MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – Google’s first office was an overcrowded Silicon Valley garage, crammed with desks on sawhorses.
In 2003, five years after it was founded, the company moved to a sprawling campus called Googleplex. The airy, open offices and quirky common rooms set standards for what an innovative workplace should look like. As the years passed, the convenience increased. The food was free, as were the buses to and from work: it was easy to get to the office and stay there all day.
Now the company, which once redefined the way an employer deals with its employees, is trying to redefine the office itself. Google is creating a post-pandemic workplace that can accommodate employees who have got used to working from home over the past year and no longer want to be in the office all the time.
The company will encourage – but not mandate – that employees be vaccinated when they are expected to return to the office in September. To begin with, the interior of the Google buildings might not look that different. Over the next year, however, Google will try out new office designs on an area of several million square feet, or about 10 percent of its global workspace.
The plans build on work that began before the coronavirus crisis and sent the Google workforce home as the company contacts a diverse group of consultants – including sociologists studying “Generation Z” and junior high school students socialize and learn – asked to imagine what future employees would want to do.
The answer seems to be that Ikea meets Lego. Instead of rows of desks next to the meeting rooms for cookie cutters, Google is designing “Team Pods”. Each pod is a blank canvas: chairs, desks, whiteboards, and storage units on casters can be rolled into various arrangements and, in some cases, rearranged in a matter of hours.
To cope with an expected mix of remote and office workers, the company is also creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where personal participants sit in a circle punctuated by unmistakable, large vertical displays. The displays show the faces of people who dial in via video conference, so that virtual participants are on the same page as those physically present.
In a few locations around the world, Google is building outdoor workspaces to respond to concerns that coronavirus is easily spreading in traditional offices. At its headquarters in Silicon Valley, where the weather is pleasant most of the year, it has converted a parking lot and lawn into “Camp Charleston” – a fenced mix of grass and hardwood decking the size of four tennis courts with Wi-Fi inside entire.
There are groups of tables and chairs under open air tents. Larger tepees have meeting areas decorated with a California nature reserve and state-of-the-art video conferencing equipment. Each tent has a camp name such as “Kindle”, “S’Mores” and “Kanu”. Camp Charleston has been open to teams wanting to get together since March. Google said it would create outdoor workplaces in London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York and Sydney, Australia, and possibly more locations.
Employees can return to their permanent desks on a rotation schedule, in which employees come to the office on a specific day to ensure that no one is there on the same day as their immediate desk neighbors.
Despite the company’s corporate culture, one of Google’s few permanent rules was to come to the office regularly.
It was a big reason Google offered its lavish perks, said Allison Arieff, an architecture and design writer who has studied company premises. “They’re allowed to keep everyone on campus for as long as possible and they keep someone at work,” said Ms. Arieff, who was a contributing writer for the New York Times’ opinion division.
Since the Google workforce employed more than 100,000 people worldwide, personal collaboration was often not possible. Employees found it harder to focus on so many distractions in Google’s open offices. The company had outgrown its longstanding structure.
In 2018, Google’s real estate group started thinking about what it could do differently. It reached out to the company’s “built environment” research and development team. It was a diverse group of architects, industrial and interior designers, civil engineers, builders and technical specialists under the direction of Michelle Kaufmann who had worked at Google with the renowned architect Frank Gehry a decade ago.
Google focused on three trends: Work happens everywhere, not just in the office. What employees need from a workplace is constantly changing. and workplaces need to be more than desks, meeting rooms and amenities.
“The future of work that we thought was 10 years away,” said Ms. Kaufmann, “Covid has now brought us into this future.”
Two of the most rigid elements in an office design are walls and the heating and cooling systems. Google is trying to change that. It is developing a range of different moveable walls that can be packaged and shipped flat to offices around the world.
It is a prototype of a fabric-based air-based air duct system that can be attached with zippers and moved over a weekend for different seating arrangements. Google is also trying to end the battle over office temperature. This system allows each seat to have its own air distributor to control the direction or amount of air that blows on it.
When a meeting demands privacy, a robot that looks like the insides of a computer on wheels and is equipped with sensors to detect its surroundings comes over to inflate a translucent cellophane balloon wall to keep prying eyes away.
“A key part of our thinking is moving away from our traditional office,” said Ms. Kaufmann.
Google also tries to reduce distractions. Various leaf-shaped partitions called “petals” have been designed that can be placed on the edge of a desk to reduce glare. An office chair with directional speakers in the headrest plays white noise to attenuate nearby audio.
For people who may no longer need a permanent desk, Google has also created a prototype desk that adapts to an employee’s personal preferences with a work card – a handy feature for employees who haven’t been assigned desks because they only work in the Desks fall from office to office. It calibrates the height and tilt of the monitor, shows family photos on a display, and even adjusts the temperature nearby.
In the early days of the pandemic, “it seemed daunting to move an organization with more than 100,000 employees to virtual, but now it seems even more daunting figuring out how to get it back safely,” said David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of Real Estate and Workplace Services .
In the current office configurations, Google could only use one of three desks to keep the number of people within two meters. Mr Radcliffe said six feet would remain an important threshold in the event of the next pandemic or even annual flu.
Psychologically, he said, employees will not want to sit in a long line of desks, and Google may need to “detach” offices with white surfaces such as furniture or plants. The company essentially runs the year-long open office plan theory popularized by Silicon Valley – that when more employees are pushed into smaller spaces and their privacy is lost, it leads to better collaboration.
Real estate costs for the company are not expected to change significantly. Although there are fewer employees in the office, they take up more space.
There will be more changes. The company’s cafeterias, known for their free, catered food, will switch from buffet to packaged take-away meals. Snacks are packed individually and are not scooped out of large containers. Massage rooms and fitness center will be closed. Shuttle buses are suspended.
Smaller conference rooms become private work areas that can be reserved. The offices only use fresh air through ventilation slots controlled by their building management software, which eliminates the usual mix of outside air and recirculated air.
In larger bathrooms, Google will reduce the number of available sinks, toilets and urinals and install more sensor-based devices that don’t require hands to touch a surface.
A couple of new buildings on the Google campus, currently under construction in Mountain View, California and expected to be completed by next year, give the company more flexibility to incorporate some of the now experimental office plans.
Google is trying to find out how employees will react to so-called hybrid work. In July, the company asked employees how many days a week they would need to come to the office to be effective. The responses were evenly divided into a range of zero to five days per week, said Mr Radcliffe.
The majority of Google employees are in no hurry to return. In the annual Googlegeist survey, around 70 percent of the 110,000 or so employees surveyed said they had a “positive” opinion about working from home, compared with around 15 percent who had an “unfavorable” opinion.
Another 15 percent had a “neutral” perspective, according to the New York Times. The survey was sent out in February and the results were announced in late March.
Many Google employees have grown used to life without time-consuming commutes and with more time to spend with family and life outside of the office. The company seems to be realizing that its employees may not be so ready to go back to the old life.
“Work-life balance doesn’t mean eating three meals a day in your office, going to the gym there and doing all your errands there,” said Ms. Arieff. “Ultimately, people want flexibility and autonomy. The more Google takes this away, the harder it gets.”
Google has offices in 170 cities and 60 countries around the world. Some of them have already reopened. In Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, Google offices reopened at over 70 percent occupancy. The majority of the 140,000 employees who work for Google and its parent company Alphabet are based in the United States, about half of them in the Bay Area.
Sundar Pichai, general manager of Alphabet, told a Reuters conference in December that the company was determined to make hybrid work possible, given the potential for “huge improvements” in productivity and the ability to bring more people into the workforce.
“No company of our size has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model,” Pichai wrote a few weeks later in an email announcing the flexible working week. “It will be interesting to try.”