Inside the Googleplex

A look inside the inner sanctum of one of the world's most innovative companies.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted an office that would maximize both the creativity and productivity of their employees. They turned to designer Clive Wilkinson. Exclusive to Canadian Business: a peek inside the inner sanctum of one of the world's most successful companies, as seen through the eyes of its architect.

Canadian Business: What do you see as the basic forces shaping workplaces in the next 10 years?

Clive Wilkinson: The first thing you are tackling is how the company works. What are the good and bad aspects of current practice, and how can these be transformed. The workplace is a kind of mirror of the organizational form of the company. So you start with brainstorming and analysis. Then you make a scientific tabulation of clients' needs. Simultaneously, you're conducting interviews about how clients sees themselves 10 years down the road. What do they see as functional and dysfunctional about their environments? What are the relationships that need improvement?

So that's the No. 1 priority: to understand the client from within, to get underneath the skin of the company and how it works. Our clients are hugely varied, from as left-brain as Google, to large advertising agencies that are highly collaborative ? very right-brain. The needs are very different.

CB: What do you mean by right-brain versus left-brain?

CW: Left-brain is engineering: process and code and structured, deep-digging linear thinking. Right-brain has more to do with lateral thinking.

CB: Have you noticed certain patterns within your clients' needs?

CW: Left-brain companies typically have two types of process. They do very intensive individual work, which is highly focused and needs to have external environmental intrusions removed ? for Google, that was particularly important. These individuals needed a quiet environment because most of their work is writing code for many hours a day. They also have to collaborate, as they work in teams and share information in meetings with other team members. So there are two completely separate structural aspects to the Google workplace: sharing and individual process.

An advertising agency is much more right-brain. There's a very high degree of collaboration, shooting the shit, where they are basically feeling out in all directions for ideas. Their work relies on ideas ? the more original, the more they survive in the marketplace. They can work in a much higher acoustic environment. They need a certain level of disruption in the workplace.

CB: Because of the different tasks?

CW: Part of a disruptive work environment is this shifting of setting. Anyone who stays in one place for too long is understimulated, in that particular type of right-brain enterprise. In an advertising agency, high mobility and interaction are regarded as incredibly important. Probably more creative output happens through informal accidental meetings and moving around offices than in structured, scheduled meetings.

CB: Given these two kinds of working methods, are there universal attributes of an excellent office that both need?

CW: There are universals that have to do with the health of an environment ? very simple things, like control of light. The engineer's standard of 50 foot candles per unit is not only simplistic, it's unhealthy, as the eye requires variety for the muscle to contract and expand over the course of a day. You need visual stimulation. You need colour. In many respects, your internal environment should mirror the natural world.

CB: So what did you do with Google?

CW: The client wanted perimeter offices to wrap around the building. But that means you would be cutting off all the light. So we worked to develop offices that were pure glass walls in order to visually connect people to the outside world. We would also bounce light from the outside back in, to get a high degree of daylighting into the office space.

CB: What is the design feature that you are happiest with?

CW: They decided their ideal work module was this three- to four-person workroom. It was interesting that they didn't want total seclusion. So, we created the workroom as a glassed space equipped with highly flexible furniture. But to mitigate the acoustic environment that hard surfaces create, we supplied tent lids, which are highly sound-absorbent. We then had to figure how to service the office ? lighting, sprinklers ? through the lids. Basically all the services go through one node point, which also holds up the tent. It worked out really well.

One great discovery we made is of the leveraged learning that Google practises. Continuous seminars are being delivered almost all day ? in public locations, next to café spots, which are completely open. You walk through these spaces and there are people discussing formulas with colleagues. It's this support of continuous learning that struck us as unbelievably healthy. If a company is to keep up with the future, its internal learning processes have to keep up. If you support that, consciously and constructively, you'll be there 50 years on, when a lot of your competition has disappeared. We've experienced internal learning from other clients but not in such a direct, positive, structured way. It was mind-blowing.

CB: What are the mistakes we keep on making in office environments?

CW: The biggest mistake that designers make when a client comes to them is this old-school service mentality clicks in. The client doesn't necessarily have a clue about the extent to which his or her workplace determines the way the company works. I do believe the design profession has a responsibility to show clients how important their workplaces are, the extent to which they are mirrors of the organization. Very few designers do this. They show how something will look cool, not how it will affect work patterns.

CB: Are there typical things the client wants that are bad?

CW: Oh, yes. Especially status-driven things. So-and-so has to have an office because they've risen to a certain level in the company. The opening up of the workplace has probably been the biggest change in corporate practice in the last 30 years ? the flattening of hierarchies and removal of layers within companies.

Businesses can strangle themselves with layers of internal bureaucracy they create to enact anything within a company. Once a company is formulated in a certain direction, it tends to drive there, like an automobile. If circumstances change, say, this automobile is entering water, the old-fashioned company would just keep pushing on the gas pedal. The new company would start thinking about water protection, inflatable devices and things like that, to adapt to a new medium.

CB: What is the link between design, productivity and creativity?

CW: Our environments have to support what we do. That used to be very obvious: parts of a factory working together to make a product. Now, much of the industrial side has been outsourced. We're surviving on the currency of ideas: the support, proliferation and sharing of ideas. There are many simple ways in which environments can support or obstruct that process. There's no question the blueprint for the office of 1980, which involved a ring of offices around a perimeter, and a racetrack corridor, had nothing to do with bringing people together and facilitating the kind of knowledge-sharing you have to have in the office today. So we do everything we can to open up environments.