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Whimsy spurs creativity at Google’s Zurich office

Whimsy spurs creativity at Google’s Zurich office

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2008 10:58 pm

ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) — It’s the first question Google employees here must resolve when they want to go to the cafeteria or game room: Stairs, slide or fireman’s pole? The next dilemma for so-called Zooglers: homemade pastry or exotic fruit juice? It’s all part of three free meals a day, with regular snacks, that Google serves at its new European tech center. Then there’s the phone call dilemma. Should you use a former ski gondola that has been converted into a private phone booth? Shut yourself inside a blue igloo or giant purple egg? Put the call on a video monitor? Or just take it outside and walk along a rushing Alpine river? If you want to tap into the maximum creativity of everyone you hire, Google figures it might just take a whimsical mishmash of colors, shapes, textures, nooks and crannies to do so. “To be effective in a short innovation cycle, you cannot just be sitting at your desk,” explained Matthias Graf, the company spokesman in Zurich. That explains the pinball, foosball and pool tables, the Wii sports center, the air guitar video game, the massage tables and the aquarium water lounge. Or the cafe next to the technical center where you can eat, chat, read and play video games while you wait for your computer to be fixed. Yet this is not dot-com deja vu, when Internet companies wasted gobs of money on outlandish toys before burning through all their cash and firing everyone. The Internet giant worked with a psychologist and design team to interview all 350 employees and incorporated their ideas into a new workspace — yet insisted the new design should not cost more than an ordinary office building. “Everyone says ‘Google is wealthy, you can buy a fancy office.’ But we wanted to show what anyone could do with some imagination,” Graf said. The result: Simple, neutral but small individual workspaces with lots of natural light are interspersed with stimulating, brightly colored, wildly original communal spaces. The lack of private offices allowed Google to create vast amounts of communal space — more than 100 different meeting rooms for anywhere from two to 200 people. “It feels good to be here, it feels comfortable,” Swiss engineer Patrik Reali said as he took a break to play Star Trek pinball. “There’s nice places to retreat and hide if you need to think.” Each floor has a different color and theme. The fifth floor is the history floor, with an old-time library, heavy velvet curtains and overstuffed, second hand chairs. The fourth is the green environment floor, complete with a terrace for eating outdoors. Switzerland is the theme of the third floor, with reinvented gondolas, carpets that look like snow or blue ice and a quirky stuffed penguin mascot. “Companies often spend a lot of money on expensive things — furniture, lights — that employees don’t really care about,” said Stefan Camenzind, founder of the architectural and design firm Camenzind Evolution Ltd, which created the Zurich office. “Google was smart to focus on what matters to employees.” Google’s design choices both break the mold and reinforce current office trends in the United States. According to research by Jones Lang LaSalle, a global office property management firm, companies are building more open-demand meeting rooms and ditching hierarchical corner offices in favor of floor plans that foster teamwork.. Yet many U.S. companies are also trying to save money by cutting down office space and creating anonymous temporary spots for nomadic employees, Jones Lang LaSalle reports. Google, meanwhile, is trying harder than ever to cluster its people together, make the experience personal and leave room to grow. “It’s so unique and different — I think even people in Mountain View are envious of this building,” said Roshan Sembacuttiaratchy, from Sri Lanka, referring to Google’s California headquarters. “Everyone had a say in what went in. You felt like you were kept in the loop.” The new center is flexible enough to accommodate up to 800 employees. And Google has no qualms about the number of play areas in the new building, which formally opened in March. “We have a strict performance management system — they will not play all day, we don’t worry about that,” Graf said. The only issue the company hasn’t solved is the Google 7 — the number of pounds Graf said employees gain from Google’s fabulous food and heavy work ethic. Others begged to differ. “I think it’s the Google 15 — seven is too low,” said Sembacuttiaratchy. “No, it’s the Google 15 kilos (33 pounds)!” Reali laughed. “Time to get on those bikes.” And those would be the fully loaded Google touring bikes the company handed out to encourage employees to ride to work. “Freedom makes people happy,” Reali said. “The work we do, the people we meet, the building we work in — it all adds up.” Published in The Messenger 7.28.08


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