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Google offices redefine workplace

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DETROIT -- What should your office look like? If you answered "a desk, a chair and a phone," you are either (A) older than 30, (B) not a Google employee, or (C) both.

Google offices redefine the workplace. I first saw them a few years ago in Palo Alto, Calif. I was blown away. There were beanbag chairs and food stations and salad bars and facilities where you could do your laundry (or where someone did it for you). There were couches strewn everywhere and just as many places to plop as to type. The whole environment looked like a college cafeteria/student centre/library, blown together in a colour-co-ordinated hurricane.

Now comes an East Coast version that's even more recreationally opulent. The Google offices in New York City take up an entire city block and would make a Detroit auto-plant worker scream, "Is anything getting done around here?"

Check out the videos on the web, or a recent New York Times piece, which illustrate, in great detail, some of the great detail.

For example... perks way beyond free coffee.

There are coffee bars, micro-kitchens, high-backed love seats and mock New York City street scenes. There are places to get massages, do workouts or enjoy free yoga classes. There is free breakfast, free lunch, free dinner, served in all kinds of nooks, including some outdoor terraces. Candy, snacks, health food and fruit are all plentiful and always stocked. A library has bookcases that spin to reveal secret reading rooms. Certain floors are connected by ladders. Many employees get to design their own desks, including some where the person stands up the whole time. Workers roll around on scooters. And you can bring your dog to work.

A Google spokesman told the New York Times the idea behind this incredible design was "to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world."

The question is: Have they done it?

Or have they done something else?

When I was in Palo Alto, I asked some of the workers what Google hoped to achieve with such an environment. Some said it was just a great company, and perhaps it is.

But one answer stayed with me: "They don't want you to go home."

Think about it. If your laundry is done for you, if your food is taken care of, if you can work out and get a massage and take a shower and take a nap and see your workmates and be endlessly online and never have to worry about the water or electrical or cable or heating charges, why would you want to go home?

And I believe that is part of what places such as Google are about. Tech firms, in particular, thrive on ideas. They want those ideas hatching under their roof. What good does it do if you come up with a cool concept at home and maybe tell it to a non-Google friend, who encourages you to strike out on your own?

By feeding -- sometimes literally -- all the needs of their workers, employers may view those workers as citizens of their colony. And while that may lead to some great high-tech innovations, it may not be the healthiest development for things such as neighbourhoods, local businesses, social groups or children.

Work is still work. As someone who has been able to blur his spaces for years (I write on the couch; I write at the airport; I write in the basement; I write at the restaurant), I can attest that the hardest part of being able to play and work in the same space is the ability to shut off the latter for the former.

The painted cabs on the Google walls are still not real cabs; the food and tables are not real restaurants, and if all your social interaction is with fellow employees, you're not diversifying your world.

Also, what if the dog isn't housebroken?

Don't get me wrong. I am no fan of the cubicle. But I wonder how our grandparents ever got things done -- working in factories, inches apart, not an omelette station in sight -- and still managed to be kind, family people, as well.

One Google employee told the Times, "I live in a studio apartment, and I don't have free food" -- so she wound up coming into work on her off day.

Which, if you're being cynical, is exactly how employers want it. Careful what you trade in for the cool, new office. It could be your personal life.

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

-- McClatchy Tribune Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 J11

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