Architect behind Googleplex now says it’s ‘unsafe’ to work in such a swanky office: NPR

Los Angeles-based architect Clive Wilkinson inside his self-designed home in Los Angeles, California. on January 13, 2022.

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Los Angeles-based architect Clive Wilkinson inside his self-designed home in Los Angeles, California. on January 13, 2022.

Jessica Pons for NPR

For more than three decades, Clive Wilkinson has been among the world’s most sought-after office designers. It has provided spaces for Microsoft, Disney, Intuit, and other companies seeking unorthodox approaches to working life.

But he now has regrets about what is perhaps his most famous job: Googleplex, the tech giant’s posh headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Wilkinson helped lay out Google’s campus after winning its design competition in 2004, which led him to work directly with Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

“Larry and Sergey said at the time, ‘We don’t really have a benchmark, but the Stanford campus model,'” Wilkinson said.

In Mountain View, what emerged was a maze of well-lit nooks, bleachers and club rooms to encourage collaboration. The office would also become famous for its amenities: gourmet meals. Fitness classes. Organic gardens. Massage rooms. Laundry services. Private parks. Volleyball courts. Swimming pools. etc

Cyclists and visitors converge on the Google campus.

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Cyclists and visitors converge on the Google campus.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

But looking back, Wilkinson thinks Google’s luxurious on-site perks have made workers overly dependent on the company, a situation he calls “dangerous.”

“This idea that you can provide anything that would support a worker’s life on campus might seem extremely generous and supportive,” he said. “But it also has a whole range of potentially negative impacts.”

Wilkinson spoke in an interview in his glass-enclosed hillside home in West Los Angeles, which some have likened to a “spaceship on stilts.” His comments on the Google campus came during a lengthy conversation with NPR about how the pandemic could forever reshape office life and what that could mean for workers.

While Silicon Valley has long been known for offering unusual amenities to its employees, Google’s offerings set the bar very high. Other tech giants have started rolling out their own free lunches, nature trails and private transportation services in a bid to attract and retain talent. But Wilkinson said that with companies considering bringing workers back to the office, such arrangements should be reconsidered.

He said blurring the line between work and non-work keeps employees tethered to the office, which primarily benefits the employer. This, he argues, may seem to keep workers happy, but can quickly trigger burnout.

“Work-life balance can’t be achieved by spending your whole life on a work campus. It’s not real. It’s not really engaging with the world like most people do. “, did he declare. “It also drains the immediate neighborhoods of being able to have a commercial reality.”

Employees have no reason to leave campus to explore local cafes, restaurants or grocery stores because everything is handed over to them. For Wilkinson, pampering workers too much like this is “fundamentally unhealthy”.

This, he said, “has not been recognized as one of the dangerous side effects.”

If an employer is trying to foster creativity, “you don’t want a workplace that’s too comfortable. You shouldn’t have sleep pods everywhere,” he said. “Creative work is not done in a state of luxury. If you have that much luxury, you naturally want to fall asleep.”

At the same time, it’s “hard to separate,” he said. “Because once you’ve made all these offers to your employees, how do you get out of this situation?”

Authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen spoke to Wilkinson about her new perspective on Googleplex in their new book Out of the office: the big problem and biggest promise of working from home.

“There is a way that something that was built with good intentions can be slightly corrupted,” Warzel told NPR. “It’s not a terrible thing for employees to get good benefits, but what’s the point? Making you a better worker? Or making sure your needs are met? Or keeping you stuck in this liminal state of work for as long as possible.”

That said, many of Google’s roughly 144,000 employees appear to be comfortable with the on-site luxuries their employer affords them. Surveys consistently place Google at the top of the list for employee happiness and satisfaction when it comes to employee pay. When the pandemic forced the Googlers off campus, it appears to have shaken worker morale, and the company is responding with new cash bonuses.

Google, which did not respond to a request for comment, is planning a new multibillion-dollar campus in San Jose and another massive site in Mountain View.

The office is not dead, argues Wilkinson

When COVID hit, some 2.5 million square feet of office space that Wilkinson’s company was working on was canceled or delayed. But he becomes defiant when asked if the pandemic has killed the office.

“It’s ridiculous to say the office is dead,” Wilkinson said, “The office is the breeding ground for people to become successful adults. How could that be dead?”

Los Angeles-based architect Clive Wilkinson inside his self-designed home in Los Angeles, California. on January 13, 2022.

Jessica Pons for NPR


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Jessica Pons for NPR

Studies suggest remote work will survive the pandemic. But most companies surveyed in a new US Chamber of Commerce survey said they also plan to maintain their office space. Wilkinson’s corporate clients are coming back now. He says most of them are not ready to give up the office. They are, however, eager for a facelift, which makes sense in a hybrid work environment.

To some extent, he said, companies are dealing with it.

“People don’t know how much space they need anymore, so I think a lot of big companies are waiting to see what other people are doing,” Wilkinson said.

No one wants a desperately empty desk, which he calls “one of the biggest problems of the new workplace.”

He adds: “When you walk in there, especially because of hybrid working, is the place going to feel like it’s underpowered and running on empty?”

And so he suspects, fortunately, that the pandemic has wiped out one particular kind of office: the cubicle farm.

“Cabins are like raising human chickens. They’ve always been bad for something other than the office factory farming approach,” he said. “Put people in a very small footprint because it takes less money than a closed office and we can kind of keep tabs on them.”

Forget the old office, make way for the “boutique hotel” atmosphere

If crammed desks are out and Wilkinson warns of fancy Google-esque conveniences, what does the post-pandemic workplace look like?

Wilkinson envisions large, open spaces with sofas and comfy nooks as workstations that aren’t assigned to any employee. An environment where it is easy to hang out and chat.

“You might think you’re walking into the lounge of a boutique hotel,” Wilkinson said. “It’s an incredibly efficient work environment, even though there’s no conventional office furniture or anything like that.”

He’s noticed something else in the pandemic-era office plans he’s currently working on: Companies are investing in outdoor spaces. Go ahead, answer your emails in the shade.

“Because now it’s considered healthy,” he said. “Health itself has suddenly become one of the main criteria for where you work.”

He said the future office will be a balancing act. It needs to be more appealing than working from home, but not so appealing that workers don’t want to go home.

But even the most seasoned enterprise architect can’t predict the answer to the central question: how many workers really want to go back to the office, and how often do they want to be there?

“We are currently having very interesting conversations with many clients on the subject: “Should the office consist of several project rooms? Should it be a huge cafeteria? “, did he declare. “We are now building many Zoom rooms, which we have never done before.”

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