire WeWork ethos, which has caught fire in tech world (though WeWork says VC-backed startups make up only “mid-single digits of the total population“). Fano says his ultimate vision for WeWork, though it’s not there yet, is to build villages where businesses refer each other, barter, and hang out. That seems particularly valuable for tech startups, but WeWork thinks it has broader appeal — much, much broader, according to leaked financial projections.

“No company enjoys managing space,” Fano says. WeWork isn’t just a landlord for its 77 buildings, but a macro-level office manager bent on figuring out how to design as much utility into the office space as possible.

And if Fano’s comments are any indication, the next big push (besides its entrance into the “co-living” market) will be data.

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