All of these extras exist for a simple reason: an employee with access to such things is much more likely to spend more time at their job and feel more integrated into the company. But more importantly, they have more or less become a standard within Silicon Valley tech companies and, by extension, all tech companies.
One of the first purchases a start-up will make when it gets its first office will invariably be a table tennis table or some other accessory in the same vein. As it grows, it will be forced to bet on these types of additional benefits to attract and retain talent. It’s what is expected of it, and those things are as necessary as a coffee machine, even if they are hardly used later or the table tennis table ends up acting as a makeshift meeting desk.
Has this changed due to the pandemic? For a year, the brand-new campuses of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon or Microsoft and their admired facilities have been completely empty. Now that a gradual return to face-to-face work is being considered, all those attractions designed to be enjoyed together seem less important, even somewhat frivolous. Something is beginning to change, and the case of Google is the paradigmatic example of the new trend. The days could be numbered for the traditional open plan of its offices, with common tables in open spaces that forced practically all its employees, the googlers, to use headphones, who will begin to return to their face-to-face workstations at the end of this summer -the September 1, in theory–, but with different conditions from those of pre-pandemic times. To get started, the company expects that 20% of its employees will now telecommute indefinitely, although it has announced that it will study case by case.
Those who do not stay at home will have a mixed schedule: they will go to the office three days a week and will work from home the other two. The idea is that these three days concentrate the face-to-face meetings that are needed and that the rest of the objectives be met remotely. In any case, for Google, face-to-face continues to be important and very useful. As its CEO Sundar Pichai puts it, “For more than twenty years, our employees have been coming to the office to solve problems: in a cafeteria, around a blackboard, during a beach volleyball game …”. Often times, these informal contacts are conducive to creativity.
As a result, the look of the company’s workplaces is transforming, starting with its Mountain View, California, headquarters. Google has installed modular mobile barriers to separate workgroups, and In the common areas there are isolated spaces, so that the teams work together when necessary, but without crowds that facilitate contagion. In addition, the designers of the new offices have created rooms and spaces designed for group videoconferences, something essential now that many of the workers carry out their tasks from home.
Microsoft is doing something similar at its huge headquarters in the city of Redmond, located 1,350 kilometers north of Google’s, although the COVID-19 pandemic came just as the company was expanding its headquarters – work began in early 2019 – and has delayed plans. It is a significant change, because Microsoft has always had a more classical organization than usual among the younger big tech companies. Its great growth phase took place in the eighties and nineties, and in the configuration of its offices it was committed to a more traditional architecture, with cubicles and individual offices. Something similar happened with Manzana and its historic One Infinite Loop campus in the Californian city of Cupertino, but the new Apple Park (located in the same town) follows a completely opposite philosophy.
In recent years, Microsoft had been transforming its offices to resemble those of Google or Apple, with open plans and common spaces where workers can interact, but the new design of its campus has undergone tweaks due to the pandemic: now it is committed to shared and multifunctional areas, but much smaller and more modular than before. They will be destined to small teams with flexible hours, an aspect on which the company itself insists, which claims to see this flexibility as “essential to maintain a balance between work and life.”
This type of change in the workplace may seem irrelevant, but it affects the economy as a whole, and more so if we talk about these colossal companies (Alphabet, the company whose main subsidiary is Google, has more than 130,000 employees worldwide ). According to a 2012 study by the University of California at Berkeley, For every software or engineering job in Silicon Valley, five related to all kinds of activities were created in the same area: surveillance, cleaning, restoration, teaching …
If these large global companies continue to be the mirror in which the rest are seen, we could be witnessing the end of open plan offices and large campuses designed for workers to spend as much time as possible in their positions, and this will have a price: if it is no longer necessary for a lot of people to pass through their venues, indirect jobs held by those most affected during this pandemic will be lost, already enduring difficult living conditions in communities designed for high-income engineers and executives.