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OM in the News: Office Layout in Silicon Valley

May 10, 2017

Throughout Silicon Valley, cash-rich technology firms are building bold, futuristic headquarters that convey their brands to employees and customers. Uber, for example, is designing an entirely see-through HQ. It is expected to have some interior areas, as well as a park, that will be open to the public. The very newest buildings, such as Apple’s, are highly innovative in their internal layout. Some of that is because of fierce competition within the tech industry for the best talent: firms are particularly keen to come up with attractive, productive environments. “But these new office spaces will also signal how work is likely to evolve,” writes The Economist (April 29, 2017).

The big idea championed by the industry is the concept of working in various spaces around an office rather than at a fixed workstation. Employees may still have an assigned desk but they are not expected to be there, and they routinely go to different places to do various tasks. There are “libraries” where they can work quietly, as well as cafés and outdoor spaces for meetings and phone calls. The top floors of Salesforce Tower, for example, will be used not as executive corner offices but as an airy lounge for employees where they can work communally.

A fluid working environment is meant to allow for more chance encounters, which could spur new ideas and spark unexpected collaborations. Facebook has the world’s largest open-plan office, designed to encourage employees to bump into one another in its common spaces and garden. Amazon aims to make communal areas into “living-room-like spaces.” The lack of fixed workstations shrinks the amount of expensive real estate given to employees without leaving them feeling too squeezed. Tech firms devote around 15 square yards to each employee, 1/4 less than other industries.

Young workers are thought to be more productive in these varied environments, which are reminiscent of the way people study and live at university. One drawback, however, is that finding colleagues can be difficult.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Are these layouts likely to permeate other industries?
  2. Will everyone be pleased with the new designs?
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