A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 7, 2014

The Disruption Aesthetic: Tech's Workplace Paeans to Change

Disrupt yourself. That, increasingly, is what companies, especially in tech, are attempting to signal their employees.

Faced with the prospect of chronic change, many enterprises are attempting to design their workplaces in such a way as to remind their staffs - and themselves - that no lead is secure, no product or service is dominant for long, no institution is permanent.

Some of these reminders are tangible: offices designed to reinforce the impermanence of the organization by eliminating walls, cubicles and personal spaces. Everything is open. The only thing that is yours is you. And maybe your phone or computer. But definitely not the space they are located today. Or tomorrow. Or ever.

Some of the symbolic and actual impetus is intangible: reassignment to new teams frequently and without warning, shifting responsibilities, non-specific organizational structures. As chaotic as it may seem, much of this is done after careful analysis of research conducted more or less constantly on what seems to be working and what isnt. The metrics may be experimental or a combination of the tried and true with the utterly irrational. Let's challenge ourselves to make sense of the madness, the ethos declares, because that is what the market is doing to us on a regular basis.

There is no doubt that the rest of the institutional world is watching: open plan has become a cliche. Foosball tables, food stations, in-house masseurs and concierges are now de rigeur.

Some people need quiet and space to optimize their contributions. The interim rejoinder seems to be: wear headphones. But in the long run, the longitudinal data will be accumulated, evaluated and endlessly reinterpreted.And the question is whether any conclusions will - or can - ever be drawn. Managements like to manage to a conclusion or at least to goal or achievable objective. In the case of this sort of ongoing design experiment, it is not yet apparent what those might be.

The challenge, ultimately, is determining whether this is leading somewhere - to a sort of organizational ideal - or whether it is the journey, the search, that is the only constant - and that that is the point. JL

Quentin Hardy reports in the New York Times:

Nothing is permanent, any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: We must all change, all the time.
Big Internet companies love to talk about how they are “disrupting” one thing or another, but they still want what big companies have always wanted: workplaces that memorialize their products and values.
That is a challenge, because software is invisible and change is high technology’s most valued commodity. Insubstantial as a cubicle seems, in the tech industry it has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-Fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.
Want privacy? Wear headphones.
The blank-slate look of a big room may encourage communication, but it has an important drawback. “Without inspiration, open plan runs counter to creativity,” said John Maeda, a former president of the Rhode Island School of Design and now the design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm. “When you inject the ethos of the company, you’re trying to stand for something amid perpetual change.”
Increasingly, Silicon Valley companies are paying builders to fuse their values of speed, change and productivity with their perceived corporate smarts and quirkiness. It is a big shift. Silicon Valley long prided itself on building world-changing technologies from the humble garage, or the nondescript office park. The new spaces are more distinctive, as companies seek to build a consumer profile and maybe even lasting loyalty.
The companies are dreaming big. Apple plans to build a new ring-shaped headquarters that will be as distinctive as its products. Up in Seattle, Amazon is building a new urban-style headquarters — utilitarian and functional, like its website.
When companies feel that they are changing the world as much as these tech enterprises do, they don’t need just offices. They need monuments.
Facebook’s Palace of Change
Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., is a cluster of 11 buildings enclosing a Disney-like pedestrian square and a two-way promenade. The complex has a cupcake store and a barbecue joint, a wood shop, a print shop and an arcade. In addition, there are two cafeterias, a candy shop, a taco stand, a burger stand, a pizza stand, a chopped-salad bar and three small restaurants. (A noodle shop is coming soon.) Everything is free or subsidized.
The “Main Street, U.S.A.” feel is no accident. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, also serves on the board of Disney, and she brought in consultants from Anaheim and Orlando to perfect Facebook’s look. As in the Magic Kingdom itself, all of this fun is purposefully designed in the service of spontaneity.
No one has an office, though Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, occasionally holds meetings in a large glass cube in the middle of the campus.
Facebook’s unofficial slogan is “hack,” an engineering term that has come to mean remaking something with an amateur’s passionate disregard for the usual rules. Facebook’s all-night hackathons aren’t just an echo of crashing out a project before a college final: They are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does.
Computer problems during an all-nighter? There are machines that dispense new computer peripherals, like keyboards, at no charge, if the help desk is closed.
There are posters everywhere, including the employee entrances, that exhort change, hacking and fearlessness. Typical sentiments include “Taking risks gives me energy” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The guiding spirit is Mr. Zuckerberg’s own line: “The journey is 1 percent finished.”
The buildings hold 6,000 people. In the past, Facebook moved around as many as 1,000 of them a month, reassigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so they are short and decisive.

Casual meeting areas are set off from the open plan by squares of plywood hanging from the ceiling, a visual “under construction” reference meant to reinforce the company’s ethos. Facebook even spent money to expose its networking wires, which dangle along the ceiling.
“It’s designed to change thinking,” said John Tenanes, who oversees Facebook’s buildings as its director of real estate. “Even if the meeting doesn’t move faster, we want people coming up with new stuff.”
And sometimes fooling around with old stuff. There are print and woodworking shops to keep employees grounded in offline experiences, including personal projects and the printing of many of the wall posters, which the company hopes will help them create more consumer-friendly software. Bike repair shops, along with a bank and the free food, help keep people close to campus.
Couches in the casual areas are often replaced with no advance warning. Similarly, design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as “moving the furniture around,” something that initially annoys consumers but pays off over the long haul, the company has found. People get used to change when change is expected.
Mr. Tenanes has an unusual relationship with his buildings. He worked in them when they were the headquarters of Sun Microsystems, a once-highflying company that was overwhelmed by tech changes. “In those days, every engineer had his own office. With a door,” he said. “It was considered status to have a door.”
Doors now seem an impediment, slowing the making of something new.
Across the street from its current headquarters, Facebook has commissioned a new building from the architect Frank Gehry. According to Mr. Tenanes, its large, open-plan space will hold 2,800 people, with 18-foot windows that look out on a 10-acre park on one side and a tidal marsh on the other.
For over a year, Facebook has scoured California for trees for the building’s rooftop plaza, which will also feature drought-resistant grasses. The plaza will have a coffee shop, a restaurant similar to a Shake Shack, a walking path and telescopes to witness the ever-changing marsh. A second path, at ground level, will accommodate bicyclists and walkers.
“You’ll be surrounded by world-class engineers,” Mr. Tenanes said of the structure, “and never more than 24 feet from a wonderful outdoors.”
Twitter’s Urban Aerie
In San Francisco, an elevator opens to walls clad with planks from a country barn. In case you don’t get the reference, the computer at the front desk is inside a faux birdhouse: This is Twitter, whose symbol is an emerging bird, and whose chief executive was once an improv comic.
Irony has crept into the architectural values of many Silicon Valley companies, as if the young royals of tech were relieving with a joke the embarrassment of finding themselves running multibillion-dollar businesses. At Twitter, though, the irony doesn’t creep; it charges like an ostrich.
Just outside the cafeteria, called “@birdfeeder,” a family of plastic, neon-colored deer stands near the couches, on which pillows bear the crocheted words “Home Tweet Home.” Irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas. There are ample sticks and twigs on the walls and ceilings, as if nests under construction.
The company encourages informal meetings in this low-stress setting, hoping that it will help foster new ideas. Back in the business area, there are open-plan work spaces, along with individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working.
Here, as at many other tech companies, is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: We must all change, all the time. And yet architecture demands that we must also represent something lasting.
Quick meetings take place in booths that look as if they were lifted from an upscale diner, with banquettes for two or four. Near the executive offices are the kind of angular couches and chairs that Dick Van Dyke would be happy to use for a pratfall. What is notable is also what is missing. At Twitter, you must request a desk phone. Employees use their cellphones, and the company pays the bill — for all major types, though a company official had to check to see whether this included BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, since everyone seemed to be on Androids or iPhones.
The main dining area, across from the elevator bank, is also known as the Commons. Twitter styles itself as the “global town square” for all the public conversations it hosts, and it likes the openness of the area not just for chance meetings but also for weekly gatherings where Dick Costolo, the C.E.O., presides from a raised platform. Information sharing has become a hallmark of Silicon Valley companies, particularly when things are going well. It is another way of fostering the idea, borne in the programming world, that hidden data is actually more valuable when shared.
Google’s Giant Testing Center
There is seemingly no part of Google that is not information-obsessed, and it shows in the kind of fine-tuned, all-knowing work space the company has built for itself. Its headquarters, in Mountain View, Calif., has its dinosaur and cupcake sculptures, and multicolored bicycles for intracampus transport. But don’t kid yourself: Even what seems like whimsy is a result of careful, data-driven decision-making.
For example, Google’s free meals, famous for their quality, are a result of detailed study. Executives were turned off by the inefficiencies of an ordinary paid cafeteria; people would spend too much time going elsewhere for lunch — or fumbling for change if they stayed. Even if that was a waste of a minute, it was logical to make food fun and free.
Google tries to measure as much as it can about its employees’ experience. When a new phone jack is installed at someone’s desk, the facilities staff will send an email within an hour, asking the employee to rate the experience for friendliness and efficiency. When green plants in a large frame are installed on an otherwise bland wall, it improves the look and increases the room’s beneficial oxygen, according to Anthony Ravitz, leader of the “Green Team” in Google Real Estate, the department responsible for the company’s facilities.
Mr. Ravitz cited studies of “biophilia,” or love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels. “We are after the holy grail for the knowledge industry — how to measure productivity,” he said. “That isn’t just how quickly you can type words, or how well you made a line of code. It’s about how you felt about it, and whether you had enough energy to play with your kids when you got home.”
To find out those things, Google Real Estate is more lab than furniture department. This is not to denigrate the humble chair: After an initial ergonomic evaluation, each new employee is fitted with the correct chair, which follows her if she is reassigned. During a reporter’s recent visit, Google Real Estate was testing five types of desk chairs, three relaxation chairs, 10 lighting systems, two heating systems and four ways to distribute heat. One woman at an adjustable desk walked on a treadmill as she worked, surrounded by greenery.
“If people are more satisfied with the temperature, they are more comfortable and creative,” Mr. Ravitz said. The goal is to make 80 percent or more of the population happy with the office climate — a higher figure than at most companies.
Google has 70 more offices in 40 countries worldwide, and works with designers in each place to maximize productivity and cut down on energy use. A Google employee badge should work in any of these places, but there are also nods to how space is used in local cultures. “Europe has more bench seating,” Mr. Ravitz said. Americans are chair people.
Google, which started in a dorm room, at one time occupied a garage, and then a series of nondescript offices within its present campus, which also includes the old headquarters of Silicon Graphics, another valley company that couldn’t cope with change. Google employees now play volleyball in its once-staid quad. The real estate group can also issue tables for playing pool, foosball or table tennis. (Training time with a former Olympic table tennis coach books up quickly.) Much of the makeshift recreational space is compensation both for Google’s long hours and the reality that most of its buildings are from an older, duller era.
The outsize dessert sculptures are one effort to break the monotony. A large statue of a man in a cage bears a passing resemblance to a young Bill Gates. No accident, according to Google lore.
Mr. Ravitz’s team has ripped out ceilings and installed skylights where possible, because “studies in education and health care show natural light affects how quickly people learn and heal,” he said. Carefully hidden behind lightweight screens are “nap pods” where people can catch a few winks in enclosed silence. High-backed couches for two, custom-made without flame-retardant chemicals, have special cushions that cut down on noise.
“The harder we work,” he said, “the more important it is to have space to get away from the chaos for a while.”


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