Is Google's solution to open-plan workplace woes? Walls that inflate

It doesn't have to be difficult to redesign the post-pandemic office.

Google's new office design

Google is redesigning its headquarters in preparation for the post-pandemic era, and The New York Times has a large article of photos and videos detailing the company's plans. But if I were to summarize the tech giant's strategy in two terms, I'd say "over" and "engineered." Google has big ideas for reorganizing the departments, but some of them are overly complex.

As the New York Times points out, open-plan offices have long been the standard in Silicon Valley, with planners and architects collaborating side by side in the name of "spontaneous teamwork." (Though this is often an excuse for cutting prices by cramming as many jobs as possible onto expensive real estate.) However, in a COVID-aware world, neither cramping nor cubicles will suffice: people want space, guy. It's at least six feet long.

The New York Times quotes Google's VP of real estate and workplace resources, David Radcliffe, as saying:

Google said it will only be able to use one out of the three desks in its new office setup in order to accommodate employees six feet away. Mr. Radcliffe believes that six feet will remain a critical barrier in the event of the next pandemic or even the annual flu.

Employees would not choose to sit in a long row of desks for psychological reasons, he said, and Google may need to “de-densify” offices with white space such as furniture or plants. Years of open-office plan philosophy popularized by Silicon Valley — that cramming more people into smaller rooms and removing their anonymity leads to greater teamwork — are being dismantled by the firm.

This makes perfect sense! However, Google's approach to bringing these updates to its Mountain View headquarters is a mixed bag. The following are a few of the approaches mentioned:

  • Instead of rows of tables and conference spaces, Google will use "Team Pods," which are "wheeled into different configurations, and in some cases rearranged in a matter of hours" and include "[c]hairs, desks, whiteboards, and storage systems on casters."
  • The business is experimenting with inflatable robot walls that can be wheeled around and inflated like a bounce house to create temporary barriers between open-plan desks.
  • “A fabric-based overhead air duct system that connects with zippers and can be relocated for various seating configurations over the weekend.”
  • A modern semi-circular "campfire" conference room alternates seating for those physically present with displays for those calling in to accommodate remote staff in sessions.
  • More open-air tents with tables and benches for outdoor jobs and meetings.
  • Google is testing a workstation that remembers users' settings, changing the local temperature, panel height, and tilt depending on a worker's card swipe, to make hot-desking more convenient. For the cubicle vibe, it also "brings up family pictures on a table."
  • Petals, which are optional "leaf-shaped partitions" that can be added to desks to "eliminate light," and office chairs with built-in speakers in the headrest can play white noise to "mute adjacent music."
Google's new office design

The inflatable robot wall in action. Image: Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Some of these, once again, sounds fantastic. Who wouldn't like more open space or conference rooms that are more welcoming to remote employees in their offices? However, the focus on modularity and adaptability seems to be a blueprint for catastrophe. Inflatable privacy shields, cloth air ducts, dynamic hot desks, clip-on desk partitions, and rearrangeable desks and storage make it seem like workers would have to design their offices from the ground up every day.

Google is saving over $1 billion as a result of its work-from-home policy

Google's new office design

Google, like many other Silicon Valley tech firms, is recognized for its generous employee benefits. In addition, the corporation reaped significant financial benefits from the pandemic-related work from home situated in the previous year. According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the corporation saved $268 million on “travel and entertainment costs largely as a result of COVID-19” in the third quarter.

According to Bloomberg, this will amount to $1 billion in annual revenue for Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

“Google is well-known for perks like massage tables, catered cuisine, and corporate retreats, many of which have inspired Silicon Valley work culture. Since March 2020, the majority of Google employees have served remotely and without those benefits, according to Bloomberg.

CFO Ruth Porat said Google is "looking at a blended calendar" in a call with investors earlier this week.

“We've been really transparent that putting people together in the workplace is important to us. We're still considering a hybrid work-from-home/work-from-office setup. When we consider expanding our office real estate presence, we have in mind that we are first and foremost expanding our workforce. We're looking at a lower per-employee density. As a result, even in a hybrid work world, we would need rooms. According to a transcript of the call, Porat said, "We're starting to build out our campuses and office facilities."

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, posted first-quarter earnings this week, smashing both EPS and sales forecasts, maintaining its dominance as nice, high-value tech stocks for the tech-interested investor. According to Seeking Alpha, Alphabet posted EPS of $26.29, relative to a consensus estimate of $15.56, and sales of $55.3 billion, against a consensus estimate of $51.71 billion. According to the earnings statement, Google's sales increased by 34% from the same quarter last year, thanks to an increase in advertiser advertising and revenue from Google Cloud.

In a statement, Ruth Porat, Google and Alphabet's CFO, said, "Total sales of $55.3 billion in the first quarter represent elevated customer interest online and broad-based rise in advertiser income." “We're delighted with Google Cloud's continued momentum, with $4.0 billion in sales in the quarter representing power and potential in both GCP and Workspace.”

Any of these ideas are, in reality, attempting to address issues that arise solely as a result of open-plan workplaces. When you have your own workspace, you won't need white noise speakers or movable partitions to minimize glare.

I'm sure the Times is exaggerating some of the more bizarre aspects because Google workers aren't notorious for their struggles. (For the closing of the company's free massage rooms, play a melody on an appropriately sized violin.) However, it perplexes me that such complex solutions are needed in the first place. Perhaps old-fashioned offices (with proper ventilation) are the way to go? Especially if you don't need to hire as many people because more people are working from home.

I might be alone in this, but I've always fantasized about having my own office with real walls and doors. It was true before the pandemic, and that would be true afterward. Ironically, it's only because I've been struggling to work remotely that I've now managed to set up a proper office room in my own house. If only I could have something similar at work.

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