What Google’s New Office Plan Tells Us About the Future of Work

Privacy balloon walls and outdoor meeting spaces are just a few of the new features Google is planning that caught my attention.

Google is planning new and improved office space, according to reporting by Daisuke Wakabayashi in The New York Times. Privacy balloon walls and outdoor meeting spaces are just a couple of the new features that caught my attention.

I lament that old-style cubicles and opaque offices are gone for good. However, if I have to live in a modern work environment of glass offices that remind me of animals on display at the zoo, and workstations without at least three short walls, Google’s office update sounds good.

Interestingly, the company is planning, beyond COVID-19, to continue socially distancing employees: “In its current office configurations, Google said it would be able to use only one out of every three desks in order to keep people six feet apart. Mr. Radcliffe said six feet would remain an important threshold in case of the next pandemic or even the annual flu,” Wakabayashi writes. So, then, we can take from this that Google’s leaders don’t see COVID-19 as a once-in-a-century phenomenon like the Spanish Flu, but, rather, a more frequently recurring phenomena that we could have to deal with once a decade or even more frequently. Secondly, we can take from this that the seasonal flu now is perceived by Google’s executives, and others most likely, as much more dangerous than it was perceived in the past by healthy young and middle-aged people. This attitude was a surprise and disappointment to me, signaling an unwillingness to ever move forward fully from COVID-19 in the way the people of the early 20th century moved past the Spanish Flu, returning completely to their pre-pandemic lifestyles. Why our generation is not able and/or willing to do what the Spanish Flu generation was able and willing to do is food for thought.

With the COVID threat still present, and a future filled with hypochondria, Google is planning outdoor meeting spaces. Greater safety from germs is just one benefit of an outdoor meeting space, so this innovation excites me greatly. As a person who loves nothing more than dining al fresco on sunny, mild days, having a meeting outside on a nice day sounds like a refreshing change of pace. If that outdoor meeting space can be in a setting with what looks like a lot of greenery, like Google’s Mountain View, CA, corporate campus, so much the better. Research has shown that there are psychological benefits to spending time among plants and trees outdoors.

Another positive feature of Google’s new office is the expandable privacy balloons that an employee can have pop up alongside their desk: “If a meeting requires privacy, a robot that looks like the innards of a computer on wheels and is equipped with sensors to detect its surroundings comes over to inflate a translucent, cellophane balloon wall to keep prying eyes away.”

If you can’t have a few old-fashioned cubicle walls, this is the next best thing. I wonder if the low-tech approach of drapes or curtains on a rod with a pulley, or a button that could be pressed, could be added to glass offices for times when you don’t feel like being on display, and to signal you don’t want to be disturbed. There are times when a sensitive meeting requires not just soundproofing, but visual proofing, such as when an employee is being disciplined or terminated.

It’s also nice to see Google finally recognizing another key weakness of the open-office plan: distraction. “Google has designed different leaf-shaped partitions called ‘petals’ that can attach to the edge of a desk to eliminate glare. An office chair with directional speakers in the headrest plays white noise to muffle nearby audio,” the article reveals. I’ve been relying on noise-cancelling headphones playing music and a giant David Bowie poster as my privacy and soundproofing workarounds.

Temperature control for each workstation is yet another positive innovation. I had a thermostat once in my cubicle that controlled temperature for part of the floor in an office where I worked. One time I made it warmer, and had to bite my tongue when I heard a colleague over the cubicle wall wonder aloud if the “AC was busted.” In that instance, silence was golden.

Google’s employees will come into the office on a rotational basis, which is nice, as it gives employees a chance to have balance between time spent at home and time in-person with colleagues. The pandemic turned us all into characters not too dissimilar from the famous Bubble Boy. Let’s hope the offices of the future are focused on goals more lofty and inspiring than avoiding germs.

Are you planning a post-pandemic makeover for your office? What new features will your updated office include?