For more than three decades, Clive Wilkinson has been among the most sought-after office designers in the world. He has planned spaces for the likes of Microsoft, Disney, Intuit and other companies seeking unorthodox approaches to work life.
But he now has regrets about what is perhaps his most famous work: Googleplex, the tech giant's posh headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Wilkinson helped lay out Google's campus after winning its design competition in 2004, leading him to work directly with Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
"Larry and Sergey said at the time, 'We don't really have any reference point but the Stanford campus model,' " said Wilkinson.
In Mountain View, what emerged was a maze of well-lit nooks, bleachers and clubhouse rooms to encourage collaboration. The office would also become famous for its amenities: Gourmet meals. Fitness classes. Organic gardens. Massage rooms. Laundry services. Private parks. Volleyball courts. Swimming pools. And so on.
But looking back, Wilkinson thinks Google's luxurious on-site perks have made workers too dependent on the company, a situation he calls "dangerous."
"This notion that you can provide everything that would support a worker's life on campus might appear to be extremely generous and supportive," he said. "But it also has a whole range of potentially negative impacts."
Wilkinson spoke in an interview at his glass-enclosed hillside home in West Los Angeles, which some have compared to a "spaceship on stilts." His comments on Google's campus came during an extensive conversation with NPR about how the pandemic may forever reshape office life and what it could mean for workers.
While Silicon Valley has long been known for offering unusual amenities to its workers, Google's offerings set a high bar. Other tech giants began to roll out their own free meals, nature trails and private transportation services in efforts to attract and retain talent. But Wilkinson said as companies plan to bring workers back into the office, such arrangements should be reconsidered.
He said blurring the line between work and non-work keeps employees tethered to the office, benefiting the employer most of all. That, he argues, may seem to keep workers happy but can quickly spark burnout.
"Work-life balance cannot be achieved by spending all your life on a work campus. It's not real. It's not really engaging with the world in the way most people do," he said. "It also drains the immediate neighborhoods of being able to have a commercial reality."
Employees have no reason to leave campus to explore local cafes, restaurants or grocery stores because everything is handed to them. To Wilkinson, overly coddling workers like this is "fundamentally unhealthy."
That, he said, "hasn't been recognized as one of the dangerous side effects."
If an employer is trying to foster creativity, "you don't want an overly comfortable workplace. You shouldn't have sleep pods everywhere," he said. "Creative work doesn't happen in a condition of luxury. If you have that much luxury, you naturally want to fall asleep."
At the same time, it is "a difficult one to pull apart," he said. "Because once you made all those offers to your employees, how do you pull back from that situation?"
Authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen talked to Wilkinson about his new perspective on Googleplex in their new book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home.
"There's a way that something that was built with good intentions can be slightly corrupted," Warzel told NPR. "It's not a terrible thing for employees to get nice perks, but what is it in service of? Making you a better worker? Or making sure your needs are met? Or keeping you stuck in this liminal work-like state for as long as possible."
That said, plenty of Google's some 144,000 employees appear to be just fine with the on-site luxuries their employer provides. Surveys routinely place Google at the top of lists for worker happiness and satisfaction with how much employees are paid. When the pandemic forced Googlers off campus, it appears it dented worker morale, and the company is responding with new cash bonuses.
The office is not dead, Wilkinson argues
When COVID-19 hit, some 2.5 million square feet of office space Wilkinson's firm was working on was canceled or delayed. But he becomes defiant when asked whether the pandemic has killed the office.
"It's ridiculous to say the office is dead," said Wilkinson, "The office is the fermenting ground for people growing into successful adults. How would that ever be dead?"
Studies suggest remote work will outlast the pandemic. But most companies in a new U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey said they also plan to maintain their office spaces. Wilkinson's corporate clients are now returning. He says most of them are not ready to forgo the office. They are, however, eager for a facelift, one that makes sense in a hybrid work environment.
To a certain degree, he said, companies are winging it.
"People don't know how much space they need anymore, so I think an awful lot of large companies are waiting to see what everybody else does," Wilkinson said.
No one wants a depressingly empty office, something he calls "one of the biggest problems in the new workplace."
He adds: "When you go in there, specifically because of hybrid working, is the place going to feel that it's underpowered and it's running on empty?"
And so he suspects, happily, that the pandemic has wiped out one particular type of office: the cubicle farm.
"Cubicles are like human chicken farming. They have always been bad for anything other than kind of factory farming kind of approach to the office," he said. "Put people in tiny little footprint because it takes less money than an enclosed office and we can kind of keep an eye on them."
Out with the old office, in with the 'boutique hotel' feel
If jammed-together desks are out and Wilkinson cautions against swanky amenities à la Google, what does the post-pandemic workplace resemble?
Wilkinson envisions big, open spaces with couches and cozy nooks as work stations that are not assigned to any single employee. An environment where it's easy to hang out and chat.
"You might think you're walking into the lounge of a boutique hotel," Wilkinson said. "It's an amazingly effective work environment, even though there's no conventional kind of office furnishing or anything like that."
He has noticed something else about the pandemic-era office plans he is now working on: companies are investing in outdoor spaces. Go ahead, answer your emails in the shade.
"Because now it's seen as being healthy," he said. "Health itself has suddenly become one of the top criteria about where you work."
He said the future office will be a balancing act. It needs to be more attractive than working from home, yet not so attractive that workers don't want to go home.
But not even the most seasoned corporate architect can predict the answer to the question at the center of it all: How many workers really want to return to the office, and how often do they want to be there?
"We're having very interesting conversations with a lot of clients right now about, 'Does the office need to be a bunch of project rooms? Does it need to be one huge cafeteria?' " he said. "We're now building a lot of Zoom rooms, which is something we never did before."