How often do you show up for a meeting in unfamiliar territory and are suddenly slammed with an extreme case of office envy? Do you find yourself sensing that you’re in for a bit of a treat the second you glide into a lobby or is it more a case of emerging from a lift and finding yourself transported into a heavenly environment? Can you remember the last time you experienced that odd mix of elation and jealousy after drifting through a beautifully designed, serene environment?
I have a couple of offices on my circuit that I always enjoy visiting and never fail to walk away thinking next time I need to install this type of door, fit those type of floors, design my reception like that and make sure I get my receptionists to comb their hair and apply their make-up (boys excluded) just so. In Stockholm there’s always been something about the slightly sharp smell of the wood floors, the handsome yet practical furniture that’s made it a joy to visit the offices of Thomas Eriksson. In Copenhagen you can’t find a tighter ship than Maersk’s global headquarters, with its subtle nautical touches, razor-sharp branding and perfectly appointed furnishings. In Tokyo I could happily move into the mansion-cum-office of WonderWall architects. And in Milan the HQ of Diego della Valle is always a pleasant environment to enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry or two. In all of these environments there’s comfort, attention to detail, fine materials, design for purpose and a calm sense of commerce.
As most corners of civilised society have been working from some form of orderly office set-up for many centuries now, I’m somewhat perplexed how some of the world’s biggest, even smartest, companies can get it so wrong. More worrying is the frightful trend of turning corporate offices into play schools for adults.
On Wednesday a press release fluttered off my colleague Hugo’s desk and landed at my feet. I stared at the images without reading the headline and tried to figure out what I was looking at. Was it a hotel? A nightclub? Tarted-up jumble sale for vintage furniture? The set of a US cable TV series about the early days of the porn industry?
“What on earth is this?” I asked.
“Oh that. I thought you’d like it,” replied Hugo with some delight. “It’s the new headquarters for YouTube in London.”
“Why oh why do all of these companies have to create working environments that look like romper rooms?” I asked.
“I know. It’s all absolutely dreadful,” said Hugo.
“I’m feeling a column on this very theme is about to be rattled out on my keyboard,” I said, making my way to my desk.
Anyone who’s spent a little bit of time in and around San Francisco, funkier corners of Berlin and Munich, warehouse spaces on New York’s lower West Side and any other environment that might use the words “tech” or “digi” to define what part of the light-industrial food group it falls into will know exactly the type of environment I’m talking about. For a sector that likes to fancy itself as creative it’s remarkable how many fall for the same design clichés to show how “down” they are with the market and why they’re the right choice for grads looking for just the perfect home to amass a load of share options for a potential IPO. Without fail there’ll be skate ramps in reception, “kray-zee” furniture for otherwise dignified people to fall off of while they wait to be collected by interns carrying massive Thermoses of luke-warm coffee and there’s a very good chance that there’ll be lurid green AstroTurf underfoot.
Once beyond reception there’ll be basketball hoops and maybe jogging lanes and tennis boundaries painted on the floor, along one wall will be a bunch of plush animal heads mounted trophy-style, there’ll be lots of eating stations where people will be filling up their 500 litre Thermoses with various free beverages and as you weave your way past half-finished walls made out of particleboard you’ll pass lots of young men who’ll never glance at you but will knuckle bump their colleagues and shout “yo man,” when they pass along the kooky zig-zag corridor. Somewhere just beyond the bathrooms that have been spray-painted by a local graffiti artist you’ll come to a screeching halt and ask yourself five rapid-fire questions:
- When is this infantilisation of the workplace going to come to an end?
- Who is responsible for it and can they be prosecuted?
- Do shareholders really endorse all of these extra-curricular add-ons when staff should be working rather than “brain-jamming” while throwing around a spongy football?
- Do all of these fun diversions really keep people in the office longer and put in more productive days?
- Does all of this nonsense mask the fact that working with algorithms and developing apps is hugely boring and unrewarding and therefore requires airlock-style soundproof rooms so staff can sneak away in search of more meaningful employment?
Perhaps like me you’ll come to the conclusion that these sophomoric playgrounds are not the indulgent “grand projects” of benevolent tech billionaires but little more than upmarket versions of Foxconn manufacturing compounds. Who needs guard houses and razor wire when all you need is round-the-clock free soda and crisps?