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The Googleplex of the future has privacy bots, meeting tents, and your own balloon wall

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif .– Google’s first office was a cluttered Silicon Valley garage filled with desks resting on sawhorses.

In 2003, five years after its founding, the company moved to a sprawling 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 piled up. 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 its employees is trying to redefine the office itself. Google is in the process of 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 mandate – 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 try new office designs on millions of square feet of space, or roughly 10% 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 the “Generation Z” and how junior high school students socialize and learn – imagine what future workers were going to want.

The answer seems to be that 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 set up in various arrangements and, in some cases, rearranged in a matter of hours.

To deal 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 dotted with large vertical screens that are impossible to ignore. The displays show the faces of people calling via video conference so that 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 parquet the size of four courts. tennis court with Wi-Fi throughout.

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

Employees can return to their permanent office on a rotating schedule that assigns people to come to 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 corporate culture, entering the office regularly was one of Google’s few persistent rules.

This is one of the main reasons Google offered its lavish perks, said Allison Arieff, an architecture and design writer who has studied corporate campuses. “They manage to 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 because Google’s workforce exceeded 100,000 worldwide, face-to-face collaboration was often impossible. Employees found it harder to concentrate with so many distractions in 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. She turned to the company’s research and development team for “built environments”. It was an eclectic group of architects, industrial and interior designers, structural engineers, builders and technology specialists led by Michelle Kaufmann, who worked with renowned architect Frank Gehry before joining Google he 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 would be 10 years from now,” Ms. Kaufmann said, “Covid has brought us to this 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 partitions 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 a weekend for different seating arrangements. Google is also trying to end the fight against the desktop temperature. This system allows each seat to have its own air diffuser to control the direction or amount of air blowing through it.

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 translucent cellophane balloon wall 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. She has 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 emits white noise to muffle nearby audio.

For people who may no longer need a permanent desk, Google has also built a desktop prototype that adapts to an employee’s personal preferences by swiping a work badge – a handy feature for employees. workers who do not have an assigned desk because they are just passing through the office. office from time to time. It calibrates the monitor’s height and tilt, displays family photos on a screen, and even adjusts the temperature nearby.

In the early days of the pandemic, “it seemed intimidating to go virtual an organization of over 100,000 people, but now it seems even more difficult to figure out how to bring them back safely,” said David Radcliffe, vice-president. Google president for real. estate and workplace services.

In its current desktop setups, Google said it could only 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 the next pandemic or even the annual flu.

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

The company’s real estate costs are not expected to change much. Although there are 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 take-out. Snacks will be individually wrapped and not 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 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.

A pair of new buildings on Google’s campus, currently under construction in Mountain View, Calif., And slated for completion 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 get 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 of working from home, compared with around 15% who had an “unfavorable” opinion.

Another 15 percent 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 gotten used to life without long commutes 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 groceries there,” Arieff said. “At the end of the day, 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 already reopened. In Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, Google offices have reopened with an occupancy rate allowed to exceed 70%. But 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, chief executive of Alphabet, told a Reuters conference in December that the company is committed to making hybrid work possible because there is an opportunity for “huge improvement” in productivity and the ability to attract more people to the labor market. .

“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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