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Google’s campus is trying the hardest, but can perks compete with WFH?

Google’s latest Bay View campus is a massive steel circus-tent-like structure; it’s young, fun and whimsical but debuts at a time when many workers don’t want to go to back.

Google hopes to entice workers back with its massive, solar-powered office park, filled with open plazas and quiet team spaces. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Google’s new Bay View campus in Mountain View, Calif., might best be described as a mash-up of a steel-clad circus tent, a big international airport, and an indoor shopping or entertainment center. The office is complete with droves of natural sunlight, two-story art installments and colorful street signs that adorn each corridor.

But are all the bells and whistles enough to get Google workers excited about working at the office again?

In April, Google mandated that tens of thousands of its workers return to the office on a hybrid schedule, which for many workers means three days a week in the office. Some workers have pushed back, demanding that they be able to continue working from home. The company, which historically has been a leader in creating lively offices for workers, has done everything from hosting a Lizzo concert to offering more free food and company swag to entice workers to return. Though its new campus, which opened in May for about 4,000 advertising employees, has an array of perks, workers question whether it makes sense to invest in an office at a time when many of them want to work remotely.

On a normal Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of workers strolled through the campus, grabbing coffee, hosting hybrid meetings, and convening in central meeting spots. But some workers say they proved that during the coronavirus pandemic they could be productive from home — helping Google’s profits soar — and should be allowed more flexibility now, especially as the pandemic and its health risks persist. Workers also want protections and flexibility to extend to contractors, vendors and temporary workers.

“Workers want more than just fancy new buildings,” said Andrew Gainer-Dewar, a member of the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA and a Google software engineer. “We want to be involved in shaping what return-to-office and work-from-home policies look like so that the needs of every worker are met.”

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The Bay View campus was under development years before the outbreak of the pandemic. Google says the pandemic didn’t influence any of its decisions for the new office, rather it reaffirmed the need to re-conceptualize the workplace. As a result, the company believes it has developed the office that can flex to the evolving needs of its workers.

“We thought … ‘How do we make a campus that will be functional and vibrant for more than 100 years?’ ” said Michelle Kaufmann, director of Google’s real estate research and development team, in an interview with The Washington Post. “We knew that flexibility was going to be important.”

Below are the most interesting features at Google’s new Bay View campus.

What your future office could look like — if you even need to be there

Themed courtyards for socialization

The lower level of Google's Bay View campus includes open plazas with exercise bikes, cafes and casual places to meet co-workers. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Bay View office has about 25 themed courtyards, which aim to serve as central meeting points for various parts of the sprawling campus. Each courtyard is uniquely themed and complemented by art installments from local artists.

For example, one courtyard called “Tea Time” looks like it comes out of a page of “Alice and Wonderland.” Oversized faux flowers bloom from the floor and a giant life-size chess board serves as a central feature. In the “Mariposa District” courtyard, hundreds of cutout butterflies hang from and around the staircase connecting the top and bottom floors. And the courtyard in the “Dinosaur District” showcases a massive dinosaur skeleton adorned in colorful beadwork, similar to Mexican sugar skulls, as the centerpiece and traditional paper banners called papel picado hang near the staircase.

Google says the different themes aim to celebrate elements of the local community.

A dedicated floor for focus work

Google's new Bay View campus features an upper level it says is dedicated to quiet, focused work. (Video: Google)

Two floors serve very different purposes at Google’s Bay View campus. The bottom floor is for socialization, collaboration, dining and activities, whereas the top floor offers dedicated desk space and small huddle rooms for more intimate team meetings.

“There’s always the debates that open offices can be great for creative sparks and casual collisions but can be hard to focus with the distractions,” Kaufmann said. “Instead of just going back-and-forth on that debate, we tried to design a third thing, a new thing.”

But on a typical Wednesday, while the bottom floor was buzzing with workers lining up for their coffees, burgers, and chatting in open areas, the top floor was relatively empty with a few workers. A few boxes and nameplates suggest workers are still moving into the space. Still, less than a handful of workers were taking advantage of the quiet space that’s sprawled across a top floor, which slopes upward toward the center of the building, creating various levels.

The working space is built to flex, and Google says every module has movable walls, huddle rooms and furniture that can be arranged in a matter of days. The idea is that as teams grow or experience changing needs, the office can meet the demand, Kaufmann said.

Collaborative meeting rooms

Google’s meeting rooms are set up to cater to all participants — whether they’re in person or participating via video chat from a remote location.

Inside the meeting rooms, Googlers can arrange movable tables to form a big conference-style table or individual desks. They can choose to host their meeting sitting or adjust the desks to become standing tables. They can attach tablet tabletops to upholstered chairs to hold their laptops or notepads. Some meeting rooms are equipped with multiple screens so employees can see the faces of other meeting attendees, content that might be a part of a presentation, as well as a collaborative digital whiteboard.

Hybrid work for many is messy and exhausting

Sustainability features

The circus tent-like roof of Google's Bay View office building is covered with 'dragon scales', custom-designed solar panels that help power the campus. (Video: The Washington Post)

A big priority for Google’s campus was sustainability, Kaufmann said.

“How can we use our buildings to help reach our carbon goal of, by 2030, being carbon neutral?” she said. “We have a bunch of things that we're doing in this project to help guide us toward that.”

That includes a roof equipped with steel shingles that are actually solar panels. They apparently produce 40 percent of the energy for the building. The tent-like shape of the building is also structured so that the solar panels can collect energy at all hours of the day so that all workspaces receive natural light. Below the building is a geothermal heating and cooling system that Google says works to regulate the temperature using 90 percent less water. The campus has an on-site blackwater treatment center to recycle water so that it can be used for irrigation and the building’s toilets.

It also has smart window shades that automatically open and close based on the time of day, and the office’s ventilation system uses 100 percent outside air.

Quirks and perks

Characteristic of Google, the new campus features some quirky and convenient perks for its workers.

For example, in Google’s “Pedal Park” courtyard, employees can hop on a colorful Google stationary bike, connect their smartphone to it and recharge their phone with the energy they create from pedaling. The campus also has no shortage of food and coffee options sprinkled throughout its bottom floor. It also has multiple top-floor decks, where employees can work, and cushioned patio space in the courtyard on the bottom floor. And, of course, it has a laundry room in case workers need to freshen their threads on-site, a wellness center, and a gym with an outdoor workout area that overlooks nearby ponds.

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