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Lab office series, episode 2: The Google Effect

June 22, 2017 | Natalie Frei | Change Stories, Learning Elsewhere |

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quadraticLab offices and coworking spaces are popping up like mushrooms. After the last episode, in which SDC’s Knowledge-Learning-Culture division visited different labs in the international cooperation field, this episode tries to get behind the global lab hype with a focus on philosophy and interior design. As you might have guessed, Google is at the forefront of this trend.

By Natalie Frei, SDC

When Google presented the new interior design of its Silicon Valley headquarters in 2005, it made headlines: large open spaces, toy-like furniture, slides and a plethora of colors. It wasn’t immediately recognizable as an office but as a collection of cafes, bars, gyms and playrooms. In short, the Google effect is the rebuilding of workspaces to incorporate open spaces and areas of leisure. The inspiration behind this expansion of workplace design is not merely to keep employees working longer but to raise productivity through a fusion of work and recreation. Soon, organizations started to climb on the bandwagon and a global trend towards open space, colorful and informal offices emerged. Pixar, Lego, Swisscom, you name it.

Phone booths inside Google's Zurich office. Photo: Peter Wurmli

Phone booths inside Google’s Zurich office. Photo: Peter Wurmli


Interior design against bureaucracy

 

“Everything centers on removing psychological barriers to interacting”
Craig nevill-Manning

Google’s unique overhaul on traditional office spaces challenges the grim notion that an office has no option for both work and play. “Everything centers on removing psychological barriers to interacting”, says Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s engineering director in Manhattan, “Google’s success depends on innovation and there is no innovation without collaboration and creativity, so a traditional office made little sense. We went for as much informality as possible.” Flat hierarchy and the removal of physical barriers are meant to break down silos. This is the reason why Parick van Weerelt (Head of the Center for Sustainable Development by UNSSC) wanted to get inspired by Google for his offices in Bonn. Even though the UN interfered, you can still see some similarities with Google.

UNSSC's offices offer open spaces, gathering areas and meeting rooms with mobile furtniture.

UNSSC’s offices offer open spaces, gathering areas and meeting rooms with mobile furtniture.

Transparency vs. privacy

There is also a downside to open spaced offices. Some employees feel encroached by open and transparent offices – there is little privacy and the feeling of being observed can actually inhibit creativity. “People like their own turf”, says Jovan Kurbalija, founding director of Diplo Foundation, “Silos are human and most people are creatures of habit.” In fact, there has been a 2013 study that showed that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. More than half of the study’s participants complained about the lack of sound privacy and one third felt uneasy with the constant personal visibility.


Show the creativity you want to see

Lego offices in Denmark. Photos: Anders Sune Berg

Lego offices in Denmark. Photos: Anders Sune Berg

With possible disadvantages of open offices in mind, the most important aspcect when desgining a new office seems to be individualism. You can’t just copy someone else’s interior design, it has to fit the needs of your employees and can’t obstruct their daily work. For instance, the Palais de Nations in Geneva is about the worst place for an SDGlab meeting, whereas it’s perfect for highly formal receptions. Some features like colors or light might be universal – gray for instance causes feelings of depression and sadness in many employees – but everything else should be customized for your specific team. For example, the Lego offices in Danmark have giant grass decorations on the walls to simulate a Lego figure viewpoint and UNSSC decorated their offices with the SDGs, which are both colorful and inspirational.

 

Dare to dream – inspirational pictures

Google Zurich. Photos: CamenzindEvolution

Google Zurich. Photos: CamenzindEvolution

 

Google Tel Aviv. Photos: iDesignArch

Google Tel Aviv. Photos: iDesignArch

 

Impact Hub Bern. Photos: Impact Hub

Impact Hub Bern. Photos: Impact Hub

 

Swisscom and EPFL's joint Digital Lab in Lausanne. Photos: Swisscom

Swisscom and EPFL’s joint Digital Lab in Lausanne. Photos: Swisscom

 

Google Dublin. Photos: Home Designing

Google Dublin. Photos: Home Designing

Story TBC. Look for the next episode in one week…


Links & related stories

 

 

 

Comments to“Lab office series, episode 2: The Google Effect”


  1. Thanks for this blogpost Nathalie! it’s very illustrative and provides interesting points of view to reflect on this type of working spaces.
    A few days ago I came across a WEF article about staff’s satisfaction/happiness (from UK), and the “happiest place to work” profile showed that employes were actually happy because of the office culture and career opportunities, and they rarely mentioned the physical spaces as a factor on their happiness/satisfaction. I haven’t read the full source from Business Insider, but I guess this would feed into the debate of how much the physical spaces shape our creativity and work performance, sometimes without even noticing.
    Here the source https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/cool-offices-dont-always-make-for-happier-workplaces-this-is-why

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  2. Natalie Frei says:

    Dear Cesar,

    Thank you for your comment and sharing this article, it’s very interesting! I totally agree, nice offices alone can’t make for a great organizational culture, they’re just supportive. We just conducted a survey about SDC’s organizational culture and as far as I know, our extremely gray furniture wasn’t criticized 😉

    I might do a second season to the lab series later this year, when our own “lab” is installed. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk more about office culture then.

    Thanks and cheers,
    Natalie

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