If you're looking for a design firm to build your new office, a new entrant wants to be considered: WeWork

Though it's known mostly for its co-working spaces, the company has been expanding its offerings in recent years. Health insurance startup Oscar recently became one of the first companies to commission WeWork purely as a design firm. As Oscar outgrew its offices in Manhattan's Puck Building, the company hired WeWork to design a space for its 500-plus New York-based employees. The new SoHo office, which Inc. recently toured, opened for business on May 20. 

The Oscar office is one of several projects in which WeWork is acting as a design firm. The company redesigned Sprint's midtown Manhattan offices last year and is designing Rent the Runway's new Brooklyn headquarters, set to open in 2020.​ WeWork also lets companies rent private offices for up to 100 people and lease entire floors, but it now hopes to reach more potential clients and compete directly with traditional architecture and design firms. It will work with companies to design spaces that fit their individual needs, and renovations can apply to a single floor or an entire building. 

The company says pricing varies widely based on square footage, layout, furniture, tech, and other amenities. It claims that in many cases it can undercut competitors, though it declined to provide specific pricing or ranges. 

Oscar's new space reflects the WeWork vibe--light wood, plenty of plant life, beer and coffee taps--while mixing in elements that you'd expect from a company in the health care business. A large room that was still under construction during a recent visit will be used for yoga and other health classes. A pair of showers allow employees to clean up after biking to work or going for midday runs. The open-air kitchen is built adjacent to a walled-off staging area, allowing the catering that Oscar provides three days a week to be set up and broken down with little disruption.

WeWork designs its offices using data collected from its nearly 500 locations. Liz Burow, the company's director of workplace strategy, says the data WeWork has collected about how companies use office space represents a major advantage as it moves into the design business. With one-third of the U.S.'s 500 largest companies using WeWork spaces in some way, the firm has a lot of insight into how big companies operate. 

Building offices at scale, she says, also means the company is more in control of its supply chain than a firm that's been hired on a one-off basis. The fact that WeWork owns so many leases means it can have companies test out other offices before deciding on a design. "We can let them sit in a space for a week or a month and test drive it," says Burow. "You can really kick the tires with us. An architecture firm can't do that."  

The 12,000-employee WeWork, which in January raised money at a whopping $47 billion valuation, revealed in April that it filed for an IPO. The company has some work to do to justify that price tag, though--it lost $1.9 billion last year.

Time will tell whether its supposed advantages make WeWork a serious player in office design, an industry with no shortage of well-established, decades-old competitors. San Francisco-based design firm Gensler, for example, which pulled in $1.2 billion in revenue in 2017, has designed new headquarters for Instagram, LinkedIn, and Airbnb.

But WeWork's co-working business helps it develop relationships with startups in their earliest days--and gives the company insights into what they might want as they grow, according to Burow. 

"I think startups generally want to grow into an enterprise, and enterprises want to feel like startups," she says. "We can leverage what we know from both sides of the equation."

Published on: Jun 18, 2019