Sunday, January 24, 2016

Work Imitates Life

Few companies could announce a new office in the messianic way that Google did last February. Then again, few companies have ever built this sort of office.

‘Google’s presence in Mountain View is simply so strong that it can’t be the fortress that shuts away… the neighbours. It really needs to become a neighbourhood in Mountain View,’ intones the lead architect Bjarke Ingels of the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in the introductory video. The camera sweeps high over an edenic Mountain View in the San Francisco Bay Area. It pulls back to reveal Google’s proposed new office: a neighbourhood nested beneath glittering glass domes.

On approximately 3.5 million square feet of commercial land, Google intended to build a campus office that might best be described as a new part of town. Beneath the glass canopies, a thriving neighbourhood hosts stores, bike paths and modular office spaces. In building this new neighbourhood, Google hoped to expand their working space while accommodating the Mountain View population inclined to view them as a ‘fortress’. The utopian campus was meant to assuage fears that spiking numbers of Google employees would create a Google voting bloc, according to The New York Times. Such fears are understandable. As of 2013, the company employed roughly 10 per cent of Mountain View’s workforce and owned approximately the same proportion of taxable property.

Despite promises that the campus would be open to all, in May 2015 the Mountain View City Council denied Google the majority of the land they’d requested. Google submitted a similar but smaller plan to the city later that month. This one proposes to treat its own water supply and expand the suite of amenities that, anecdotally, have enabled at least a few Google employees to forgo private housing – sometimes by sleeping in trucks and vans while otherwise living on campus.

‘We’re blurring the outside world and the inside world,’ explains Thomas Heatherwick, the London-based designer who is the project’s other lead, in the Mountain View video. He cites the ‘historic city model of making streets’ as Google’s inspiration. As The New Yorker writer Nathan Heller put it: ‘Inside, it is about turning Google into not only a life style but a fully realised life.’

It’s a life many want. Google boasts more than 2 million job applicants a year. National media hailed its office plans as a ‘glass utopia’. There are hosts of articles for businesspeople on how to make their offices more like Google’s workplace. A 2015 CNNMoney survey of business students around the world showed Google as their most desired employer. Its campus is a cultural symbol of that desirability.

The specifics of Google’s proposed Mountain View office are unprecedented, but the scope of the campus is part of an emerging trend across the tech world. Alongside Google’s neighbourhood is a recent Facebook open office on their campus that, as the largest open office in the world, parallels the platform’s massive online community. Both offices seem modest next to the ambitious and fraught effort of Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online fashion retailer Zappos, to revitalise the downtown Las Vegas area around Zappos’ office in the old City Hall.

Such offices symbolise not just the future of work in the public mind, but also a new, utopian age with aspirations beyond the workplace. The dream is a place at once comfortable and entrepreneurial, where personal growth aligns with profit growth, and where work looks like play.

Yet though these tech campuses seem unprecedented, they echo movements of the past. In an era of civic wariness and economic fragility, the ‘total’ office heralds the rise of a new technocracy. In a time when terrorism from abroad provokes our fears, this heavily-planned workplace harks back to the isolationist values of the academic campus and even the social planning of the company town. As physical offices, they’re exceptional places to work – but while we increasingly uphold these places as utopic models for community, we make questionable assumptions about the best version of our shared life and values.

Just as Google sought to build a new neighbourhood in Mountain View, so did Thomas Jefferson in 1819 intend to make the campus of the University of Virginia an ‘academical village’. The famed architect Le Corbusier once described the US college campus as ‘a world in itself’, and it’s these cloistered worlds that launched our technological ideals. Tony Hsieh of Zappos had a formative business experience manning a dormitory diner in Quincy House at Harvard College; David Fincher’s film The Social Network (2010) would have you believe that Mark Zuckerberg’s empire – which earned $12.47 billion in 2014 alone – is still, at its core, a vengeful dorm-room enterprise.

‘Certainly tech campuses – not just in their layout but in their work rhythms – are meant to resemble college life,’ said Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed (2014), a history of the office. ‘The fact that you’re meant to put in long hours but those hours are punctuated by hours of leisure, boredom – you know, you can take a nap.’ (...)

These offices are seen as utopian partly because ‘they’re more thought-out than most American offices,’ explained Saval. ‘The reason they’re more thought-out is that those companies are in some ways obliged to care in a way that other American corporations in other industries aren’t.’ (...)

Ultimately, school campuses seek to shape rounded and informed citizens. On corporate campuses, workers are still workers. But in both environments, people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to their work. So the campus culture that seeks to serve, shape and employ the whole worker has as its corollary a boom in positive psychology – management principles centred on things such as mindfulness, perceived autonomy, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself.

by Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, Aeon | Read more:
Image: Google / BIG / Heatherwick Studio