As It Happens·Q&A

Googleplex designer says tech's massive work campuses are 'fundamentally unhealthy'

The man who designed Google's sprawling corporate headquarters says that style of massive work campus is bad for workers and communities.

Workspace amenities like laundry and restaurants can be 'dangerous' for work-life balance: Clive Wilkinson

People walk past Googleplex, Alphabet Inc.'s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

The man who designed Google's sprawling corporate headquarters says that style of massive work campus is bad for workers and communities.

Clive Wilkinson, of Clive Wilkinson Architects, helped design Googleplex, the headquarters for Google and its parent company Alphabet, in Mountain View, Calif. The 190,000-square metre facility is more of a campus than an office, featuring all the amenities a person needs, including laundry, recreational facilities and restaurants.

Since Wilkinson's original design was completed in 2005, the campus has expanded and become a model for workplaces across the tech sector. But in a recent interview with NPR, Wilkinson expressed misgivings about the work campus trend. He says it disrupts work-life balance and prevents communities from reaping the benefits of a growing population of tech workers. 

Google is is currently planning two new massive mixed-use campuses in California, both of which will include housing, retail and outdoor space. Still, it says it's redesigning its workplaces in light of the pandemic shift to remote work

"We've long believed that being together in our offices to collaborate and build community is core to our culture, which will remain just as important to Google's future as we move towards a hybrid work environment," Google Canada spokesperson Molly Morgan told As It Happens in an emailed statement.

"Our office environments are designed to improve productivity, collaboration and well-being, and we're continuously improving upon our workplace concepts based on employee feedback."

Here is part of Wilkinson's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Clive, you have recently called aspects of Googleplex "dangerous" and "fundamentally unhealthy." How so? 

The model that Google probably initiated and has been adopted by a lot of the very large tech companies of wraparound amenities for staff has been a mixed blessing, obviously. Because whereas many of the staff really appreciate that, there are a lot of knock-on effects that are not really good for necessarily the workers or the local communities.

Like, for example?

If you create a condition where your workers don't need to leave their workplace, that means that commerce in the immediate area, street commerce, is really fundamentally kind of constrained. A very large potential population of customers are not really available because they're being given everything within their campus.

This sort of strategy made more sense, of course, in Silicon Valley itself, where no one can really walk down the road to a coffee shop or anything like that because it's really a suburban campus.

But when you translate that model into inner-cities like San Francisco or New York City, it has a sort of a negative impact on the locations where the campuses are based.

This 2006 picture shows a Google employee getting a haircut at a salon on the Googleplex campus. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I've looked at a YouTube tour of Googleplex. I've not been there, but it is really quite extraordinary. What was your assignment there? 

This was 2004, and there were no models that were obvious for where the workplace was going. We were called in mainly because we had done some work with advertising agencies who were very keen on creating interesting, stimulating, inspiring, creative environments in their workplace. And I think they saw this as being a great benefit to staff.

The suite of amenities is something that evolved, and it certainly didn't come from us. I've never been a fan of, you know, basically taking away the sort of the normal interactions that people have with their cities and putting them all into a campus. I think that is fundamentally unhealthy. 

And truth be told, Google and most of these tech companies have recognized this in recent years. They certainly are doing things to try and mitigate that kind of effect.

This image shows some of Clive Wilkinson's design work for Googleplex. (Clive Wilkinson Architechts)

And what's in it for Google? Because obviously workers like to be able to do everything — to even take their laundry into work to do it — because you've got that there. You've got three meals a day, if you want it. You've got everything you want. You never have to leave this work campus. And so what does Google get out of it?

Google gets a lot out of it. Of course, they get [employees working] extra hours ... so that's a massive increase in productivity. And that more than pays for all of the cost of all those amenities. 

But what I think is really unhealthy is what this does to people. It's a little bit like, you know, you're back home with your mother where your mother's doing everything for you and … basically your life is overly supported. And I do believe that adults really need to engage in the world in a much more kind of unconstrained way and less dependent way.

Clive Wilkinson is the architect behind Google's sprawling corporate headquarters. (Jay Young/Clive Wilkinson Architects)

Because of COVID, we have rethought work, haven't we? We've tried to figure out the work-life balance…. How would you do this today if you're asked to create something? How would you do it differently?

People have made it extremely clear that working from home is a massive preference for so many people. And I think the hybrid workplace is something that everyone is now talking about seriously. 

Leadership wants to get people back into the workplace because they know all the advantages of working together that come from that. But it needs to be on a new model. And that new model of two or three days a week in the office, whatever it is, and all very, very much from different work styles, because not everyone works the same way, it's going to create a very different workplace.

Google employees play volleyball on the company campus in 2006. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Do you think the complex, Googleplex, as you built it, is kind of dated now? It's sort of an old-fashioned workplace already?

We designed the Googleplex in 2004. Google as a company has probably grown tenfold since then. And they've rolled out workplace experiments, learning each time from the last version. So yes, I mean, they, of course, think that the 20-year old Googolplex is kind of history and not kind of up to date.

But the fundamentals of a working environment are still pretty much reliable. A lot of what changes are kind of tweaks and the new colours and a new little fashion kind of influences.

I don't really know where Google's thinking is right now, but I know that this work from home thing is really changing everything.

I think it's much more about work-life balance. People can start becoming more in control of more aspects of their lives. And I really have to say I love the fact that workers themselves can actually really create the new workplace. I don't believe it's down to leadership on their own anymore at all. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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