MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – Google’s first office was a crowded Silicon Valley garage full of saw-leaning desks.
In 2003, five years after its founding, the company moved to a sprawling campus called Googleplex. Airy, open offices and whimsical common spaces set the standard for what an innovative workplace should look like. Over the years, amenities have piled up. The food was free, the buses to and from work were also easy: get to the office and stay there all day.
Now the company, which once redefined how an employer treats its employees, is trying to redefine the office itself. Google is creating a post-pandemic workplace that will accommodate employees who have been used to working from home for the past year and don’t want to be in the office all the time.
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The company will encourage – but not mandate – employees to be vaccinated when they return to the office, possibly in September. At first, the interior of Google’s buildings may not look so different. But next year or more, Google will test new office designs in millions of square feet of space, or about 10% of its global workspace.
The plans are based on work that began before the coronavirus crisis sent the Google workforce home when the company asked a diverse group of consultants – including sociologists who study Generation Z and how young students socialize and learn – to imagine what the future would like. workers.
The answer seems to be Ikea meets Lego. Instead of rows of desks next to meeting rooms for cookie forms, Google designed “Team Pods”. Each pod is a blank canvas: Chairs, desks, boards and wheel storage equipment can be arranged in different arrangements and in some cases rearranged in a matter of hours.
To cope with the expected combination of remote and office employees, the company is also creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where attendees are present in a circle dotted with large vertical displays that cannot be ignored. The displays show the faces of people recruited by videoconference, so the virtual participants are on the same basis as those who are physically present.
In several parts of the world, Google is building outdoor work areas to address concerns that the coronavirus is easily spreading in traditional offices. At its headquarters in Silicon Valley, where the weather is pleasant most of the year, it has turned a parking lot and lawn area into Camp Charleston, a fenced mix of grass and wooden deck the size of four tennis courts. Wi-Fi all the time.
There are bunches of tables and chairs under the outdoor tents. Older teens have meeting venues with California natural retreat decor and modern video conferencing equipment. Each tent has a camp theme such as “arson”, “s’mores” and “canoe”. Camp Charleston has been open since March for teams wishing to reunite. Google has said it is building outdoor workstations in London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York and Sydney, and possibly more.
Employees can return to their permanent desks on a rotation schedule that specifies people to enter the office on a specific day to ensure that no one is there on the same day as their immediate neighbors at the desk.
Despite the company’s corporate culture, regular office entry was one of Google’s few enduring rules.
That was a big reason for Google to offer its lavish advantages, said Alison Arif, an architecture and design writer who has studied corporate campuses. “They manage to keep everyone on campus as long as possible and keep someone at work,” said Arief, who co-authored the New York Times Opinion.
But because Google’s workforce has more than 100,000 employees worldwide, face-to-face collaboration has often been impossible. Employees find it difficult to focus with so much distraction in Google’s open offices. The company has exceeded its long-standing setting.
In 2018, the Google real estate group began to consider what it could do differently. He turned to the company’s research and development team for a “built environment.” It was an eclectic group of architects, industrial and interior designers, civil engineers, builders and technicians, led by Michelle Kaufman, who worked with renowned architect Frank Gehry before joining Google a decade ago.
Google focuses on three trends: Work happens everywhere, not just in the office; what employees need in the workplace is constantly changing; and workplaces should be more than desks, meeting rooms and amenities.
“The future of the job we thought was 10 years,” Kaufman said, “COVID has led us to that future now.”
Two of the hardest elements in office design are the walls and the heating and cooling systems. Google is trying to change that. He is developing a set of different movable walls that can be packaged and sent to offices around the world.
It has a prototype of a fabric-based air duct system that is zipped and can be moved over the weekend to different seats. Google is also trying to end the struggle for office temperature. This system allows each seat to have its own air diffuser to control the direction or amount of air blowing on them.
If a meeting requires privacy, a robot that looks like the inside of a wheeled computer and is equipped with sensors to detect its surroundings comes to inflate a translucent cellophane balloon wall so that no curious look remains.
“A key part of our thinking comes from what was our traditional office,” Kaufman said.
Google is also trying to reduce distractions. He designed leaf-shaped partitions called “petals” that could be attached to the edge of the desk to eliminate glare. An office chair with directional speakers in the headrest reproduces white noise to drown out nearby sound.
For people who may no longer need a permanent desk, Google has also created a prototype desk that adapts to the employee’s personal preferences with a single work badge – a handy feature for workers who don’t have desks because they fall only in the office from time to time. It calibrates the height and tilt of the monitor, displays family photos and even adjusts the near temperature.
In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed daunting to move an organization with more than 100,000 people to a virtual one, but now it seems even scarier to figure out how to get them back safely, “said David Radcliffe, Google’s real vice president of workplace services.
In its current office configurations, Google has said it will only be able to use one in three desks to keep people 6 feet away. Radcliffe said 6 feet would remain an important threshold in the event of another pandemic or even an annual flu.
Psychologically, he said, employees will not want to sit at long rows of desks, and Google may also need to “de-seal” offices with white spaces such as furniture or plants. In essence, the company has been unraveling years of Silicon Valley open office plan theory – that cramming more workers into smaller spaces and taking away their privacy leads to better collaboration.
Real estate costs for the company are not expected to change much. Although there will be fewer employees in the office, they will need more space.
There will be other changes. The company’s cafeterias, known for their free food, will switch from buffet style to boxing dishes. Breakfasts will be packed separately and will not be taken out of large bins. Massage rooms and fitness centers will be closed. The buses will be stopped.
Smaller conference rooms will be turned into private workspaces that can be reserved. Offices will use only clean air through vents controlled by its building management software, eliminating the usual combination of outside and recirculated air.
In larger bathrooms, Google will reduce the number of available sinks, toilets and urinals and will install more sensor equipment that does not require touching the surface with your hands.
A pair of new buildings on Google’s campus, which are now under construction in Mountain View and are expected to be completed next year, will give the company more flexibility to incorporate some of the now experimental office plans.
Google is trying to figure out how employees will react to so-called hybrid work. In July, the company asked workers how many days a week they had to come to the office to be effective. The responses were evenly spaced from zero to five days a week, Radcliffe said.
Most Google employees are in no hurry to return. In their annual employee survey, called Googlegeist, about 70% of about 110,000 employees surveyed said they had a “favorable” view of working from home, compared with about 15% who had an “unfavorable” opinion.
Another 15% had a “neutral” outlook, according to results reviewed by The New York Times. The study was sent in February, and the results were announced in late March.
Many Google employees are used to life without time-consuming travel and more time for family and life outside the office. The company seems to realize that its employees are less inclined to go back to the old life.
“The balance between professional and personal life is not to eat three times a day in your office, to go to the gym there, to fulfill all your orders there,” Arief said. “Ultimately, people want flexibility and autonomy, and the more Google takes that away, the harder it will be.”
Google has offices in 170 cities and 60 countries around the world, and some of them have now reopened. In Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, Google’s offices have reopened with over 70% employment. But most of the 140,000 employees who work for Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are based in the United States, with approximately half of them in the Gulf region.
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, told a Reuters conference in December that the company was committed to making hybrid work possible because there was room for “huge improvements” in productivity and the ability to attract more people to the workforce.
“No company on our scale has created a fully hybrid workforce model,” Pichai wrote in an email a few weeks later, announcing the flexible work week. “It will be interesting to try.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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