Google’s plan for the future of work: privacy bots and balloon walls

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – Google’s first desktop was crowded Silicon Valley Garage crammed with desks resting on trestles.

In 2003, five years after its founding, the company moved to a large campus called the Googleplex. Airy, open offices and whimsical common spaces set a standard for what an innovative workplace was meant to look like. Over the years, the equipment has accumulated. Food was free, as were the buses to and from work – getting to the office and staying there all day was easy.

Today, the company that redefined the way an employer treats their employees is trying to redefine the office itself. Google is creating a post-pandemic workplace that will accommodate employees who have become accustomed to working from home over the past year and who no longer want to be in the office all the time.

The company will encourage – but not require – that employees be vaccinated when they return to the office, likely in September. At first, the interiors of Google buildings may not look that different. But over the next year, Google will test new office designs in millions of square feet of space, or roughly 10 percent of its global workspaces.

The plans build on work that began before the coronavirus crisis sent Google’s workforce home, when the company asked a diverse group of consultants – including sociologists who study ” Generation Z ”and how undergraduates socialize and learn – to imagine what future workers would want.

The answer seems to be Ikea meets Lego. Instead of rows of desks next to cookie-cutter meeting rooms, Google is designing “Team Pods”. Each module is a blank canvas: chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters can be tucked away in 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 in-person participants sit in a circle interspersed with large vertical screens that are impossible to ignore. The screens show the faces of the people who connect by video conference so that the virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.

In a handful of places around the world, Google is building outdoor workspaces to address concerns that the coronavirus easily spreads 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 to “Camp Charleston” – a fenced-in mix of grass and wood floors the size of. four tennis courts with Wi-Fi throughout.

There are clusters of tables and chairs under tents in the open air. In the larger teepees, there are meeting spaces with the decor of a California natural hideaway and state-of-the-art video conferencing equipment. Each tent has a camp themed name such as “kindling”, “s’mores” and “canoe”. Camp Charleston has been open since March to teams who wanted to meet. Google said it is building outdoor workspaces in London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York and Sydney, Australia, and possibly other locations.

Employees can return to their permanent offices on a rotating schedule that assigns people to enter the office on a specific day to ensure that no one is there on the same day as their immediate office neighbors.

Despite the company’s open corporate culture, coming to the office regularly was one of Google’s few enduring rules.

This was one of the main reasons Google offered its lavish perks, said Allison Arieff, an architecture and design writer who has studied corporate campuses. “They can keep everyone on campus for as long as possible and they keep someone at work,” said Arieff, who contributed to the Opinion section of the New York Times.

But since Google’s workforce exceeded 100,000 worldwide, face-to-face collaboration was often impossible. Employees struggled to concentrate with so many distractions inside Google’s open offices. The company had gone beyond its long-standing configuration.

In 2018, Google’s real estate group began to think about what it could do differently. He turned to the company’s research and development team for “built environments”. This was an eclectic group of architects, industrial and interior designers, structural engineers, builders and technical specialists led by Michelle Kaufmann, who worked with renowned architect Frank Gehry before joining Google ten years ago.

Google has focused on three trends: work takes place anywhere, not just in the office; what employees need in a workplace is constantly changing; and workplaces must be more than offices, meeting rooms and equipment.

“The future of work we thought was 10 years away,” Ms. Kaufmann said, “Covid has brought us to that future now.”

Two of the most rigid elements in the design of an office are the walls and the heating and cooling systems. Google is trying to change this. It develops a range of different movable walls that can be packaged and shipped flat to offices around the world.

It has a prototype of a fabric-based air duct system that attaches with zippers and can be moved over the course of a weekend for different seating arrangements. Google is also trying to end the fight over office temperature. This system allows each seat to have its own air diffuser to control the direction or amount of air blown over them.

If a meeting requires privacy, a robot that looks like the bowels of a computer on wheels and is equipped with sensors to detect its surroundings inflates a wall of translucent cellophane balloons to ward off prying eyes.

“A key part of our thinking is moving away from what used to be our traditional office,” Ms. Kaufmann said.

Google is also trying to reduce distractions. He designed various leaf-shaped partitions called “petals” that can be attached to the edge of a desk to eliminate glare. An office chair with directional speakers in the headrest plays white noise to muffle sound nearby.

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 simple swipe of a work badge – a feature. convenient for workers who do not have an assigned desk as all they do is drop by the office every now and then. It calibrates the monitor’s height and tilt, displays family photos on a screen, and even adjusts the temperature nearby.

At the start of the pandemic, “it seemed intimidating to move an organization of more than 100,000 people to virtual, but now it seems even more intimidating to figure out how to bring them back safely,” said David Radcliffe, vice president of Google for real. real estate and workplace services.

In its current desktop setups, Google said it would only be able to use one in three desks in order to keep people six feet away from each other. Mr Radcliffe said six feet would remain an important threshold in the event of an upcoming pandemic or even annual flu.

Psychologically, he said, employees won’t want to sit in a long row of desks, and Google might also need to “de-densify” desks with white space such as furniture or plants. The company is essentially unwinding years of open office theory popularized by Silicon Valley – that cramming more workers into smaller spaces and depriving their privacy leads to better collaboration.

Real estate costs for the business are not expected to change much. Even though 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 catering, will go from buffet style to boxed-to-go meals. Snacks will be individually wrapped and will not be picked up in large bins. Massage rooms and fitness centers will be closed. The shuttles will be suspended.

Smaller conference rooms will be transformed into private workspaces that can be booked. Offices will use only fresh air through vents controlled by its building management software, eliminating its usual mix of outside air and recirculated air.

In larger bathrooms, Google will reduce the number of sinks, toilets and urinals available and install more sensor-based equipment that doesn’t require touching a surface with your hands.

Two new buildings on the Google campus, currently under construction in Mountain View, Calif., And expected to be completed as early as next year, will give the company more flexibility to accommodate 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 per week they would need to come to the office to be efficient. The responses were evenly distributed within a range of zero to five days a week, Mr Radcliffe said.

The majority of Google employees are in no rush to come back. In its annual employee survey called Googlegeist, about 70% of the roughly 110,000 employees polled said they had a “favorable” opinion about working from home, compared to about 15% who had an “unfavorable” opinion.

Another 15% had a “neutral” outlook, according to results seen by The New York Times. The survey was sent out in February and the results were announced at the end of March.

Many Google employees have become accustomed to a life without tedious travel, and with more time for family and life outside of the office. The company seems to realize that its employees may not be as willing to go back to the old life.

“Work-life balance is not about eating three meals a day at your desk, going to the gym there, doing all your shopping there,” Arieff said. “At the end of the day, people want flexibility and autonomy and the more Google gets out of it, the harder it will be.”

Google has offices in 170 cities and 60 countries around the world, and some of them have already reopened. In Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, Google offices have reopened with an occupancy rate allowed to exceed 70%. But most of the 140,000 employees who work for Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are based in the United States, with about half in the Bay Area.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, said in a Reuters Conference in December that the company committed to making hybrid work possible because there was an opportunity to “dramatically improve” productivity and the ability to attract more people into the workforce.

“No company on our scale has ever 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.


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