Here’s one clue that things are getting less rowdy at the troubled coworking startup WeWork: The company is phasing out free beer and wine at its North American locations. For anyone who’s followed the company from its rise to the ousting of its moony CEO Adam Neumann and the bungling of its IPO, this marks yet another crack in the company’s polished, perk-filled aesthetic. Abundant beer taps were as crucial to the WeWork image as foosball tables and concrete floors.
At the same time as Wall Street was side-eyeing WeWork for its dubious finances, the company has come under fire for fostering a frat-boy work culture with Mad Men levels of drinking. In 2018, a former employee sued WeWork, alleging that she’d been fired for reporting sexual assaults at two company events, and that her assailants had been too drunk from the free beer to remember the incidents. The company is now trying to grow up and has been gradually tamping down on workday alcohol consumption—both within its corporate offices and in the workspaces it subleases. Back in 2018, it also limited WeWork tenants to four 12-ounce glasses a day. With the phase-out of beer, WeWork offices will instead offer beverage options that might be more befitting of a staid professional: kombucha, seltzer, cold brew, and tea.
In a way this is fitting, since WeWork is going through sober times. In 2019, it announced plans to lay off almost 20 percent of its staff globally, shut down its restaurant coworking subsidiary, and engaged in talks with lenders for a $5 billion debt package.
But is WeWork without free beer still WeWork? To understand how tenants are taking the news, I spoke to Breda Lund, a senior editor at Law360 who’s been working at a WeWork in Los Angeles for two and a half years. Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Did you ever drink the beer at your WeWork? How often?
Yeah, I did. Not very often, but occasionally—mainly because I’m working when I’m there, so I can’t just be drinking lots of beer. Also, I’m an editor so I work a later shift: I start at 1 p.m. Weirdly, they have these beer kegs, but they lock them at around 5, at least at our WeWork. If I were to want a beer, usually it would be closer to the end of my shift, but 5 is halfway through my shift.
Did the beer add anything at all to the WeWork experience?
It was more of a punchline for me and my co-workers, because clearly it was intended as a, “Oh look at how cool we are and premier or whatever.” But first of all, it wasn’t all that accessible to us given the time. And then second of all, the kegs seemed very poorly maintained. It was always lukewarm and flat and possibly skunked. It was clearly meant to be more of a draw than a thing that is meant to be used.
What were the offerings on tap, exactly?
I don’t know about other WeWorks, but in ours, every floor has a tap built into the kitchen counter. And then the main floor has a few taps. Sometimes they would have kombucha in one and beer in another one, and sparkling seltzer in a different one—all rotating around. Recently, I noticed there would be only one tap that was beer, and all the others were seltzer and tea and other nonalcoholic things. So I was thinking, “Oh, maybe they’re phasing out this beer thing.”
What was your reaction when you found out they were getting rid of beer?
Not surprised. There’s been a lot of little changes lately. It also seems like they’re cutting little things here and there. They used to have this little shop that they got rid of a while ago, after the beginning of the turmoil. It was called the Honesty Market or something. They had snacks and drinks, and even some prepared meals. And you could buy it, but you had to scan your card. It was self-service. Maybe people were stealing, or it was too hard to maintain or something.
As you mentioned, it seems like WeWork is going to be replacing the beer with cold brew, kombucha, and tea. Is that a welcome change?
I haven’t really tried them yet. I know one was green tea and one was some other tea. I guess in my case it might be more useful because, like I said, I wasn’t really using the beer much. It was more just something to laugh about and brag to my co-workers in other locations who don’t have beer in their office. But as far as the amount that I actually use it, not very often. So yeah, probably better for me.
Did it seem like other people were drinking the beer a lot?
I feel like I never say anyone drinking it. I wasn’t there watching it, but it seemed pretty rarely. And that’s why I think that the beer would go bad before it was used. Because occasionally if I did pour, it didn’t come out as the freshest beer.
Is there an amenity or perk that would actually be pretty heartbreaking if they did get rid of it?
They make these elaborate fruit waters, which are pretty good. I mean it’s fruit water, so it tastes good. For some reason they use cookie cutters to cut the fruit into all these various shapes. I would miss that. The fruit water is the thing I use the most.
Another funny thing—a while ago, maybe around when we first moved into the WeWork, they had this companywide announcement that they were going with all-vegan or plant-based foods. So any kind of food provided by WeWork would be all plant-based. Not to say that you couldn’t bring your own food, but every time they had an event with food it had to be plant-based. They have a lot of food events, like taco Tuesday or whatever. So that was a big thing. But then, this past fall around Thanksgiving, I saw this message that was like, “Please join us for a Friendsgiving celebration featuring food from our good friends at Chick-fil-A.” What happened to the plant-based thing? And also fast food seems very counter to the general image and the food they were providing before that, so it kind of cracked me up. I don’t know if that’s a one-off or if they just dropped that whole thing.
Do you generally like working in a WeWork? Do you prefer it to a traditional office?
I don’t know. I do think that, and this goes back long before these current problems, it’s a gimmick. I feel like I get the business idea and why it would be effective both for individuals as well as companies like mine to rent out space. But it just seems like everything is like the beer: It’s a perk, but it’s not really adding anything.
At least in ours, all the hallways are lined on either side with these glass-walled offices. It’s just so noisy. You can see everybody else. You can hear everybody. It’s glass; it’s not soundproof or anything. It’s not even frosted glass. It looks nice, but as far as the working environment, it might as well just be a big open space. You can hear the person next door, every word of their phone conversation. And speaking of phone conversations, they have these phone booths, which is this little closet that you can sit in, but it’s not soundproof or anything. It’s the same thing as just a glass door. There’s really nowhere you can go to have a quiet phone conversation. It’s just like nobody really thought about what would make a good work environment.