WeWork Crisis & Impacts on Commercial Real Estate

Is this the tipping point of a global reckoning?

August 30, 2023Real Estate
Written by Helen Richards

Once valued at USD 47.3 billion in 2019, WeWork has seen a staggering decline, with shares dropping 99 percent from their peak in April 2021 to less than USD 300 million. WeWork had a significant impact on the market, but now faces uncertainty. 

This situation reflects wider global office market instability, coupled with the recognition that flexible work arrangements are here to stay. Will offices need to adapt similarly to retail in order to remain pertinent?

The recent GRI Club meeting, sponsored by Global Talent, saw 200 top industry decision makers from over 35 countries share insights and discuss the global impacts of the emerging WeWork Crisis. The discussion was moderated by Gustavo Favaron, CEO & Managing Partner at GRI Club, and Tal Peri, Head of U.S. East Coast & Latam at Union Investment Real Estate GmbH. Special Guests included:
  • Carol Hodgson, Executive Director, Head of Research, J.P. Morgan Asset Management
  • Jamie Hodari, CEO and Co-Founder, Industrious
  • Robert Strassen, Head of Market Analytics Europe, CoStar Group
  • Phil Mobely, National Director, US Office Analytics, CoStar Group
  • Thomas Sinclair, Development Officer, IWG plc
Read the full GRI report, summarizing the discussion from the WeWork Crisis club meeting, here.

Is it the company or the category?

CoStar Group US and UK market analysis

Although WeWork's presence is broad, they only represent a small slice of inventory, but that hasn’t stopped them from being disproportionately active in the leasing market relative to their size in recent years.

Concerns arise from their involvement in properties tied to loans on watch lists; bankruptcy could impact these properties and raises questions about the broader coworking category, especially considering the drop in office space demand post pandemic.

While WeWork's bankruptcy may not significantly affect leasing markets, the localized impact on individual buildings and landlords would be meaningful, especially considering the current fragility of the office market. 

IWG Insights

IWG highlights the difficulties landlords could face when managing former WeWork sites without the branding. However, IWG's experience demonstrates the feasibility of efficient takeovers by the right operator, underlining the growing recognition among landlords that partnering with established providers offers a smoother path in navigating the complexities of flexible office spaces and capitalizing on successful space utilization.

International View from JPMorgan

The US lags far behind the rest of the world in terms of office utilization, with Houston and Dallas being the only major US cities above 50% office occupancy. In Europe, Paris leads over London, potentially due to factors such as commute durations and cultural factors. Asia has the highest rates of office return, with occupancy ranging between 80% and 110% of their pre-pandemic levels in the region.

CBRE on Brazil

Brazil is seeing a gradual return to offices, reinforced by three factors - the first being quarterly gross absorption of office spaces surging by 48.4% compared to the previous quarter; a noticeable "flight to price" trend emerging for spaces above 1,000m²; and a substantial occupancy increase in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, corroborated by public traffic and subway data. 

Indian Perspective from Colliers

Amidst global challenges, Indian occupiers have embraced flexible workspaces for their adaptability, agility, and cost-efficiency. Flex spaces now constitute about 10-12% of occupiers' portfolios, up from 5-8% in 2019, indicating their growing importance. They serve as a decentralized workspace model, with occupiers committing to longer leases of 3-5 years instead of the previous 1-2 years, reflecting a shift towards a lasting solution.

Other markets in the APAC region have seen relatively slower growth in flex space, with figures hovering around 2-4%.

Not too long ago, WeWork ruled the Manhattan skyline as the biggest tenant around. (Photo: andreahast | Envato)

Discussion Points

In a time when the Flex market is witnessing substantial demand growth, WeWork's revenue decline has been attributed to their use of lease-based models, rather than the more advantageous managed models.

The potential for a takeover and challenges in transitioning locations without the WeWork branding were discussed, including the financial viability and the importance of landlord satisfaction in such cases. WeWork's engagement with such large spaces could present complexities in administration and customer attraction, while the shift from a stable income stream to a more flexible model could present difficult conversations with lenders.

The equilibrium between office and remote work dynamics continues to sway. Hybrid work trends are emerging, like the 3 + 2 pattern, yet the optimal balance remains uncertain, sparking an ongoing debate on the future of work.

Final Thoughts

Europe's 20% rise in prime rents since late 2020 was spurred by the demand for well-located, ESG-compliant offices, focused on employee experience. The desire for flexible workspaces with nearby amenities has further driven this trend, particularly in suburban areas. This has posed challenges for WeWork, who, unlike other providers, are unable to swiftly adapt to evolving requirements.

The Hybrid working model's permanence suggests a rising demand for Flex and Coworking spaces, but uncertainties persist, particularly regarding the WeWork Crisis and its implications for the future.