Ikea meets Lego is Google’s idea of tomorrow’s workplace


Google’s first office was a cluttered Silicon Valley garage crammed with desks resting on sawhorses.

In 2003, five years after its founding, the company moved into a sprawling campus called the Googleplex. The airy, open offices and whimsical common spaces set a standard for what an innovative workplace was supposed to look like. Over the years, the amenities piled up. The food was free, and so were buses to and from work: Getting to the office, and staying there all day, was easy.

Now, the company that once redefined how an employer treats its workers is trying to redefine the office itself. Google is creating a post-pandemic workplace that will accommodate employees who got used to working from home over the past year and don’t want to be in the office all the time anymore.

The company will encourage — but not mandate — that employees be vaccinated when they start returning to the office, probably in September. At first, the interior of Google’s buildings may not appear all that different. But over the next year or so, Google will try out new office designs in millions of square feet of space, or about 10% of its global work spaces. The plans build on work that began before the coronavirus crisis sent Google’s work force home, when the company asked a diverse group of consultants — including sociologists who study “Generation Z” and how junior high students socialise 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 pod is a blank canvas: Chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters can be wheeled into various arrangements, and in some cases rearranged in a matter of hours.

To deal with an expected blend of remote and office workers, the company is also creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with impossible-to-ignore, large vertical displays.

In a handful of locations around the world, Google is building outdoor work areas to respond to concerns that coronavirus easily spreads in traditional offices. At its Silicon Valley headquarters, it has converted a parking lot and lawn area into “Camp Charleston” — a fenced-in mix of grass and wooden deck flooring about the size of four tennis courts with Wi-Fi throughout. There are clusters of tables and chairs under open-air tents. Employees can return to their permanent desks on a rotation schedule that assigns people to come into the office on a specific day to ensure that no one is there on the same day as their immediate desk neighbours.

Despite the company’s freewheeling corporate culture, coming into the office regularly had been one of Google’s few enduring rules. Google focused on three trends: Work happens anywhere and not just in the office; what employees need from a workplace is changing constantly; and workplaces need to be more than desks, meeting rooms and amenities.

“The future of work that we thought was 10 years out,” tech specialist Michelle Kaufmann Kaufmann said. “Covid brought us to that future now.”

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