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Looking for a lesson in Google's perks

Source : BUSINESS_STANDARD
Last Updated: Sun, Mar 17, 2013 04:35 hrs
Google doodles for Jagjit Singh

After Yahoo's chief executive, Marissa Mayer, ordered employees working from home to show up at the office for work, there was speculation that she was emulating Google, her previous employer.

Yahoo employees should be so lucky.

Whatever else might be said about Yahoo's workplace, it's a long way from Google's, as I discovered this week when I dropped in at Google's East Coast headquarters, a vast former Port Authority shipping complex that occupies a full city block in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan. Yahoo set off a nationwide debate about workplace flexibility, productivity and creativity last month after a memo with the directive surfaced on the Internet. "We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together," read the memo from Jackie Reses, Yahoo's director of human resources, which went viral after Kara Swisher posted it on AllThingsD.



The discussion may have been all the more heated since the ban was imposed by one of the relatively few female chief executives, one who had a nursery built near the executive suite after she gave birth last year.

Google's various offices and campuses around the globe reflect the company's overarching philosophy, which is nothing less than "to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world," according to a Google spokesman, Jordan Newman. But do its unorthodox workplaces and lavish perks yield the kind of creativity it prides itself on, and Yahoo obviously hopes to foster?

Newman, 27, who joined Google straight from Yale, and Brian Welle, a "people analytics" manager who has a Ph D in industrial and organisational psychology from New York University, led me on a brisk and, at times, dizzying excursion through a labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.

The library looks as if Miss Scarlet (from the board game Clue) has just stepped out, leaving her incriminating noose (in the form of a necktie) prominently draped on the back of an oversize wing chair. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret room and even more private reading area. Next to the recently expanded Lego play station, employees can scurry up a ladder that connects the fourth and fifth floors, where a fiendishly challenging scavenger hunt was in progress. Dogs strolled the corridors alongside their masters, and a cocker spaniel was napping, leashed to a pet rail, outside one of the dining areas.

Google lets many of its hundreds of software engineers, the core of its intellectual capital, design their own desks or work stations out of what resemble oversize Tinker Toys. Some have standing desks, a few even have attached treadmills so they can walk while working. Employees express themselves by scribbling on walls. The result looks a little chaotic, like some kind of high-tech refugee camp, but Google says that's how the engineers like it.

"We're trying to push the boundaries of the workplace," Newman said, in what seemed an understatement.

In keeping with a company built on information, this seeming spontaneity is anything but. Everything has been researched and is backed by data. In one of the open kitchen areas, Welle pointed to an array of free food, snacks, candy and beverages. "The healthy choices are front-loaded," he said. "We're not trying to be mom and dad. Coercion doesn't work. The choices are there. But we care about our employees' health, and our research shows that if people cognitively engage with food, they make better choices."

So the candy (M&Ms, plain and peanut; TCHO brand luxury chocolate bars, chewing gum, Life Savers) is in opaque ceramic jars that sport prominent nutritional labels. Healthier snacks (almonds, peanuts, dried kiwi and dried banana chips) are in transparent glass jars. In coolers, sodas are concealed behind translucent glass. A variety of waters and juices are immediately visible. "Our research shows that people consume 40 percent more water if that's the first thing they see," Welle said. (Note to Mayor Bloomberg: Perhaps New York City should hide supersize sodas rather than ban them.)

Craig Nevill-Manning, a New Zealand native and Google's engineering director in Manhattan, was the impetus behind the company's decision to hire a cadre of engineers in New York, and he led an exodus to Chelsea from what was a small outpost near Times Square. "I lobbied for this building," he told me. "I love the neighbourhood. You can live across the street. There are bars and restaurants."

He showed me a map of the city with dots indicating where each Google employee lives. They're heavily concentrated in Manhattan below 34th Street, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, most within walking distance of Chelsea or a short subway ride away. "We inherited the informal work environment - the casual dress, the flexible hours - from Silicon Valley, but we adapted it to the East Coast urban environment," he said. After the dot-com collapse in 2000, Manhattan was largely written off as a technology centre. Since Google's move, Chelsea is mentioned in the same breath as Silicon Valley. Google has turned over 22,000 square feet of its space, rent-free, to Cornell until its new technology campus can be built on Roosevelt Island.

"The philosophy is very simple," Nevill-Manning said. "Google's success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk.

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