Google’s Again to Workplace Plans

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Google loves to be different. So it’s no wonder the company has ideas for the post-pandemic office.

As Google begins to bring employees back into offices in some regions, it plans to experiment with ways to give them more leeway and combine elements of virtual work with face-to-face collaboration. The goal, as my colleague Dai Wakabayashi described in an article on Google’s vision for the new office, is to redefine a happier, more productive workplace.

Dai spoke to me about what Google has learned from employees who mostly work outside of the office over the past year, and whether a company with unlimited resources will be a model for the future workplace.

Shira: What did Google find out from more than a year of mostly remote work?

Dai: Google was surprised at how productive its workforce was. Some employees enjoyed working outside of the office or liked aspects of it and were unwilling to return to an office full time. One downside that Google executives talked about was the lack of creativity and collaboration, and the difficulty of building workplace culture and trust when people weren’t together in person.

But even before the pandemic, Google believed that the current office work environment was broken.

Broken in what way?

Part of the problem is that Google’s workforce has grown so quickly and the company has packed people into offices. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, currently has 140,000 full-time employees, more than twice as many as it was five years ago.

Some employees said they had trouble concentrating in the office because of too many people and too many distractions. Some of Google’s office complexes were so sprawling that it took people a long time to get from one building to another. Office work has not worked for many people.

What is Google trying to do differently now?

First, it wants to provide more security, or a sense of security, by staggering the number of times people come into the office, and finally, by “detaching” its offices. This is set to reduce the potential spread of Covid-19 now, and Google is thinking of annual flu seasons and possible future pandemics. Google’s real estate boss stated that at a distance of two meters in the office, only one of three desks from the current configurations can be used.

Google also realizes that it can no longer ask people to come to the office five days a week. And it wants to respond more flexibly to people’s changing needs. One example is workspaces that can be configured to meet the needs of a particular team or project. It is also experimenting with personal heating and cooling systems on desks and camp-themed outdoor meeting rooms. Google calls these changes a pilot that will be applied to 10 percent of its global workspace.

Is this going to happen everywhere? Where are my outdoor work tents and personal heating system?

This is likely to cost Google billions of dollars, and most companies cannot afford it. However, Google has long been a trendsetter when it comes to employment practices and office design. Tech companies like Google have helped spread the concept of wide open office spaces with high ceilings and crowded desks. If these new ideas for an office environment with the best remote work and personal performance succeed, elements of what Google does can be carried over to other types of businesses as well.

What questions do you have about how this will work on Google?

Some Google employees want to return to an office all day, while others want to work remotely forever. How will Google respond to the individual needs of tens of thousands of people? If Google requires people to work from an office about two days a week, will people who refuse be laid off? Google knows that its employees are in great demand.

And there are so many unknowns as to whether a mix of remote and office work will be the best of the two or the worst of the two. All of this is a big deal for Google and its employees. There is nothing more personal than freedom and autonomy in your work.

Tip of the week

If you plan to resume your commute to the office soon, you may be surprised to see technology re-emerging for buses, subways, and other common modes of transport. Brian X. Chen, consumer technology columnist for the New York Times, outlines some of the ways to digitally pay for transit:

As workers gradually return to their offices, many prepare for the shuttle service. Be aware that your public transit payment options may have changed over the past year and include touchless options such as: Pay with a tap of a finger on a smartphone instead of inserting a ticket or card. It’s a blessing in a pandemic-ridden era of germ hostility.

For iPhone owners, Apple Pay is now accepted by many transit companies in areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. For Android owners, Google Pay is also accepted by dozens of transit agencies.

How do you set that up? The sites vary slightly depending on where you commute. The first place to check is on your transit agency’s website. For example, commuters in the Bay Area can visit the Clipper website and click Pay with Your Phone. From there, the website will list steps on how to transfer or start a new Clipper card on Apple Pay or Google Pay.

  • A big lawsuit with big stakes: In a test that begins Monday, the maker of the Fortnite video game claims that Apple is using the power of its app store to stifle competition and hurt app developers. My colleagues Jack Nicas and Erin Griffith wrote about what this court case means for the world of apps and iPhone users. (Jack also told DealBook what he would like to hear from witnesses.)

  • The clubhouse town square or an authoritarian weapon? Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi explore how Clubhouse, the audio-only conference app, is becoming one of the few places for people in oppressive countries in the Middle East to freely connect and discuss taboo topics. My colleagues also ask: Will clubhouse – like Facebook and Twitter – evolve from an instrument of freedom of expression to another way for many governments in the region to control their citizens?

  • The need for quarantine is the mother of invention: Bloomberg News wrote about several websites sprung up during the Singapore pandemic to rent items like exercise bikes, portable washing machines, and electronic pianos to travelers who are required to isolate themselves for two weeks at hotels or other government-selected facilities.

The washing machine and dryer can be musical instruments? Yes, you can. (Turn on the sound for the full experience of this Rick Astley tune, heard with beeps from washing machines and slamming doors.)

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