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SaksWorks Is Part WeWork, Part Department Store. Can It Work?

1 month ago 11

Big CITY

Department stores have failed; co-working spaces have foundered. Does combining the two make sense?

Plenty of space available at SaksWorks, a new coworking venture from the department store and WeWork.
Credit...Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Ginia Bellafante

By Ginia Bellafante

Ms. Bellafante writes the Big City column, a weekly commentary on the politics, culture and life of New York City.

Oct. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

For 10 years beginning in 1945, the architect George Nelson served as the design director at Herman Miller, the iconic furniture producer, where he came to believe that the modern office should resemble “a daytime living room.’’ The geography of the conventional white-collar workplace bred stress and distraction, the thinking went, and as a result, hindered creativity and collaboration. It would take decades and significant advances in technology for corporate ideology to catch up with Nelson’s vision. And then, at some point in the 21st century, it surpassed what he had imagined, in strange ways.

The advent of WeWork suggested a hunger for the modern office to feel not like a daytime living room but a nighttime one — a party space in a dorm at a well-endowed university — a place where the booze flowed and the idea of work itself seemed notional, a philosophy embodied by the company’s doomed, loopy founder Adam Neumann. By 2018, WeWork had become the largest private occupier of office space in Manhattan, and then it all unraveled.

Covid delivered the next and most surreal phase. Now our living rooms actually were our offices — during the day, but also after dinner, anytime, all the time — a transformation that has left offices both everywhere and no where.

How sustainable is this? A year and a half into the pandemic, with so many people still working from home — and estimates suggesting that by 2025, nearly a quarter of the American work force, more than 36 million people, will be remote — reconceptualization of work life remains in the pioneer phase, and the prospectors have ideas. Specifically, how might they capitalize on this hybridization? What if you weren’t merely confined to your house or apartment or the three-sqare feet of hot-desk space provided at your company’s headquarters, 45 soul-killing minutes from where you live? What if there were a third realm? And what if that third realm took shape, for example, not in 19th-century legacy infrastructure (the warehouse, retrofitted by hipsterism) but rather in 20th-century legacy buildings, like department stores?

This is the conceit — oddly or efficiently enough — of the new venture, SaksWorks. Just as the name suggests, it is a co-working space brought to you by Saks Fifth Avenue (with WeWork, operating under new leadership and on a much humbler scale, serving as a managing agent).

Two years ago, before the pandemic hit, Richard Baker, the chairman of Hudson’s Bay Company, which owns Saks as well as much of the real estate formerly associated with Lord & Taylor, had this sort of conversion in mind. The first two SaksWorks locations opened last month, one on the 10th floor of the company’s flagship store in Midtown (where, for a brief period, you could buy Gucci for children) and another in a Financial District outpost that shut down early in 2019, only two years after it opened.

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Credit...Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

The aesthetic is a daytime living room of a particular, eco-adjacent kind. I recently paid a visit to the SaksWorks on Fifth Avenue, where many of the walls are covered in moss. At the front desk you can get coffee or order lunch from one of the store’s restaurants or book a meeting room. Or pick up some Napa cabbage or tatsoi, bunches of which are lined up on the counter. On other days there are different greens. SaksWorks has a hydroponics side hustle, and in addition to the long tables, sofas, lounge chairs, private work spaces that recall phone booths, windowless team rooms in saturated colors and dozens of books that were purchased by the yard, there are vegetables grown in stacks under bright lights because — who knows? Maybe you’re stir-frying for dinner and don’t have time to get to the farmer’s market.

“Take a candle,” Kerry Mader, SaksWorks’ chief operating officer said, as I toured the sparsely populated space with him on a recent afternoon. “We created a scent’’ — derived from white pepperwood — “and pump it into the air.’’ Beyond the aromatics, there is a gym, with Peloton bikes, the use of which is free with a SaksWorks membership, which runs about $300 a month. Though if you only need to get away from your boyfriend, or your mother, or your 6-year-old or your Maltese for a few hours, there are day passes available for $50.

Who, you might ask, needs this? In a moment when desperation for more at-home work space drove a soaring residential real estate market outside of major cities, SaksWorks is invested in the idea that it is not just New Yorkers in tiny apartments, exhausted from propping laptops up on piles of laundry in their bedrooms, who want to shake things up. Other locations are soon to arrive on Long Island (in an old Lord & Taylor building in Manhasset), in Westchester and most lavishly in Greenwich, Conn., in an enormous building formerly taken up by a Polo store. Presumably, even if you live amid 12,000 square feet, you’ve had enough of this dance by now, working in your private library one day and shifting over to the pool house the next.

Last year, Doug Chambers, a former WeWork executive, was similarly inspired and co-founded Daybase on the principle that virtual work was isolating but commuting was eviscerating. Here, too, the idea is to develop on-demand work spaces in suburban neighborhoods, so that workers have somewhere to go when, as he put it in an interview last spring, “the hub is too far away but home is too close.”

Certainly having children back in school has made it easier than it was a year ago for parents to continue to work from home. And arguably it is healthier for anyone to have a clearer delineation between the obligations of a job and the comforts of home. Unlike WeWork or the Wing, these new ventures are aiming only to sell pleasant convenience over dubious lifestyle and a phony sense of purpose, which automatically makes them more palatable than what came before.

But how long will workers want to bear the expense of paying for a kind of semi-privacy that used to come to them for free, in a central-business-district cubicle? And what are the odds that their employers will generously offer to pick up the tab once that fatigue settles in? Eventually, even the crisp smell of pepperwood starts to get musty.

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