The secret to WeWork's success is make the office more comfortable than home

Balder Tol finds it depressing to walk into an office and be confronted by a sea of desks.

"It gives you an impersonal feeling, like you're there to work for a corporate machine rather than something human," he says. 

As the general manager of WeWork in Australia and New Zealand, Dutch-born Tol is on a mission to reinvent the way we think about our work spaces. 

"People spend half their lives in office spaces, so they need to be comfortable, warm and light-filled. Everything must be conducive to a happy, uplifted feeling."

Individual touches

Each WeWork location has a distinct feel, with some more colourful and less corporate than others. Members can choose what suits them best, and they need choices because they are a diverse lot, says Tol. They include lawyers, graphic designers, recruiters, financial institutions and large-scale tech companies. In Australia, they include Microsoft, Deliveroo and Box, among others.

WeWork's premises on 383 George Street in Sydney leans more towards the creative professional set. A neon sign greets those arriving by escalator, saying: 'You are in the right place.' Light streams in from the floor-to ceiling window. An exotic-looking plant that reminds me of seaweed is draped from an art-décor light fitting, while millennials chat to one another on leather sofas and at post-modern meeting tables. There's open plan seating for groups and 'phone booths' for spurts of intense concentration. 

After starting out in 2010 as a trendy office space for freelancers to rent, WeWork now also leases sections to companies. It is the Uber and AirBnb of its industry; a behemoth with 662,000 members globally. Of those, 12,000 work from 18 locations in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. 

A rocky road

However, last year was rough for the company. Its highly-anticipated attempt to go public failed spectacularly and its eccentric founder and CEO, Adam Neumann, was ousted following a series of questionable transactions.

One of the criticisms levelled at Neumann was that he oversaw unsustainable growth, and that WeWork was trying to do too many things. The private school WeGrow (with annual fees set at a mouth-watering US$42,000), for example, was closed last year – and all up, more than 2000 jobs were lost at the company.

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Tol emphasises throughout the interview that WeWork is " a global company with a local playbook."

"It's important to understand that the challenges were for the We Company, which is the umbrella organisation with multiple verticals. WeWork is the core business and that remains incredibly strong.

 "In Australia, we have always only operated WeWork and no other vertical...And while we've made a conscious choice to invest in rapid growth all around the world, local growth in Australia has always been disciplined, organic and demand driven, rather than a 'build it and they will come approach,'" he adds.

On February 18, real estate veteran Sandeep Mathrani will take over as WeWork's new CEO – and many hope that he will usher in a new period of calm.

Smooth sailing ahead

For his part, Tol is upbeat the year ahead.

"In 2020, we're really doubling-down on the cities that we're currently in and will be opening more locations for our growing community of members." 

He says that key to WeWork's popularity is its ability to create online and real-world communities. Every week kicks off with a free breakfast to mark 'TGIM' ('Thank God it's Monday'). There are Wellness Wednesdays, countless networking events, and an app connecting members. Most premises are dog-friendly and some have an onsite barber. There are also a few WeWork nudges to facilitate new connections.

"We've purposely made our hallways a bit narrower, so that you can't pass someone without brushing shoulders. Do that three times and you'll have the urge to introduce yourself," says Tol.

Gettin' it done

But while there are ample opportunities to network, it isn't a social club, he says. Increasing productivity among its members is WeWork's number one goal. Last year WeWork released its first global impact report, which found that 80 per cent of its members reported an increase in productivity since joining WeWork. 

Tol says WeWork strives to bring all the comforts of home to work, so good coffee and somewhere comfortable to sit are essential.

So why not just work from home, I ask him? Tol says there are too many distractions, like the laundry and Netflix (and there's evidence to support this), and that loneliness is a big downside. 

"What we hear from our members is that you can quickly feel isolated when working from home. There is a lack of social interaction that can lead to those serendipitous business opportunities."

Right place, right time

Tol is a firm believer in serendipity: his life has been shaped by it. 

A decade ago, he moved to Australia to study because the course at the University of Sydney started in three weeks, as opposed to waiting seven months for the same one in Rotterdam.

Right after completing his Masters in Management, Tol had a chance encounter with a recruiter for a little-known start-up, AirBNB. He became its first employee in Australia in 2012, holding the position of account manager for Oceania. He was only 24.

His 25th birthday took place in a Bondi backyard and it was clearly going off, because his future wife gate-crashed it.

"She walked up to me and goes, 'Where can I get a drink?' And I said, 'Well, it's my birthday. What would you like to drink?' And the rest is history."