Google’s Back to Office Plans

Google's Back to Office Plans


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

As Google starts to bring employees back to offices in some regions, it plans to experiment with ways to give them more elbow room and blend elements of virtual work with in-person collaboration. The goal, as my colleague Dai Wakabayashi described in an article on Google’s vision of the new office, is to reimagine a happier and more productive workplace.

Dai spoke to me about what Google learned from the last year of employees working mostly away from offices, and whether a company with limitless resources will be a model of the future workplace.

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

Dai: Google was surprised at how productive its work force was. Some employees liked working away from the office, or liked aspects of it, and weren’t willing to go back to an office full time. One downside that Google executives talked about was missing some creativity and collaboration, and a difficulty in establishing workplace culture and trust, when people weren’t together in person.

But even before the pandemic, Google had started to believe that its current office work environment was broken.

Broken in what way?

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

Some employees said that they had trouble focusing in the office because there were too many people and distractions. And some of Google’s office complexes were so sprawling that it took people a long time to travel from one building to another. Office work didn’t work for a lot of people.

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What is Google trying to do differently now?

First, it wants to provide more safety or the feeling of safety by staggering how frequently people come to the office and eventually “de-densifying” its offices. That’s to reduce the potential spread of Covid-19 now, and Google is thinking ahead to annual flu seasons and potential future pandemics. Google’s head of real estate said that ensuring six feet of distance in the office meant it could use only one out of every three desks from the current configurations.

Google also realizes that it can’t demand that people come into the office five days a week anymore. And it wants to be more flexible to people’s changing needs. One example is work spaces that can be configured to the needs of a particular team or project. It’s also experimenting with personal heating and cooling systems at desks and camp-themed outdoor meeting spaces. Google is calling these changes a pilot that will apply to 10 percent of its global work space.

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

This is probably going to cost Google billions of dollars, and most companies cannot afford that. But Google has been a trendsetter for a long time in employment practices and office design. Tech companies like Google helped spread the concept of wide-open office spaces with high ceilings and desks crammed close together. If these new ideas about an office environment with the best of remote work and in-person wind up successful, elements of what Google is doing may filter down to other kinds of companies, too.

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

Some Google workers want to go back to an office full time, and others want to work remotely forever. How is Google going to cater to the individual desires of tens of thousands of people? If Google mandates that people must work from an office two days a week or so, will it fire people who refuse? Google knows that its workers are in high demand.

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And there are so many unknowns about whether a mix of remote and office work will be the best of both, or the worst of each. This is all a big deal for Google and for its employees. There is nothing more personal than freedom and autonomy around your work.

Tip of the Week

If you’re planning to restart your commute to the office soon, you might be surprised to see technologies newly in use for buses, subways and other shared transportation. Brian X. Chen, The New York Times’s consumer technology columnist, runs down some of the options to digitally pay for transit:

With workers gradually returning to offices, many are preparing to commute. Something to be aware of is that your options to pay for public transportation may have changed over the past year to include touch-free options, like paying with the tap of a smartphone rather than inserting a ticket or a card. That’s a boon in a pandemic-induced era of germophobia.

For iPhone owners, Apple Pay is now accepted by many transit operators in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. For Android owners, Google Pay is also accepted by dozens of transit agencies.

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

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  • A big lawsuit with big stakes: In a trial that starts on Monday, the maker of the Fortnite video game is claiming that Apple uses 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’s eager to hear from witnesses.)

  • The Clubhouse town square, or a weapon of authoritarians? Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi explore the ways that Clubhouse, the audio-only conference app, is becoming one of the few places for people in repressive countries across the Middle East to freely connect and discuss taboo issues. My colleagues also ask: Will Clubhouse — like Facebook and Twitter — morph from a tool of free expression to another way for many governments in the region to control their citizens?

  • Quarantine necessity is the mother of invention: Bloomberg News wrote about several websites that have sprung up in Singapore during the pandemic to rent stuff like exercise bikes, portable washing machines and electronic pianos to travelers who are required to isolate in hotels or other government-chosen facilities for two weeks.

The washer and dryer can be musical instruments? Yes, they can. (Turn the sound on for the full experience of this Rick Astley tune, belted out in laundry machine beeps and slamming doors.)

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