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Do Google's playful perks spark creativity?

Posting in Design

By now, even if you don't work in the technology industry, you've probably got a pretty good idea of what it's like to work at Google, with its free food and colorful, playroom-like environments. Even in the 2011 remake of The Muppet Movie, the coolness of a Google office was referenced: the smart muppet Scooter was portrayed as a Googler, with a Google reception area as a very visible backdrop. A recent New York Times article by "Common Sense" columnist James B. Stewart took readers behind the scenes at Google's Manhattan digs -- and also analyzed whether the office indeed is any more creative than other, more traditional ones.

In the piece, "Looking for a Lesson in Google's Perks," Stewart quotes a Google spokesperson to explain why the company offers decor like bookcases that are really doors that lead to secret reading rooms. "To create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world," the spokesperson said.

So, what are specific concepts that make the New York Google so Googley? Could there be workplace strategies that other firms could emulate? Besides the much-discussed perks such as celebrity visits (yes, Jimmy Fallon once interviewed Justin Bieber in the New York Google office), complimentary massages and yoga classes, here's some of what Stewart discovered on a recent visit:

- Google is strategically located near convenient transportation, housing, and entertainment

- It has internal coffee bars

- There are numerous open kitchens

- Employees can bring their dogs to work

- The office exudes an overarching sense of play (there are Legos to tinker with and ladders to climb, and workday scavenger hunts to join)

- Employees can design their own desks from oversize Tinker-Toy-like components

- Scribbling on walls is encouraged

- Healthy food is highlighted in free-food areas, although M&Ms and sodas are also available

- New York perks include personal health consultations and free classes in business related topics such as "advanced negotiation"

Stewart also wisely brings in a Harvard Business School professor, Theresa Amabile, to judge the Google ideal -- wise because it would be easy to get all starry-eyed by visiting what almost seems like a Willy Wonka-ish fantasy of a workplace for Gen Xers and Millenials.

“There’s some evidence that great physical space enhances creativity... The theory is that open spaces that are fun, where people want to be, facilitate idea exchange," Amabile said. "I’ve watched people interact at Google and you see a cross-fertilization of ideas.” But that evidence is so far only anecdotal, she admits.

The main idea behind Google's approach to keeping its staff happy, it seems, is to make work fun so employees show up (Stewart frames his article in the shadow of ex-Googler Marissa Mayer's Yahoo mandate to report to the office). There are certainly many references to "fun" that draw upon fond childhood memories and conceptions of what "fun" is. In fact, the fun references seem quite studied and "proven" (that bookcase/secret door seems almost cliched in its wackiness; cynics might hope it's ironic).

The enjoyable environment also gives employees a lot to talk about, perhaps prompting them to bond. And the goal must be that many people outside of Google probably talks about it, too. The childlike wonder that Google employees probably have when they punch the proverbial clock is only felt more acutely by those of us who don't work there. It's enduring public relations fodder, and a source of envy. And an effective recruiting strategy.

But what happens when such funhouse offices become copied by other companies, to the point of being generic? How will Google raise the bar to outdo others? If anything, it will be fun for both Googlers and non-Googlers to find out.

Image: ekai/Flickr

— By on March 18, 2013, 12:16 PM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure