There's no such thing as a free lunch
by Sophia Skelly
When I visited my cousin’s fiancée, Yufeng, at Google’s Chelsea offices in New York City, I was as intrigued as I was appalled. The excess was evident from the moment the elevator doors slid open to reveal the dining hall. As my cousin and I walked in, we grabbed the plates to our left, which were labeled “steak tartare” and “seitan ratatouille.” I gazed in awe at the high ceilings and exposed brick walls, the glittering view of the Hudson River. I ordered a latté and almond milk smoothie, made a monstrous salad and filled a cup of berries for breakfast the next morning.
It was absurd.
There was so much food and all of it was free with Yufeng’s guest pass. I felt eons away from the Neo-Luddism at Colorado College, where it’s cool to have a flip phone and to choose not to have Snapchat. As I spun in circles, overwhelmed by the perfection of everything in the room, everyone else seemed nonplussed. It is a familiar world to anyone working in the tech industry. Most computer science graduates expect the amenities that Google offers—a chef and dining hall with farm-fresh food and fridges stocked full of every snack you could dream of.
When I asked my cousin, a computer science major at Stanford, about her experience with similarly lavish tech companies, she told me about her job the previous summer. She worked at Palantir, a group that “makes products for human-driven analysis of real-world data,” and “augment human intelligence,” whatever that means. Palantir provides its employees with fully stocked fridges and encourages people to incorporate play into their workday. One page on their website titled “Making Life Fun,” reads, “You will frequently find people playing Turbo Hearts, Settlers of Catan, or Axis & Allies” and “the Group Therapy Club has a weekly wine tasting, often mashed up with charcuterie and cheese tastings.” They offer many activities and games that are meant to entertain and relax their employees. Google creates a similar atmosphere. I spent 20 minutes in one of their work nooks playing with a little sand Zen garden.
This all begs the question: In adult playgrounds like Palantir and Google, do employees get any work done? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The design of these tech offices is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also very intentional. The nook I lounged in had plush blue seats and ropey fabric hanging down in the entryway, resembling a cozy, little whale’s mouth. Many such private getaways exist at Google HQ. In fact, there is rumored to be a secret bookshelf that swivels open to reveal a private room.
In addition to small alcoves, tech companies strive to encourage interaction between all employees. Google’s Chelsea location spans 2.9 million square feet and yet is never further than 150 feet away from a restaurant, micro-kitchen or large cafeteria. This is to encourage what Googlers call, “casual collision.” The idea comes from a 1940s psychological study done at a housing project called Westgate West. Researchers discovered that friendships within the housing complex were primarily determined by people’s living arrangements. They found that close bonds formed essentially independent of values, beliefs and attitudes. Instead, 42 percent of what the scientists considered “close bonds” lived directly next door to each other. This study was an inspiration for Steve Jobs. Eschewing earlier trends of compartmentalization, Jobs rearranged Pixar offices so that computer scientists and animators worked in the same building. Through structurally integrating separate teams, tech companies create more opportunities for collaboration.
This integration is largely done by outside artists and designers. One such designer is Lauren Geremia, the go-to artist for start-ups in Silicon Valley. Geremia has designed the offices for some of the largest tech companies in the Bay Area, including Dropbox, Instagram, Hightail and Lumosity. She’s even designed standing desks, which assist workers’ “ergonomic needs.” The standing desk project created “a collaborative space so workers can meet and brainstorm, and stretch their legs and have variety in their workday.” In addition to art that encourages collaboration, much of the design at tech companies aims to create a sense of place. Google’s Manhattan office features a Broadway-themed conference room, faux subway grates on the floor and walls with mural-sized maps of the city. Despite the NYC-inspired design, I felt far from the gritty subway cars and the smell of halal meat. The public housing I walked through that morning in East Harlem felt like a different planet.
And that was the most disturbing part of visiting Google and hearing my cousin talk about Palantir. Tech employees spend 12 hours a day in a place where a cold beer or a chai yogurt are only a few steps away, yet they’re creating programs that will supposedly save our planet, fight our wars and even articulate our very thoughts. These companies are so removed from the real world and yet the people inside them, scootering about and munching on seaweed and dark chocolate, are the people designing our future.