If your boss told you his mission was to “elevate the world’s consciousness,” to join a revolution that would “restore in each one of us a sense of dignity and community,” would you know you were working for a company that rents desk space?
That’s the story of Adam Neumann, the former CEO and founder of WeWork. The new Hulu documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” charts his company’s dramatic rise from its founding as a co-working space in 2010 to its famous implosion and near-bankruptcy following a failed IPO in 2019, after which Neumann was forced out.
At one point, WeWork was the largest private-sector office tenant in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and London, with a valuation of, yes, $47 billion.
So what went wrong?
Watching Neumann’s video tours and speeches in the documentary, it becomes clear that he was an excellent salesman but not content with the co-working business upon which WeWork was built. Instead, as one employee put it, he wanted to “change ultimately every facet of the way people interact,” a near-impossible goal.
A company that created communal workspaces for startups and freelancers was bizarrely claiming to be the “first physical social network,” to give orphaned children a place in “the WeWork family,” and to “build a world where no one feels alone.”
Investors rewarded Neumann’s charisma and ambition, but he also created and endorsed a toxic culture of overwork. In the film, Neumanns brags about working until 2 and 3 a.m. and yells, “Never give up! Work until you drop!” in a speech to employees. He created a company culture that was unsustainable, manipulative and full of red flags.
Here are three jaw-dropping revelations about WeWork’s business culture:
1. Mandatory company events barreled through obvious personal and professional boundaries.
Retreats and all-hands meetings are common corporate rituals where management can reinforce commitments and company values, but at WeWork, they were taken to another level.
In propagandized videos at onboarding meetings, new staff learned to call certain executives “C-We-Os” and were led in chants of “We! Work! We! Work!” As one product manager recalled, “While we’re all trying to do our work, it’s deafening ― the music and everybody screaming.”
WeWork’s infamous “summer camps” for employees and members, meanwhile, were 72-hour bacchanals at a campground in upstate New York where alcohol flowed early and freely, wakeboarding and archery were on the schedule, and tracking bracelets recorded employees’ attendance. Tracking bracelets!
The film suggests Neumann was able to find so much success because he fit a certain white male leadership mold that made investors feel good, not because the financial data added up.
When corporate bonding that cuts into personal time is not optional, it can create a lot of resentment. Quentin Kerns, an ex-WeLive designer who didn’t enjoy the muddy, booze-filled camping experience, tried to back out after his first summer camp. “It’s not for everybody, and please don’t make me go again,” he told an executive, but was forced to attend anyway.
WeWork’s retreats were especially problematic because they asked more and more of workers’ personal time, invading boundaries that some employees, like Kerns, clearly did not want to be crossed.
At worst, this total lack of boundaries can facilitate spaces where sexual harassment happens. Unmentioned in the film is the fact that a former employee alleged she was sexually assaulted by two fellow WeWork staffers at company events, including one of the summer camps. Her suit alleged that her sexual harassment was a “product in part of the entitled, frat-boy culture that permeates WeWork from the top down.”
2. “Smart” investors made decisions because Neumann met their idea of a startup whiz, not because of the business itself.
It is clear in the film that there was a disconnect between Neumann’s ambitions and the reality of WeWork as a business. At one point, Neumann offers a “community adjusted Ebitda” financial metric to hide WeWork’s unprofitability. But it is absolutely baffling to watch investors fall for Neumann’s pitch.
Neumann raised billions from major investors like SoftBank, Benchmark Capital and JPMorganChase despite continued cash losses and unrealistic goals. Some of the reasons people gave for buying in: Neumann was tall, he had live charisma, he had extraordinary leadership and could successfully answer a riddle-like interview question.
The film suggests Neumann was able to find so much success because he fit a certain white male leadership mold that made investors feel good, not because the financial data added up. He was the ideal culture fit, a concept that encourages people with power to favor “who I personally like” and “who reminds me of me” rather than who can actually do the job.
This is most obvious in the tale of how Neumann convinced Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank, to invest billions in WeWork. Son spent just 12 minutes at a would-be pitch meeting at WeWork, then invited Neumann to ride with him to his next meeting. Son reportedly said, “I don’t need the pitch deck. Let’s just talk.” In the car, he asked, “In a fight, who wins: the smart guy or the crazy guy?” Neumann answered, “The crazy guy.”
Son told Neumann that he had answered correctly but needed to think in bigger terms. Son’s subsequent $4 billion investment put WeWork on track for even more breakneck growth, seemingly based on little more than the fact that Neumann confirmed Son’s biases of what leadership looks like.
3. Neumann claimed he wanted to “change the world” while screwing over employees.
In the film, Neumann tells employees, “What puts us together, all of us here, is because we wanna do something that actually makes the world a better place and we wanna make money doing it.”
Nothing gets people to stay in their jobs quite like the promise of making a positive difference. In a recent survey of American workers across age and salary levels, 9 in 10 said they would forgo some of their lifetime earnings if it meant they got to do meaningful work.
When bosses use people’s drive to do meaningful work for their own personal ends, it becomes manipulation. It traps employees into thinking they’re not just working for a for-profit company, they’re serving a higher calling. As Neumann’s disillusioned former assistant Megan Mallow recalled, “I was in my mid-20s looking for purpose, and here’s this person selling this dream, and I was an easy target for that.”
Researchers have found that branding jobs as higher callings can mislead employees about the nature of their jobs and “encourage the exploitation of employees through low wages, long working hours, even harming their physical and mental health.” In fact, a former WeWork employee notes in the documentary that many people took lower salaries than they would have earned elsewhere just to be at WeWork.
In the end, the biggest irony of the documentary is that Adam Neumann preached a gospel of putting “We before Me” — unless the Me was Adam Neumann.
As ex-WeWork lawyer Don Lewis recalled, “I remember at some old company speech, it was about, you know, taking some small steps to make sure that we saved a million dollars on the operating budget every year. And then Adam just bought a $60 million private jet.”
This hypocrisy is clear in the way Neumann exited his company, leaving his employees to deal with the fallout. He was offered a soft landing with payout options originally estimated to be worth up to $1.7 billion, though he may have ultimately walked away with less than a billion.
Meanwhile, thousands of employees were laid off. The film notes that Neumann told staff they could get rich off of stock options, but that was not necessarily true. As one ex-employee said in the documentary, “They can say, ‘Oh I have equity. But if somebody actually did the math, maybe their equity’s worth, like, $2000.’ You might think the possibility of getting a million-dollar payout is far higher than it actually is in reality.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, “the vast majority of employees would get nothing” if they sold their holdings in the time period after the valuation crumbled.
Neumann’s world changed for the better, even if his employees’ didn’t.
“When you focus the story on Adam,” said Margarita Kelrikh, a former WeWork lawyer, “you miss how many people worked really, really hard to bring this impossible vision to life, who got nothing.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.