Coworking spaces are starting to look at lot like social clubs of 100 years ago. But why?
From its golden lounge chairs to its emerald green conversation pit and rose toile wallpaper, The Wing’s new outpost in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood—the coworking startup’s third location—feels a lot like a clubhouse, complete with hidden doors that lead to secret rooms and exclusive members-only access. Rich Money Models Social club reports.
But this isn’t just any clubhouse: it’s one that stocks only books by female authors in its lending library, features women artists in its gallery, and has primping stations fit for Old Hollywood glamazons. The only requirement for joining? Identifying as a woman—and footing a $2,300 membership fee.
The Wing isn’t the first or the only coworking space targeted to women, nor is it the only coworking space that caters to an ultra-specific community. In their branding, marketing, and design, coworking spaces have always emphasized “community” wielding the word in an ambiguous and increasingly meaningless way to hint at an informal camaraderie.
But, more and more, new coworking spaces are becoming more like the elite social clubs of the past: spaces where their respective members—usually divided by race, class, or gender—could feel comfortable being who they are, gather for meals, socialize, and escape some of the stresses of public life.
If you live in San Francisco, for example, and you’re interested in joining a women-only coworking space, there’s The Assembly, a wellness-oriented clubhouse for women; Radiant, an outfit targeted toward entrepreneurs; Double Union, a hacker-maker space; or The Ruby, a space for women who work in the arts or in creative fields.
Moving to non-gender specific coworking, there’s Yass, a forthcoming workspace and social club for the LGBTQ community, and Canopy, a neighborhood-based “work nirvana,” in the words of one of its co-founders.
But why clique-y socialcoworkingspaces? Essentially, we’re all lonely workaholics searching for identity and meaning.
The “gospel” of work
When Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan co-founded The Wing, they saw a need for safe and empowering workspaces for women. The Wing’s space and community, the founders believe, are an antidote to the bro-culture and anonymity of traditional coworking spaces.
The Wing first opened in late 2016 and it made headlines for being unabashedly girly. It offered an environment that professional women desired, but weren’t getting in their offices or coworking spaces. That could be anything from interior design that wasn’t mind-numbingly institutional to supportive collegial relationships or private spaces in which to pump breast milk.
Since then, The Wing has become more than just a warren of beautifully designed rooms where women gather. It hosts events like trivia nights, happy hour drinks, and panels with esteemed speakers, from senators to authors. It publishes a quarterly magazine called No Man’s Land. And then there’s the merch: tote bags, nail files, T-shirts, bandanas, water bottles, and infant onesies emblazoned with cheeky slogans like “Future Wing Woman.”
“I would rather die than call The Wing a lifestyle brand, but I do think, obviously, yes: we want it to touch so much of our members’ lives rather than being a place to plop down a laptop—and we already are,” Gelman tells Curbed.
Wing members are typically professional women who mostly work in media and tech, but there are also lawyers, doctors, teachers, musicians, and, as Gelman singles out, even tarot card readers; the average member’s age is 35. About 13,000 people have applied and close to 2,500 people are members. Soon, it will open its first location in Washington, D.C., and is eyeing a West Coast expansion. The company is also developing a mobile app that lets members message each other “so even if you’re not physically in the space, you can tap into the network,” Gelman says.
Many of the trends that catalyzed The Wing and its socialcoworkingclub sistren are also behind the overall rise in shared workspaces. For example, the proportion of freelance workers is growing, and the rate of women joining their ranks is increasing faster than men. Meanwhile, though technology affords us the flexibility to do almost anything anywhere—work, shop, catch up with friends—it can also be alienating.
“Technology has made us globally more connected, but locally more isolated,” Gelman says. (Ironically, the Wing is also considering digital-only memberships through its forthcoming app.)
At its core, The Wing’s community is about values: female empowerment and gender equity. The members of the Wing could be from different racial, ethnic, or class backgrounds (though they all have the means to afford the $2,300 annual membership for a single location or $2,700 for all-access) and work in different professions. But they share a common belief system.
If this sounds a lot like church, that’s not a coincidence. Gelman and her team were very inspired by “How We Gather,” a study from two Harvard Divinity School students about how contemporary tribes are formed.
“The gist was millennials are no longer going to church and synagogue like their parents and grandparents and are using technology more, which tells us we’re part of social networks, but it leaves us lonely and depleted,” Gelman explains.
“There’s still a hunger for community and spiritual fulfilment that churches, synagogues, and mosques gave to our parents. Communities are cropping up in Crossfit for example. Just having a place where you’re surrounded by like-minded people who know who you are is a bedrock of civil society, and those sorts of spaces did serve as the glue for civil society, in a way. That’s where there’s new hunger.”
An environment for work-life-working-out balance
In San Francisco’s Mission District, a new coworking club in a former church represents this phenomenon—literally: The Assembly, in the city’s Mission district.
From the tropical plants and cacti in its yoga room to its neon wall art and all-white lounge furnished with butterscotch leather chairs, The Assembly is pure Instagram bait. Its slogan? “An intentional community built to nourish and create.”
“We talk about the three elements: sweat, work, and play,” Molly Goodson, founder of The Assembly, tells Curbed.
Goodson wanted to open her working club in a centrally located space, and it so happened that a church was available. The church’s last priest retired at age 92 and there wasn’t anyone able to carry on the congregation. So, he sold it to The Assembly’s landlords, a San Francisco couple.
“One of the things we come back to is that it’s safe for you to challenge and be yourself and to take care of yourself,” Goodson says. “That’s something we came back to with our design decisions. The specific nature of the building is a safe space.”
Before Goodson founded The Assembly, she was the VP of content at the women’s-interest website Popsugar. There, she developed an editorial voice that spoke to “the person who cares about all of the things: fashion, politics, fitness, and being a mom,” Goodson says. The Assembly aims to physically embody this voice and is built around the activities that professional women likely spend a lot of their time doing: working, working out, and networking. While membership is women-only, men are welcome in the space as guests.
“We’re not expecting everyone to do all of those things every time they’re there; it’s about having the opportunity to do them,” Goodson explains. “We spend so much time rushing between places to fill these needs it’s natural we’re seeking ways to combine them.”
Goodson points out that there were times she went to fitness classes with friends, but there weren’t spaces available to sit and talk afterward. Or if there was a table available to sit down and catch up on email, it felt like an afterthought. With The Assembly, Goodson wanted to create a truly hybrid space that its members could visit for virtually anything they needed. It just so happens that today, those needs, as she sees them, revolve around health and wellness.
She cautions, however, that The Assembly isn’t “here to replace a coworking space if that’s your real need.”
According to a recent survey by the architecture firm Gensler, technology is making our spaces more multipurpose. Since we’re able to work, entertain ourselves, shop, and socialize on our phones anytime and anywhere, we expect the spaces we use to accommodate those modes, too.
“One of the things we talk about [at The Assembly] is this notion of permission granted,” Goodson says. “Whatever you want to do to feel good and be taken care of, we want to offer that.”
Goodson says a “fair amount” of the Assembly’s members have lived in the Bay Area for less than five years and want a feeling of connection, just like like she did when she arrived over a decade ago. So far, she’s seen members become surfing buddies, join each others’ podcasts, and become new friends.
Assembly is attempting to create an “everybody knows your name” environment—all for the cost of $250 a month, or about $2,700 annually.
“It’s the essence of a coffee shop where people know each other and say, ‘hi,’” Goodson says. “We’re giving people permission to interject in a conversation. . .I wouldn’t do that at a Starbucks—we’re sort of taught not to.”
The “anti-social” club
“We don’t want to be a social club,” Amir Mortazavi, cofounder of the coworking club Canopy, tells Curbed. “Our goal is to be a great place to work and get your best work done with as little distraction as possible.”
In 2016, Mortazavi and his business partners Yves Béhar, the esteemed Silicon Valley designer, and Steve Mohebi, an investor, opened Canopy in Pacific Heights, a tony San Francisco neighborhood. The idea behind Canopy is to deliver a boutique coworking experience in residential neighborhoods.
Thanks to technology, many professionals don’t have to go into an office to work. But what Canopy’s founders saw was a lack of meeting space for remote employees or freelancers near where they live: coworking spaces are often in office towers in a central business district.
Canopy’s space is open and airy, finished with herringbone wood floors and black marble columns, and furnished with top-of-the-line desks, sofas, rugs, lamps, and lounge chairs, many of which are Béhar’s own designs. Members can rent personal workstations ($990 a month); private offices ($1,835 a month); communal tables ($275 to $595 per month, depending on how many days of access you want); a kitchen; and a lounge. It hosts members-only events, and others that are open to the public. Instead of running its own cafe, it partners with other restaurants in the neighborhood to offer catering. 60 percent of Canopy’s members live within walking distance of the space.
Canopy’s second location is opening soon in Jackson Square, a historic commercial neighborhood that’s mostly filled with ad agencies, design firms, small law offices, restaurants, and boutiques. But since finding large enough space in residential areas is tough, it’s expanding to different neighborhoods; its third will open in San Francisco’s financial district. Mortazavi hopes Canopy becomes the “office solution for premium developments.”
Even though Mortazavi says Canopy doesn’t want to be a social club, he does admit that it’s the community that helps make it unique. (And considering the price to join Canopy, it’s only attainable to people with means.) Like at other similar spaces, Canopy’s members are buying into an ethic and paying to surround themselves with like-minded people.
“The value proposition is the community itself,” Mortazavi says. “It’s a group of established professionals and entrepreneurs. It’s also about what we aren’t as much as what we are. We aren’t a place where people are tapping the keg at 3 p.m. and playing foosball and want this to be their frat house. We’re a place where you go to to be inspired with the least amount of distractions as possible.”
An industry growing more niche—at scale
When Curbed reported on the coworking industry’s growth in 2016, analysts predicted its trajectory would follow the hotel industry’s: a few big names would dominate the majority of the market and smaller companies catering to niche audiences would occupy the rest.
Mortazavi agrees. “I think the coworking industry [today] is similar to the boutique hotel industry in the 1980s,” he says. “There are different hotel brands that speak to different people. You can have some hotels that speak to creative types, to more tech-focused people, to conference and finance types. [When it comes to coworking], it’s about what brand really speaks to the people who are members. I think people who are deciding between memberships consider all those factors: price, location, brand, and if it speaks to who they and their business are.”
Many of these hybrid social clubs are attempting to do what some of the bigger coworking companies say they’re delivering, but that ends up getting lost because of their sheer size.
Consider this: WeWork currently leases 12.8 million square feet, has 212 locations, and a valuation of $20 billion. Enterprise customers—meaning companies with more than 1,000 employees globally—account for 25 percent of WeWork’s business. As the brand grows and expands into schools and coliving and gyms, its “community” becomes more anonymous. There’s a distinct WeWork identity—modern and stylish—which it tries to adapt to localities, like having larger dining tables in countries where it’s common to prepare and eat lunch together.
Right now, niche brands are jockeying to become the next heavy hitters. Could The Wing or The Assembly or Canopy become the Ace Hotel—a strong brand with a loyal following but small enough to stay cool—to WeWork’s Marriott?
Venturing into the future of multi-hyphenate coworking clubs
The Wing is the most high profile—and one of the most generously funded—of the recent crop of social club-coworking spaces. To date, investors have pumped $42 million dollars in The Wing—a recent round of $32 million was led by the coworking behemoth WeWork—betting that its brand will yield big business. Canopy self-funded its first location, but is raising a round of investor funding. While Mortazavi wouldn’t say how much he’s raised, he did say that investors were eager to fund a greater amount than Canopy sought. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel is behind the LGBTQ club Yass.
As WeWork and its large-scale competitors—like Industrious, which just received $80 million in funding—expand they become more like real estate companies churning out a mass-produced product with broad appeal with clients from Chase bank to individual freelance writers.
“When someone walks into a WeWork—in any location around the world—there is an immediate and palpable energy,” says Brittney Hart, head of interior design at WeWork. “This isn’t accidental; it’s by design. So while each location is unique, it’s still distinctly WeWork.”
But not every one of these socialcoworkingclubs is designed to scale. The Ruby—a new coworking space for women, trans women, and non-binary individuals in the arts and creative fields—is trying to buck the venture-fueled trend. Founder Rachel Khong launched the space after many of her favorite community spaces in San Francisco closed. The space is entirely membership supported and takes no outside investment.
“I feel like that reminds me of an older San Francisco, when scrappier things could exist before the city was so prohibitively expensive,” says Khong. “I wanted it to feel eclectic and homemade and that it really had its members in mind, rather than some end profit.”
The Ruby has a large living room-like space outfitted with Craigslist finds, donated furniture, and signage hand-painted by one of its members. There’s a kitchen where members can prepare lunch, but there isn’t a cafe with items for sale. (Coffee, tea, and other beverages are provided.)
On Fridays, there’s a communal catered lunch, which is included in membership dues. There are meeting rooms, a library, and outdoor deck. Soon there will be a recording studio. The Ruby’s events include book clubs, happy hours, perfume-making classes, Community Organizing 101 classes, and more. About 85 people have joined so far. A full membership costs $2,000 a year or $200 a month; a community membership is $1,000 or $100 a month and lets members work two days a month and access all events.
Like the founders of similar spaces, Khong saw a need for a comfortable and supportive place for people can get whatever it is they need done—working, socializing, networking, and more—and surround themselves with like-minded people.
“We’re all thinking about identity and who we are, how what we do, and who we engage with defines us,” Khong says. “Maybe that’s why these integrated spaces are popping up. Just like everything is entangled, it’s hard to separate work from play and social media. We’re in this place of real growth and change.”
As these hybrid social clubs and coworking spaces proliferate, perhaps it will be easier to find whatever it is we’re looking for—identity, wellness, friends, or a haven from trying times—and never have to miss an hour’s work. That is, if you buy in to what they’re selling.