The Workplace Campus: Today and Tomorrow

Susan S. Szenasy talks with the principals of Gensler Los Angeles, their clients Google, and L.A.’s Riot Games on the revolutionary shifts that have enabled workers to shape their time and space at work.

workplace campus future
Google, Venice Offices. © Benny Chan.

For the second year, Metropolis publisher and editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy has moderated a series of discussions with industry leaders on key issues around human-centered design. On April 13, 2016, she talked to the principals of Gensler Los Angeles and their clients Google, based nearby in Venice, and L.A.’s Riot Games. The conversation centered on the revolutionary shifts that have enabled workers to shape their time and space at work, and the design that has facilitated this transformation. Also present were our sponsors, DuPont Surfaces, KI, Sunbrella, and USGBC. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, prepared by Dora Vanette.

The Changing Workplace

Susan S. Szenasy (SSS): My visit to Riot Games revealed a world that’s surprising, beautiful, and diverse. The first thing I saw was a young workforce gathered from all races, genders, and cultures. They are tech-savvy yet fascinated by craft. Joseph, can you introduce us to the culture that challenged Michael White and the Gensler team when they designed the Riot Games office?

Joseph Donaldson, director of facilities, Riot Games (JD): We’ve been very fortunate at Riot to be able to work with some of the smartest and the best people. They challenge us constantly. We have to be intensely thoughtful around them. It’s a very inspiring environment where people expect us to think clearly and thoroughly about each challenge and put solutions in place that make sense for a specific environment.

SSS: Today we talk a lot about co-creation. Riot designers as well as gamers collaborate; the game they play morphs and evolves; it’s symbolic of the digital world we’ve entered. This iterative way of making things has so much potential for the future.

Google is also a great example of this shift. When Google came on the scene, it felt like a very young group of computer science engineers interested in writing code, little else. Now we hear of more mature Googlers who have rich lives and interests and bring that to the conversation. How does that enrich the teams, the kinds of people that you’re attracting now?

Thomas Williams, vice president, engineering, and site lead, Google, L.A. (TW): Fortunately, people who come to work at Google tend to stay. They grow with the company. And new people come to us from universities and start-ups. This shift has changed the conversation. Yet it’s difficult to scale up the culture and the community. One way we do this is admit that Google offices don’t have to be the same at every location. Silicon Valley is very different from New York City. Venice is really important to me because of its huge diversity of types of people and professions, and we hope to maintain that mix. But bringing them together was a new challenge.

With tech work, it’s easy for people to be inside their heads and their computers. The first thing we looked at was what would make them feel good about where they work, but also let them experience the community beyond our walls. More than that, how can we bring the community into our workspace? We came up with a photo gallery, curated by Googlers. Now even those who don’t go to museums can walk by the exhibitions as they get a coffee, look at the photos, even if only for a moment. Such experiences outside your work make you interested in what’s going on elsewhere. In addition, we bring our neighbors in through auctions of artwork from the Venice community.

workplace campus future
Google, Venice Offices. © Benny Chan.

The New Work Culture Focuses on the Individual

SSS: Michael, you’re confronted with talented people who have conflicting needs like quiet, noise, communication, privacy, movement, fluidity—things we never associated with the modern office. What is the first thing that comes to your mind about what has to change about how you do your job as a designer?

Michael White, AIA, IIDA, managing director and principal, Gensler (MW): Both Joseph and Tom describe a culture that starts with the individual. For designers, that’s sometimes a different perspective. We used to look at projects by focusing on the big picture. Here we start with the individual, with the idiosyncrasies and the uniqueness of each person. This approach allows the space to evolve in a much more meaningful way, starting with the fundamental elements of what individuals need to be inspired. This allows us to come at a big-picture vision almost backward. We’re authentically approaching the culture by bits and pieces, and allowing all that to bubble up into what the overall picture will be.

SSS: John, one of your areas of expertise is real estate strategy. Can you tell us about the connectivity of these offices to the larger community, the natural world, and the urban context?

John Adams, AIA, LEED AP, managing director and principal, Gensler (JA): The Silicon Valley syndrome is something that we battle with a lot—the question of whether an office space is integrated into the community or not. The Google Venice experience is very much an urban experience. We challenged everybody to be open to the community.

In the case of Riot, privacy is a very big deal. A site was selected that is in a quasi-urban area where we had to create an environment that could be self-contained and self-sustaining. But we still developed a strong relationship to the outdoors through operable windows and garage doors so that people could be connected to the outside, versus just seeing the outside.

SSS: During my visit to Riot the lunchroom was closing but people were still outside eating. Our guide explained that instead of emailing each other, workers there are encouraged to meet face-to-face. With 1,600 employees on campus, there’s a lot of movement—people walking, talking, playing ball. Someone asked, “When do they work?” Our guide answered, “This is how work gets done here. There is trust. It’s assumed that when they’re walking, they’re getting work done.”

workplace campus future
Google, Venice Offices. © Benny Chan.

Is Furniture Designed for the New Ways of Working?

MW: The biggest compliment we got on both the Google and the Riot Games projects was that their spaces really work for them. Tom and I spent a lot of time talking about what’s the scale of a neighborhood, how big is too big, how small is too small, what constitutes an individual workspace or a collaborative team space, and what’s the menu of things that these people need in order to function at their best. We approached the spaces like an urban planning project, where you have primary circulation and secondary circulation—neighborhood streets and cul-de-sacs that allow you to deal with traffic so that people aren’t walking through and talking in the middle of your private workspace.

SSS: The industrial culture of work was based on regimentation and control. Today we talk about fluidity—the movement of people and furnishings, the sharing of ideas. Yet much of the furniture available seems to be made for the last century. Let’s talk about the space and how it’s furnished.

JD: Previously, benching systems locked people in place at Riot. But dynamic teams expand and contract, form, and break apart. Over time it became very painful to move people. So we looked for different types of furniture systems. We didn’t find anything that met this need robustly. Then we drew up what we thought an ideal workstation would be like. We asked ourselves, “Do we even need desks?” “What are we actually doing at a desk?” We realized we needed an equipment platform.

We drew lines on a whiteboard, imagining this platform with attachment points that was curved around the user, and someone said, “That looks like the drum kit at my house.” Gensler bought into this idea with great enthusiasm. They went down to the basement with a big pile of drum-kit parts and tinkered with how to put this thing together in a way that would make sense. As they worked on it, they realized it would need four points for stability and some surface space. The more that we iterated, the more it looked like a desk.

The main takeaway was that we wanted workstations to be mobile and we wanted to enable teams and individuals to reconfigure them. To make this mobility work, all equipment had to attach in a way that wasn’t clumsy. So the furniture we supplied to individuals and teams was built on the same principle of individual determinism. It supports the need of individuals and teams that use the equipment and the tools that create their workspace to work the way they want to work. Even the walls are on casters and can be moved.

Enabling teams to determine their own space and work the way they want to gives workers an investment in their space: They shape it. Ultimately this solution undermines a lot of the angst and frustrations people have around working in open office environments, where they feel they have no control.

MW: It’s not a free-for-all environment; we standardized to some degree. There are certainly limitations of what you can do with the furniture. A main regulatory feature is a grid you plug into for power and data. You can’t run too far away because the whips are only a certain length, so everyone is tethered and stays in little clusters. But they can make different shapes and organize themselves differently. Also, because of standardization everything looks very much the same. The same chairs, walls, and desks ensure that the space isn’t visually overwhelming.

It was fascinating for us to work simultaneously on the two projects because they shared a lot of the same problems, yet each solution is different, based on how each company works. For example, Riot’s technology was so proprietary to the individual animator working on a particular setup, the idea of moving them from one desk to another meant you literally had to take the entire technology setup and move it.

Unique to Google was that their teams work in clusters of four, six, eight, or ten people. We came up with a saying: “Your noise is bad noise, but my noise is good noise,” meaning, “If you’re not on my team—if you’re working on another project and you’re talking—that’s distracting, but if I’m working with you on a project and I overhear you, that’s good noise, because I’m invested in what you’re talking about; what you’re talking about is relevant to me.”

workplace campus future
Google, Venice Offices. © Benny Chan.

Redefining Amenities

JA: There is also the question of “amenities,” a word everyone uses, including our developer clients. But the value of amenities has shifted over the years. It started off being Ping- Pong and foosball tables. At that time, amenities were a way of getting away from work, and now it’s shifted toward the idea of wellness. We’re seeing the physical requirements in these campuses changing.

Barbara Bouza, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP, EDAC, managing director and principal, Gensler (BB): Amenities are not the extras, they’re about solving a problem. We used to think of amenities as the above and beyond; now they are integrated into the process.

JD: It’s the idea that instead of leaving the office building and walking somewhere else to have some nonwork experience, people on our campus can engage in some recreational activity with their coworkers.

SSS: It is more of an integrated life.

JD: The head of a more traditional company was touring the Riot campus and noticed a bunch of people playing basketball on the quad. He asked me, “What are these people doing?” I said, “Well, they’re playing basketball.” He said, “Who tells them when they have to go back to work?” I looked at Michael; I didn’t know how to answer that, because they are at work.

MW: There is a trusting relationship between the company and the employees because they’re hiring really good, self-motivated people who come to work because they want to innovate. The old idea of coming to work at eight and leaving at five is almost irrelevant. These workers are being hired to do a job that they already want to do, and those who hire them know that they’ll get it done. The difference is that they get it done when they want to. This allows employees to accommodate their personal lives, bring the things they’re interested in into their work experience in a nonlinear way. There are no time cards.

TW: People hold themselves to very high standards if they’re given freedom and not told what to do. How do we encourage that? Also, given these great facilities, can people venture outside the office into the community?

JD: The reason we built a large dining area at Riot was to solve a problem that comes with the company’s location in L.A. At Olympic Boulevard and Bundy Drive there are very few places to eat within walking distance. The restaurant was just a practical solution with a lot of benefits that came along with it. Had we been in a neighborhood like Venice, we probably wouldn’t have done it this way.

SSS: That’s what I love about these two solutions. They are both part of their environment.

workplace campus future
Panelists at Gensler’s Los Angeles offices.

From Top-Down to Iterative Design

MW: Our design process has changed fundamentally, due to the way companies like Google and Riot Games interact with us and with their workers. Not long ago we would meet with a client, understand their needs, run back to our office, do the design work, present the solution to them. In the new world, it’s much more iterative. There is a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of adjusting, evolving, and questioning. We can literally have meetings every day, which may sometimes be frustrating, but it results in better solutions. We don’t get fixated on a single point of view we develop for two weeks and present with absolute conviction that we’ve got it nailed. What happens now is that we’re changing our path as we’re working on the design, and that was what both of these companies helped us arrive at.

Recent Programs