Enforced isolation

19 : 07 : 2016 Office Design : Future Of The Workplace : Tech Industry
The plans for Amazon's new headquarters in Seattle The plans for Amazon's new headquarters in Seattle

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has long been a detractor of the self-contained suburban campuses of his competitors. His company has committed to maintaining an urban HQ irrespective of how large it grows. Its future office space, expected to open in 2018, is situated in the heart of Seattle. Amazon is relocating from the cityʼs South Lake Union neighbourhood, an area that the company revived by renting out retail units in its offices to local businesses. Instead of using services provided in-house, workers had to shop and eat in the local community.

Rather than propping up the local economy, other technology brands are seemingly more interested in investing in slides and football tables. ‘One of the things the Google effect has had is the idea that work is somehow a playground and you can infantilise your staff,’ office design expert Jeremy Myerson told Dezeen. ‘It’s actually a very bad idea.’ Such play furniture is the most extreme manifestation of a larger crèche mentality affecting the design and provision of many technology company HQs, cossetting staff and limiting opportunities for them to engage with the public for whom they are building products.

This starts at the macro level with their location, often isolated along major roads outside of urban centres, such as Google’s own Googleplex in Mountain View, Apple’s private enclave in Cupertino and Facebook’s complex in Palo Alto. The relative isolation and extreme work culture of these office spaces result in them being self-contained eco-systems that pander to employees’ needs down to the smallest detail, often at little to no cost. These sites are, in the full sense of the phrase, mother ships.

This means that employees are rarely required to leave the company campus. When they do, as has been highly publicised, it is often only within the confines of a company coach. The stretch from the drop-off point to their front door might be the only chance they regularly have to interact with the general public during the working week.

This lack of opportunity for staff to come into contact with people of opposing points of view and experience is of particular concern in an industry that already has a serious diversity problem. Statistics released in 2015 showed that Facebook’s male to female ratio is 71.2% to 28.8%, Google’s is 72.2% to 27.8% and Microsoft’s is 75.7% to 24.3%. The picture is just as bleak when it comes to their ethnic make-up, with three quarters or more senior staff at Facebook, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, eBay and Airbnb being Caucasian.

These figures have a direct effect on the sort of products these companies produce. Silicon Valley pours most of its energy into solving the non-problems of the already affluent. As commentator Lux Alptraum describes it: ‘If you’re struggling to get by in a world where standing on the street to hail a cab is too much trouble, and you’re willing to spend as much money as you would eating out to dine in, start-ups are here to help you.’

It has become clear that these biases can creep unnoticed into systems that millions presume to be impartial. Take the recent allegations that Facebook’s trending topics were being skewed by staff’s own political leanings. Bear in mind that, according to Pew Research, 66% of Facebook’s users in the US consume news through the site. Then there is evidence that many so-called artificially intelligent systems exhibit many of their creators’ prejudices. This has led to accusations by futurist Richard Watson that ‘in Silicon Valley, young white men are stealing the future from everyone else’.

Back in Seattle, Amazon’s new site will feature three 100-feet tall biodomes housing more than 300 plants, as well as innovation spaces for employees. Creating a separate eco-system in the heart of the city is admittedly a confusing signal for a company seemingly so invested in being part of its immediate community. Retaining a few of the sci-fi and playground tropes of tech company architecture is, however, a small price to pay if it can persuade the rest of the industry to come out of isolation. If the bubble can’t be completely burst, perhaps it can at least be relocated.