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WORLD'S COOLEST OFFICES

Googleplex's Designer on the Future of the Office

The corner office with the view and the framed photo of Fido are over, according to star architect Clive Wilkinson. Here's his vision for the future of workplace design.

There's no more iconic archetype of modern office design than Google's massive, four-building complex in Mountain View, California known to all as the Googleplex. It's sprawling, but whimsical. A post-office-park rendition of an office park, only with scooters and free Cheerios.

Poke fun all you like, but in 1998 the Googleplex blazed a trail for a slightly dreamier workplace. Architect Clive Wilkinson created not just mixed-use space, but also seating arrangements for small groups of employees who worked together frequently--say in groups of of three or four--and huddled them together, encasing the area with minimalist glass screens to serve as a noise buffer.

Wilkinson is the head of his own firm, Clive Wilkinson Architects, which for years has stayed consistently ahead of the pack when it comes to innovative office design. (His work is a mainstay for Inc.'s annual World's Coolest Offices awards.) His firm's work includes Macquarie's Sydney HQ at One Shelley Street, Pallotta Teamworks in Los Angeles, and, recently, the "superdesk" used at the New York offices of marketing agency Barbarian Group. 

But enough with his past laurels. This month in New York City, Wilkinson has finished up a project he says is channeling the future. "This is like looking at 2030, but it's now," Wilkinson says, of the recently completed office of corporate-education firm Gerson Lehrman Group in Midtown Manhattan.

The theme he built GLG's workspace around is one he's dubbed "activity-based working." It's a philosophy of the modern, productive, energy-efficient workplace that Wilkinson has built over the years, and one that's evolved along with the way employees interact with technology, and with their office.

Increasingly, as workers become dependent on only a highly portable computer, the traditional notion of the cubicle, or the executive office, seems unnecessary, Wilkinson says. Yes, that's right: Both the cubicle and the individual office may be a thing of the past. Or at least that's true if this influential architect has it right.

 

1
Flexibility, Meet Efficiency
Flexibility, Meet Efficiency
When GLG decided to double its New York City office's square footage in its two floors of One Grand Central Place, it began talking with Clive Wilkinson Architects. Much of the work at GLG is done in one-on-one conversation, or small-group meetings. Flexible space was going to be a significant consideration--especially as the company grows. Efficiency was also important to both parties, and that goes beyond energy: In a typical office, a worker is away from her desk 40 to 60 percent of the time. (Now that's inefficient.) Here, employees gather around an open-plan cafe and kitchen area at the GLG headquarters.
PHOTO: Courtesy Company
2
The Workplace as a Community
The Workplace as a Community
Wilkinson proposed building out the entire GLG office to accommodate "activity-based working"--the theory that employees no longer need personal workstations so much as they need many different settings in which to meet, collaborate, or focus, depending on which tasks they're working on. His concept split the office footprint into a handful of smaller "neighborhoods." As Wilkinson describes it, each neighborhood contains "an anchor point, a central hub for personal storage, things like copiers and fax machines, and coat closets."
PHOTO: Courtesy Company
3
Dilbert No Longer
Dilbert No Longer
What's missing in activity-based working are permanent desks. Or offices. There's just a locker for each employee--and then a full office to roam and set up shop in daily, or by the minute. "We want to empower employees to not just own an office, but own the entire office," Wilkinson says. Here, Google workers converse at the Googleplex, which was also designed by Wilkinson. (Though Google employees still have individual workstations.)
PHOTO: Getty Images
4
Those "Legacy" Paperweights and Puppy Pics
Those "Legacy" Paperweights and Puppy Pics
"I actually very much feel the personal space for employees is a legacy of bad office space. That 'personalizing a space' came out of the idea that offices are sterile and boring," Wilkinson says. "Once you have a really vibrant place to work you don't need to find a framed place for your dog." Pictured here is a community hub at Pallotta Teamworks, a former factory building in Southern California transformed by Clive Wilkinson Architects.
PHOTO: Clive Wilkinson Architects
5
Putting Activity-Based Working to Work
Putting Activity-Based Working to Work
Back in 2006, Clive Wilkinson Architects was chosen to reimagine the Australia headquarters of financial services firm Macquarie Group--shown here--to incorporate workplace flexibility, mobility, and transparency. Perhaps the most radical design element is 26 meeting pods that seem to float in the 10 story atrium. Less apparent is how employees were grouped into "neighborhoods" of about 100, and given open use of any office space. Nearly 55 percent reported changing their workspaces every day. "All these projects are about community building and community identity," Wilkinson says. "This is not a stylistic design thing. This is an anthropological charge: How do you build great communities?"
PHOTO: Clive Wilkinson Architects
6
A Family Plan
A Family Plan
Can "activity-based working" apply to a smaller office? When Wilkinson began working on the Manhattan office of the marketing agency Barbarian Group, he found fewer and highly specialized employees with extreme--and non-mobile--technology needs. So instead of building an office for a large community, he focused on treating the workers as a family. "We have a theory that if an office is small in numbers it functions like an extended family," Wilkinson says. "The superdesk concept is scaled to family size, and was more about how to connect everyone as a family." Here, Wilkinson is pictured with his model of the Barbarian superdesk.
PHOTO: Redux
7
Building a New Village
Building a New Village
GLG's ranks of 250 New York City-based employees are growing rapidly. It's much larger than a family. "They are more of a village, or a city," Wilkinson says. Richard Socarides, the head of public affairs at GLG says the plan Wilkinson's firm built out for the office is "like a mini urban-design plan." Here, multiple seating arrangements that allow small groups at GLG to meet and work together.
PHOTO: Courtesy Company
8
Taking the Executive out of the Office
Taking the Executive out of the Office
Under the new "activity-based working" office plan, even GLG's chief executive Alexander Saint-Amand had to forfeit his corner office. But he decided to forego his private workspace months before the new office was completed. Wilkinson says he was "pleasantly surprised at how much more effective he became," once he moved to the common area. But companies considering adopting activity-based working should brace for a serious change in office culture, one which requires a lot of preparation. "There's a culture change as well, and we brought employees on the journey," Wilkinson says. "People are very habit-oriented, and almost in an old-fashioned way." But according to Socarides, it's going smoothly at GLG. "People have never been so excited to come to work," he says.
PHOTO: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Jul 23, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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