At Google a Place to Work and Play

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At Google a Place to Work and Play

After Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, ordered employees working from home to show up at the office for work, there was speculation that she was emulating Google, her previous employer.

Yahoo employees should be so lucky.

Whatever else might be said about Yahoo’s workplace, it’s a long way from Google’s, as I discovered this week when I dropped in at Google’s East Coast headquarters, a vast former Port Authority shipping complex that occupies a full city block in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Yahoo set off a nationwide debate about workplace flexibility, productivity and creativity last month after a memo with the directive surfaced on the Internet. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together,” read the memo from Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s director of human resources, which went viral after Kara Swisher posted it on AllThingsD. The discussion may have been all the more heated since the ban was imposed by one of the relatively few female chief executives, one who had a nursery built near the executive suite after she gave birth last year.

Google’s various offices and campuses around the globe reflect the company’s overarching philosophy, which is nothing less than “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world,” according to a Google spokesman, Jordan Newman. But do its unorthodox workplaces and lavish perks yield the kind of creativity it prides itself on, and Yahoo obviously hopes to foster?

Mr. Newman, 27, who joined Google straight from Yale, and Brian Welle, a “people analytics” manager who has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from New York University, led me on a brisk and, at times, dizzying excursion through a labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.

The library looks as if Miss Scarlet (from the board game Clue) has just stepped out, leaving her incriminating noose (in the form of a necktie) prominently draped on the back of an oversize wing chair. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret room and even more private reading area. Next to the recently expanded Lego play station, employees can scurry up a ladder that connects the fourth and fifth floors, where a fiendishly challenging scavenger hunt was in progress. Dogs strolled the corridors alongside their masters, and a cocker spaniel was napping, leashed to a pet rail, outside one of the dining areas.

Google lets many of its hundreds of software engineers, the core of its intellectual capital, design their own desks or work stations out of what resemble oversize Tinker Toys. Some have standing desks, a few even have attached treadmills so they can walk while working. Employees express themselves by scribbling on walls. The result looks a little chaotic, like some kind of high-tech refugee camp, but Google says that’s how the engineers like it.

“We’re trying to push the boundaries of the workplace,” Mr. Newman said, in what seemed an understatement.

In keeping with a company built on information, this seeming spontaneity is anything but. Everything has been researched and is backed by data. In one of the open kitchen areas, Dr. Welle pointed to an array of free food, snacks, candy and beverages. “The healthy choices are front-loaded,” he said. “We’re not trying to be mom and dad. Coercion doesn’t work. The choices are there. But we care about our employees’ health, and our research shows that if people cognitively engage with food, they make better choices.”

So the candy (M&Ms, plain and peanut; TCHO brand luxury chocolate bars, chewing gum, Life Savers) is in opaque ceramic jars that sport prominent nutritional labels. Healthier snacks (almonds, peanuts, dried kiwi and dried banana chips) are in transparent glass jars. In coolers, sodas are concealed behind translucent glass. A variety of waters and juices are immediately visible. “Our research shows that people consume 40 percent more water if that’s the first thing they see,” Dr. Welle said. (Note to Mayor Bloomberg: Perhaps New York City should hide supersize sodas rather than ban them.)

Craig Nevill-Manning, a New Zealand native and Google’s engineering director in Manhattan, was the impetus behind the company’s decision to hire a cadre of engineers in New York, and he led an exodus to Chelsea from what was a small outpost near Times Square. “I lobbied for this building,” he told me. “I love the neighborhood. You can live across the street. There are bars and restaurants.”

He showed me a map of the city with dots indicating where each Google employee lives. They’re heavily concentrated in Manhattan below 34th Street, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, most within walking distance of Chelsea or a short subway ride away. “We inherited the informal work environment — the casual dress, the flexible hours — from Silicon Valley, but we adapted it to the East Coast urban environment,” he said. After the dot-com collapse in 2000, Manhattan was largely written off as a technology center. Since Google’s move, Chelsea is mentioned in the same breath as Silicon Valley. Google has turned over 22,000 square feet of its space, rent-free, to Cornell until its new technology campus can be built on Roosevelt Island.

“The philosophy is very simple,” Mr. Nevill-Manning said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk. Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting, and we’ve tried to preserve that.” Among innovations that sprang from seemingly chance office encounters are the Google Art Project, which is putting thousands of museum works online, and enhancements to the company’s AdSense and AdWords advertising platforms. Razor scooters make it easy to get around the huge floors (each covers five acres), which offer every conceivable gathering space, from large open spaces to tiny nooks with whimsical furniture. It was Mr. Nevill-Manning’s idea to install the ladder connecting floors, now that Google is too large to fit on one. He said he wouldn’t go so far as to say cost is no object, but software engineers “are incredibly productive on a square foot basis,” he said. “Their value is enormous. It doesn’t cost that much to make them happy.”

Allison Mooney, 32, joined Google two years ago from the advertising giant Omnicom Group, and the difference is “night and day,” she said. “I came here from the New York agency model, where you work constantly, 24/7. You answer every e-mail, nights and weekends. Here, you don’t have to show you’re working, or act like you’re working. The culture here is to shut down on weekends. People have a life.”

And the perks, she added, are “amazing.” In the course of our brief conversation, she mentioned subsidized massages (with massage rooms on nearly every floor); free once-a-week eyebrow shaping; free yoga and Pilates classes; a course she took called “Unwind: the art and science of stress management”; a course in advanced negotiation taught by a Wharton professor; a health consultation and follow-up with a personal health counselor; an author series and an appearance by the novelist Toni Morrison; and a live interview of Justin Bieber by Jimmy Fallon in the Google office.

After my visit, I spoke to Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Progress Principle,” about creativity at work, and told her I had just been to Google. “Isn’t it fantastic?” she said. Some of her former students work there, and “they feel very, very fortunate to be there,” she said. As to the broader relationship between the workplace and creativity, “there’s some evidence that great physical space enhances creativity,” she said. “The theory is that open spaces that are fun, where people want to be, facilitate idea exchange. I’ve watched people interact at Google and you see a cross-fertilization of ideas.” That said, she added, “there isn’t a lot of research to support this. And none of this matters unless people feel they have meaningful work and are making progress at it. In over 30 years of research, I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”

Ben Waber, who has a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and is the author of “People Analytics,” is, at 29, the median age of Google employees. His company, Sociometric Solutions in Boston, uses data to assess workplace interactions. “Google has really been out front in this field,” he said. “They’ve looked at the data to see how people are collaborating. Physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen, you also need to shape a community. That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”

Both experts were critical of Yahoo’s plan to force employees into the office. “If you’re spying on them, monitoring them or coercing them, it will create a poisonous atmosphere,” Dr. Waber said.

Professor Amabile added: “Google doesn’t have to force people. Marissa Mayers’s mistake may have been not being more clear about the need to be together and to experience creative excitement. Taking a hard line is likely to have negative effects.”

A Yahoo spokeswoman responded: “We don’t discuss internal matters. This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo, right now.”

It should probably be obvious at this juncture, but Google doesn’t require employees to work from the office. It doesn’t even keep track of who’s there. The notion seems to have never occurred to anyone. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a policy on that,” Mr. Newman said, but “we do expect employees to figure out a work schedule with their team and manager. It’s not a free-for-all.”

For a company with Google’s largess — and the profit margins that make it possible — it’s hardly necessary to require employees to be at the office. “People want to come in,” Ms. Mooney said. On average, she estimates she spends nine hours a day there, five days a week. She mentioned that she recently took a day off — and ended up at the office.

“I live in a studio apartment,” she explained. “And I don’t have free food.”

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