October 5, 2012 7:12 pm

Office envy and YouTube’s new home

It’s remarkable how many ‘tech’ and ‘digi’ companies fall for the same design clichés

How often do you show up for a meeting in unfamiliar territory and are suddenly slammed with an extreme case of office envy? Do you find yourself sensing that you’re in for a bit of a treat the second you glide into a lobby? Can you remember the last time you experienced that odd mix of elation and jealousy after drifting through a beautifully designed, serene environment?

I have a couple of offices on my circuit that I enjoy visiting and never fail to walk away from thinking – next time I need to install this type of door, fit that type of floor and make sure I get my receptionists to comb their hair and apply their make-up (boys excluded) just so.

In Stockholm, there’s always been something about the slightly sharp smell of the wood floors, the handsome yet practical furniture, that’s made it a joy to visit the offices of Thomas Eriksson. In Copenhagen, you can’t find a tighter ship than Maersk’s headquarters, with its subtle nautical touches, razor-sharp branding and perfectly appointed furnishings. In Tokyo, I could happily move into the mansion-cum-office of Wonderwall architects. And Diego Della Valle’s Milan office is always a pleasant environment to enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry or two. In all of these environments there’s comfort, attention to detail, fine materials, design for purpose and a calm sense of commerce.

As most corners of civilised society have been working from some form of orderly office set-up for many centuries now, I’m perplexed by how some of the world’s biggest companies can get it so wrong. More worrying is the frightful trend for turning offices into play schools for adults.

On Wednesday a press release fluttered off my colleague Hugo’s desk and landed at my feet. I stared at the images and tried to figure out what I was looking at. Was it a hotel? A nightclub? Tarted-up jumble sale for vintage furniture? The set of a US cable TV series about the early days of the porn industry?

“What on earth is this?” I asked.

“I thought you’d like it,” replied Hugo. “It’s the new headquarters for YouTube in London.”

“Why oh why do all of these companies have to create working environments that look like romper rooms?” I said.

“I know. It’s dreadful,” said Hugo.

“I’m feeling a column on this very theme is about to be rattled out,” I said, making my way to my desk.

Anyone who’s spent a little bit of time around San Francisco, funkier corners of Berlin and Munich, warehouse spaces on New York’s Lower West Side, and any other environment that might use the words “tech” or “digi” to define which part of the light industrial food group it falls into, will know what I’m talking about. For a sector that fancies itself as creative it’s remarkable how many companies fall for the same design clichés to show why they’re the right choice for grads looking for just the perfect home to amass a load of share options for a potential IPO. There’ll be skate ramps in reception, “kray-zee” furniture for otherwise dignified people to fall off while they wait to be collected by interns carrying massive Thermoses of lukewarm coffee, and there’s a good chance there’ll be lurid green AstroTurf underfoot. Beyond reception there’ll be basketball hoops, jogging lanes and tennis boundaries painted on the floor, along one wall will be a bunch of plush animal heads mounted, trophy-style, there’ll be lots of eating stations where people will be filling up their 500 litre Thermoses with various free beverages and, as you weave your way past half-finished walls made out of particle board, you’ll pass lots of young men who’ll never glance at you but will fist-bump their colleagues and shout “yo man” when they pass along the kooky zigzag corridor. Somewhere just beyond the bathrooms, which have been spray-painted by a local graffiti artist, you’ll come to a screeching halt and ask yourself five rapid-fire questions:

1. When is this infantilisation of the workplace going to end?

2. Who is responsible for it and can they be prosecuted?

3. Do shareholders really endorse all of these extracurricular add-ons when staff should be working rather than “brain-jamming” while throwing around a spongy football?

4. Do these fun diversions keep people in the office longer and result in more productive days?

5. Does all of this nonsense mask the fact that working with algorithms and developing apps is boring and therefore requires airlock-style soundproof rooms so staff can sneak away in search of more meaningful employment?

Perhaps, like me, you’ll come to the conclusion that these sophomoric playgrounds are not the indulgent grands projets of benevolent tech billionaires but little more than upmarket versions of Foxconn manufacturing compounds. Who needs guard houses and razor wire when all you need is round-the-clock free soda and crisps?

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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