As the tech giants unfold their plans for freshly minted corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley, the fevered speculation about what Google, Apple and Facebook are doing with their new offices has had one unintended side effect: it has reopened a debate about the role of play in the workplace.
Google has been particularly associated with a trend towards filling the office with brightly coloured toys – slides, ping pong tables, artificial beach huts, flying pods with propellers – to engage and entertain their employees.
Apple, meanwhile, has been less connected with workers’ playtime. Indeed, the influential critic Lucy Kellaway, of the Financial Times, has commended Apple for “turning its back on fun and going for beauty instead” in its new landmark scheme in Cupertino.
Ugly, stupid and ageist
According to Kellaway, “Apple Park is made for grown-ups. For the past two decades, office spaces have been built as if for primary school children… This pernicious trend – ugly, stupid and ageist – started in Silicon Valley and has spread.”
Does treating the workplace as one big creative playpen do positive things for productivity and wellbeing?
Kellaway points the finger at Google as “a world leader in infantalising its workforce”. As for Facebook, it sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between fun time for Googlers and Apple’s more austere and serious use of quality design elements to support staff.
While it is fun to speculate on why the Silicon Valley tech titans, many of which started life in humble garages and sheds, should opt for such expensive palaces of commerce in this latest round of expansive campus building, underlying questions remain.
Does treating the workplace as one big creative playpen do positive things for productivity and wellbeing? Or is there a real downside to what the architectural critic Jonathan Glancey has described as “the tyranny of forced fun at work”?
Battle lines drawn
The battle lines are sharply drawn in this debate. In one corner are the proponents of play, irrepressible funsters who argue that sandcastle contests, ping pong tournaments, hula-hoop making classes and paintball awaydays help to build teams, improve communication and allow colleagues to form bonds in a relaxed setting. Play is an essential part of creating a strong workplace culture, especially for millennials. And if it worked for Google, it must work for all.
In the opposite corner are the miserabilists who argue that pretending that work is play when it is really a grown-up economic transaction between individual and employer can be dangerous and counter-productive. A series of social activities, they suggest, don’t really solve how you get to the root causes of cultural issues in the workplace. Staff should be encouraged to take responsibility, not be constantly infantilised.
For many employees, enforced playtime can also be stressful, favouring extroverts rather than introverts who just want to get on with the job. And just because it worked for Google, which has a specially curated culture, that doesn’t mean it will work for all. Indeed, it can be argued that simply copying Google’s playful workplace designs and cultural traits – clever though they may be – is a cop-out that too many workplace professionals lazily take when clients tell them: “We want to look like Google.”
“There’s nothing wrong with incorporating playful elements into the workplace,” says Matt Webster, Head of Wellbeing and Futureproofing at British Land. “For example, one of our customers at Paddington Central, Microsoft Lift, has a communal space (pictured above) with a guitar, a piano and a drum kit set up, so that people can play when they feel like it. It gives staff the opportunity to express themselves, which is important, particularly in a creative company. And this is balanced by areas such the ‘library’, a calm and quiet area for focused work or contemplation.
“But you don’t necessarily need to rely on your office fitout alone to achieve a productive environment. There is an increasing body of research that shows that the health, wellbeing and creativity of office workers can be enhanced by creating a variety of spaces that match their mood and the requirements of the type of work they’re doing. This also extends to outdoor spaces and the wider area around the office. Part of creating Places People Prefer is providing green space and the right amenities and enlivenment activities that help to make an office location a more enjoyable place to work.”
One thing is for sure: long after the Silicon Valley giants have dusted down their big new showpiece offices, the debate about work as play will run and run. But amid all the counter-arguments, the tide may be turning just a touch, away from forced fun with brightly coloured props and towards a more serious and multi-faceted debate about what really creates a better workplace experience.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the WorkTech Academy website
CREATIVITY, PEOPLE, PRODUCTIVITY, WELLBEING