For Google, the office is key to worker success

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail



Want to really boost innovation? Ditch telecommuting and create office spaces that spur serendipitous encounters.

That’s what David Radcliffe, the Canadian-born executive tasked with scouring the planet for Google Inc. offices, advises. His job is to find urban spaces that can be turned into hip headquarters and design them to spark creativity, play and collaboration.

“We call it Googliness – how do we create an environment that supports culture, transparency and collaboration?” he says in an interview. “How do we create facilities that allow people to excel?”

The world’s largest search engine employs 31,000 people in more than 40 countries, a 13-fold increase in staff in the past eight years. Its brand has become synonymous with innovation (Fast Company, for example, puts it in third place in its global innovation rankings).

The stakes go far beyond a pretty workplace. In an industry locked in battle for creative, highly skilled workers, the ability to attract and retain staff is a key competitive edge. So too is innovation – enabling the spark of a great idea, and bringing it successfully it to market.

But that spark doesn’t happen accidentally. Workplaces are designed to trigger casual conversation. Ideas cross-pollinate. Furniture is arranged so people overhear each other.

Mr. Radcliffe, vice-president of real estate and workplace services, has logged almost two million air miles crisscrossing the planet to scout and set up new Google offices aims to blend Google with local culture.

No two Google offices are the same. But there are common elements: murals reflecting the local culture; shared spaces – cubes, yurts, eggs and “huddles”; video games, pool tables and pianos; cafes and little kitchens stocked with healthy food; and whiteboards.

Mr. Radcliffe predicts a revolution in workplace design as companies link collaboration with success. That means more common spaces, as well as the ability to retreat for solitary pursuits.

Here are five factors he considers on workplace design and innovation:

1. Coming in to work

We may have the technology to let people work in their pyjamas from home. That doesn’t mean it should be used. Staff are equipped with laptops and smart phones so they can be mobile, but they’re still encouraged to show up at the office for work. “We want to create an environment where it feels like they’re missing out if they’re not there.”

2. Accidental encounters

At least half of space is dedicated to “collaborative environments” – casual meeting places with a couch or a kitchen so workers bump into each other and chat. White boards and plugs for laptops are sprinkled through the office for spontaneous brainstorming. Even lineups for the famously free food are engineered so people wait for two to three minutes, “long enough to have a quick conversation, but not long enough to feel inefficient.”

3. Health

Healthy, eco-friendly buildings are a point of pride. Good health helps drive productivity and innovation, so furniture is formaldehyde-free and building materials are free from toxins. It plans space to allow a maximum of natural light. It also realizes balance works better when the work stays local. “As much as we like to think someone in Toronto can work with someone in India, that usually means someone’s staying up late. And that’s not good for work-life balance.”

4. Blend local with Google

Sydney, Australia’s office looks like a jungle. Zurich’s is bright (to counter the frequent rain outside). Montreal’s has a music recording studio and Boulder, Colo., has a rock-climbing wall. Starting a new office means local staff get involved from beginning (for example, in advising where cool locations are) and using different architects. Each office “really starts with a clean sheet of paper.”

5. Go urban

“We love urban cores.” That means choosing pre-existing buildings “that have character to them” and retooling to make them Googley. They are typically in neighborhoods with strong amenities, like restaurants, nightclubs, public transit and housing. And they should be in spots where staff can walk, bike or use public transportation to get to work.