There are clusters of tables and chairs under open-air tents. In larger teepees, there are meeting areas with the décor of a California nature retreat and state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment. Each tent has a camp-themed name such as “kindling,” “s’mores” and “canoe.” Camp Charleston has been open since March for teams who wanted to get together. Google said it was building outdoor work spaces in London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York and Sydney, and possibly more locations.

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’s workspaces of the future are here sooner than was anticipated.

Google’s workspaces of the future are here sooner than was anticipated. Credit:Cayce Clifford/The New York Times

That was a big reason Google offered its lavish perks, said Allison Arieff, an architectural and design writer who has studied corporate campuses. “They get to keep everyone on campus for as long as possible and they’re keeping someone at work,” said Arieff, who was a contributing writer for the Opinion section of The New York Times.

But as Google’s workforce topped 100,000 employees all over the world, face-to-face collaboration was often impossible. Employees found it harder to focus with so many distractions inside Google’s open offices. The company had outgrown its longtime setup.

In 2018, Google’s real estate group began to consider what it could do differently. It 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 tech specialists led by Michelle Kaufmann, who worked with renowned architect Frank Gehry before joining Google a decade ago.

Many Google employees have gotten used to life without time-consuming commutes, and with more time for family and life outside the office. The company appears to be realising its employees may not be so willing to go back to the old life.

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,” Kaufmann said, “COVID brought us to that future now.”

In the early days of the pandemic, “it seemed daunting to move a 100,000-plus person organisation to virtual, but now it seems even more daunting to figure out how to bring them back safely,” said David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president for real estate and workplace services.

In its current office configurations, Google said it would be able to use only one out of every three desks in order to keep people 6 feet apart. Radcliffe said 6 feet would remain an important threshold in case of the next pandemic or even the annual flu.

Google is trying to reinvent office spaces to cope with workplace sensibilities changed by the pandemic.

Google is trying to reinvent office spaces to cope with workplace sensibilities changed by the pandemic. Credit:Cayce Clifford / The New York Times

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

Real estate costs for the company aren’t expected to change very much. Though there will be fewer employees in the office, they’ll need more room.

Google is trying to get a handle on how employees will react to so-called hybrid work. In July, the company asked workers how many days a week they would need to come to the office to be effective. The answers were divided evenly in a range of zero to five days a week, said Radcliffe.

The majority of Google employees are in no hurry to return. In its annual survey of employees called Googlegeist, about 70 per cent of roughly 110,000 employees surveyed said they had a “favourable” view about working from home compared with roughly 15 per cent who had an “unfavorable” opinion.

Another 15 per cent had a “neutral” perspective, according to results viewed by The New York Times. The survey was sent out in February and the results were announced in late March.

Many Google employees have gotten used to life without time-consuming commutes, and with more time for family and life outside the office. The company appears to be realising its employees may not be so willing to go back to the old life.

“Work-life balance is not eating three meals at a day at your office, going to the gym there, having all your errands done there,” said Arieff. “Ultimately, people want flexibility and autonomy and the more that Google takes that away, the harder it is going to 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’s offices have reopened with occupancy allowed to exceed 70 per cent. But the bulk of the 140,000 employees who work for Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are based in the United States, with roughly half of them in the Bay Area.

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Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet, said at a Reuters conference in December that the company was committed to making hybrid work possible, because there was an opportunity for “tremendous improvement” in productivity and the ability to pull in more people to the workforce.

“No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model,” Pichai wrote in an email a few weeks later announcing the flexible workweek. “It will be interesting to try.”

The New York Times

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