Nap pods and rooftop parks: how Silicon Valley is reinventing the office

2 months, 17 days ago

Tech giants Google, Samsung and Facebook are in a race to create the most elaborated workplace environments

From the fifth-floor putting green of Samsungs Silicon Valley headquarters, appearing out at a rolling horizon of sun-scorched mountains, its quite easy to forget youre at work. An executive is practising tai chi by the cactus garden, while another jiggles in a robotic massage chair nearby. A volleyball match is in full swing in the lush-planted courtyard below, while raucous screamings of table football emerge from the Chill Zone, next to a row of space-age nap pods. Meet by the ping-pong tables, reads a sign stuck on the window. Todays spinning class will be on the terrace! 🙂

With its new $300 m office block, which stands like a stack of gleaming white hard drives at an intersection north of San Jose, the South Korean electronics giant is plunging headlong into the holiday camp workplace culture of the Bay Area tech scene.

We wanted to introduce more of a startup vibe to the company, says Jim Elliott, Samsungs vice-president of memory marketing, a undertaking title as otherworldly as the building he works in. We were all separated in our different departmental islands before, but this building is about bringing people together and encouraging chance encounters. We want to get people out of the boardroom.

Samsung has had a base here for 30 years, housed in a cluster of nondescript sheds, but this 10 -storey beacon is designed to change its brand image in North America from purveyor of fridges and washing machines to powerhouse of cutting-edge semiconductor innovation.

Designed by NBBJ, an architecture firm that is conjuring futuristic jungle-filled biospheres for Amazon in Seattle and a handful of vast tech offices across China, the building is the product of research into behavioural psychology and the neuroscience of work.

Sleeping on the job a nap pod at Samsung HQ. Photo: Tim Griffith

Its all about mobility, says architect Scott Wyatt, who heads NBBJs corporate workplace division. If you sit down for more than 20 minutes, you get dumber. Strolling outdoors, he says, is when your brain attains optimum cognitive function, so the Samsung office is configured to get people out of their chairs as much as possible. With pairs of floors separated by an outdoor terrace, employees are never more than a floor away from stepping outside. The cafeteria, meanwhile, is housed in a separate star-shaped building, so they have to walk out to lunch where 10 various kinds of global cuisine are on offer in a food court worthy of an upscale mall.

Samsungs fun-filled office-cum-wellness-centre is just the most recent in a wave of new flagship headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area that mark a revolutionary deviation for the tech industry, which has never much cared for its surroundings before now. Norman Foster is busy erecting a doughnut-shaped flying saucer for Apple, set in a 150 -acre park in Cupertino, where 3.7 miles of curved glass will shortly encase a continuous tube of offices, built to the precision of an iPhone. Not to be surpas, Google has hired two of the most fashionable designers of the moment, Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, to concoct a retro-futuristic fantasyland of plug-in run pods beneath swooping glass tents. Such dreamy visions mark a recent and radical change from the tech worlds default setting of the generic suburban business park.

Microsoft always said the buildings dont matter, says Wyatt, who has worked on countless projects for the Bill Gates empire. The tech position was: Just give me a garage. All that has changed. With increasing competition to attract the best young intellects, the silicon giants are now racing to outdo each other with ever more elaborate facilities( filled with ever more bountiful snacks ).

Techie jungle liana-like cables and stuffed leopards at Facebooks HQ, the biggest continuous office floor in the world. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian

The mother of all pimped-up garages now rambles along the road in Menlo Park, 15 miles west of Samsungs HQ, standing like a line of conjoined aircraft hangars piled up in a car accident. With walls protruding out at odd angles and zig-zagging staircases casually bolted on as if at random, it bears the unmistakable hand of Frank Gehry. Stretching across 40,000 square metres, his Facebook headquarters is a hymn to the beloved startup foundation myth of the loose-fit inventors shed.

Housing the biggest continuous office floor in the world, seating around 3,000 workers in an open-plan jumble, it is a appropriately gargantuan home for a social network that now counts one fifth of the worlds population in the membership of the committee. Strolling the office floor feels like exploring a techie jungle, where lianas of cables dangle from the seven-metre-high ceiling, servicing pods of programmers, while novelty helium balloons sway above their adjustable stand desks.

We encourage people to hack their space, says my young tour guide, as we navigate this rough and ready world of raw steel beams and exposed ductwork, passing a piata modelled on Donald Trump, a leopard in a pink cape and a life-size stuffed polar bear. Were merely 1% finished connecting the world, so we wanted the building to looking unfinished too.

Freestanding plywood meeting rooms are daubed with colourful murals from resident artists, while other walls are plastered with motivational posters, made by the companys publish studio, the Analogue Research Lab, featuring ominous mottos such as: Eventually everything connects.

When Zuck[ CEO Mark Zuckerberg] says something in the morning, one Facebooker tells me, it can become a poster slogan by the afternoon.

At the top of a dog-leg staircase, in a moment of Alice in Wonderland revelation, we come to a nine-acre rooftop park, a bucolic idyll of sloping lawns and wireless-enabled wildflower grasslands that look out across the marshy rust-coloured flats of the bay. Cranes are busy constructing housing next door( which, although partly funded by Facebook, the company insists is not the rumoured Zeetown for its workers ), while volunteers set up pavilions on the roof for global causes day, an annual charity initiative.

No one pays attention to how much youre at your desk, says my guide. As long as you get your work done, you can be lying on the lawn or sitting at the grilled cheese bar.

Samsung HQ. Photograph: Tim Griffith

Free food on tap is a fundamental part of the tech workplace, and Bay Area companies have long competed over the breadth of their snack offering. But the stakes are now shifting towards health-conscious options: the ubiquitous jars of jelly beans and M& Ms are increasingly supplanted by dehydrated broccoli florets and kale crisps, washed down with a gulp of Soylent. Google has rearranged its snack counters so you have to pass fresh fruit before you reach the candy, while in the cornucopic cafeteria of LinkedIns new San Francisco HQ, a wall lists all the local suppliers, beneath the slogan: Know your farms, know your food.

I like to start my day with a kimchi rice bowl, or maybe some sushi, says one LinkedIn employee, as we stroll around the never-ending buffet. We have an in-house pastry chef whose cakes are to die for and eight flavors of homemade ice cream.

Sheathed in a sinister cape of faceted black glass, somehow befitting the professional networking site, LinkedIns new 26 -storey tower is a vertical promenade of tech office cliches. We pass the wireless headphone rack of a silent disco zone and a Nerf missile play area, then a pillow fighting meeting room and a post your own haiku wall, each space exuding the forlorn air of a besuited tycoon trying to be wacky. Leaving the offices, we pass through a passageway where a distorted trompe-loeil mural makes a slogan appear to float in thin air, filling your field of vision with bold capital letter: FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS.

Airbnbs bedouin tent meeting rooms. Photograph: Mark Mahaney/ Mark Maheny

A few blocks away, one of the regions fastest growing companies is rapidly filling the floors of a former newspaper mill, where it has converted the industrial spaces into a theatrical playground of themed work zones. At Airbnb, you can have your sessions in a log cabin or a Milanese loft apartment, a bedouin tent or a replica ramen cafe each space meticulously recreated from the websites holiday rental listings.

According to the companys in-house Environments team, its about how we can create spaces that are home-like, but highly effective, functional spaces that allow people to do great work, but hopefully in ways that amaze us.

Some people nestle in bean containers, hunched over their laptops on a stepped seat terrace, others gratify in an Airstream caravan, while studious kinds can squirrel themselves away in leather armchairs in a dimly illuminated analyse. At the centre of it all, in a defining moment of startup nostalgia, is a meeting room modelled on the apartment down the road where the company first began.

If the office is trying to be a physical manifestation of the companys motto Belong anywhere it all feels a bit like a budget version of the Crystal Maze, each define decorated with props sourced from eBay or Etsy, and built with the longevity of a shop-window display.

Time to noodle ramen cafe-themed meeting room at Airbnbs HQ. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian

Out on the street, leaving the living wall-lined lobby, youre confronted with a stark symbol of one of the symptoms of the success of this room-letting behemoth, in the form of a type of enclosure that doesnt make it into the themed office scenery: the tents of a homeless encampment, huddled beneath the flyover.

It is a reminder of the side-effects that the booming tech industry is having on the immediate context outside its hermetically sealed, candy-coated walls. The recent influx of companies from the valley to the city, lured here by considerable taxation incentives, is not just increasing rents but bringing other unexpected consequences.

Tech offices can have a kind of deadening effect on the city, says Allison Arieff of SPUR, a non-profit urban research centre. Since they are now offer their employees with everything on site for free from coffee to dry-cleaning to haircuts local business are often forced to close down when they move in.

For all their talk of community and the commons, the dotcoms are proving to be some of the least civic-minded industries around. As a gesture of public goodwill, LinkedIns tower gives a vast chunk of its ground floor over to an airy public room, where you may sit and have your lunch and use the Wi-Fi, but San Franciscans wont be so easily persuaded.

Nobody cares about your tech job, reads a poster on a nearby lamppost. Be courteous to others when in public and keep the feral careerism of your collegial banter on mute. Or get mugged. We can hear you.

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