Close your eyes and imagine the face of your most irritating colleague. Now imagine that face moving towards you at speed, first thing in the morning, as said colleague cycles right up to their desk on the bicycle ramp which connects the “looped three-dimensional promenade” of your futuristic office. That should give you some idea of working life in Google’s new £1bn UK HQ, due to open in King’s Cross in 2016. Other design features include a climbing wall, a meeting room designed to resemble a lunatic asylum’s padded cell, and a rooftop swimming pool.
Tech companies like Google have led the charge towards non-traditional working spaces, and now lawyers, accountants and telesales execs are also wearily familiar with breakout spaces, hot desks and other innovations intended to encourage what Google calls “serendipitous interaction”. This week however, the grumbles of some ex-Google employees on the question-and-answer site Quora have brought the whole office-as-adventure-playground ethos into question.
In a thread titled “What’s the worst part about working at Google?” one commenter complained about the difficulty of, “y’know, actually getting any work done: With all the open areas for food, games, TV, tech talks, etc, it can be surprisingly hard to find a quiet, private place to think.” Another described how an employee disagreement about the napping room played out over 100-plus emails: “Some people allegedly were being kept from sleeping because the massage chairs were too noisy.” There were also many less Google-specific gripes to do with office politics and employee mobility which, as it turns out, no amount of free M&Ms can resolve.
It shouldn’t be this hard to meet the needs of workers. Some natural light, edible canteen food and desk furniture which doesn’t cause the immediate onset of arthritis are all essential; a staff bowling alley is not. Yet somewhere on the architectural continuum from “Victorian workhouse” to “Playboy Mansion” a pleasant, yet functional office has been overlooked.
What Google’s employees have discovered – and not a moment too soon – is that the “fun office” is an unavoidable contradiction in terms. Not only is it unlikely that your bosses’ concept of fun will tally with your own, but even when it does, there’s still a problem. It’s the same problem with work drinks, the work trip and work’s summer sports day – they all still have the word “work” in them.
Work and leisure are defined in opposition to each other. Work is necessary to earn your leisure time. Leisure time is necessary to fuel your work. Allow one to bleed too much into the other and the quality of both is compromised. Then, before you know it, you’re no longer an innovative firm on the cutting edge of creative thinking; you’re just three berks in an unheated warehouse arguing over whose turn it is on the space hopper.