Co-working spaces in Silicon Valley

Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. 

Co-working spaces are one of the distinguishing features of to-day’s new-fangled Accelerators (short periods of intensive development for a limited number of carefully chosen small teams working alongside one another, aiming to develop an idea for a new business into a marketable proposition with the support of facilitators and an army of mentors). In imitation of Silicon Valley, London has been seeing a wave of new such spaces in the last two years. So what do the new buildings of Facebook, Twitter and Google have to tell us about the design of these spaces?*

Change is seen as high technology’s most valuable commodity. The cubicle has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

Facebooks’ headquarters encloses a pedestrian square and a two-way promenade. The complex has a cup-cake store and a barbeque joint, a wood working shop, a print shop and an arcade. It also includes two cafeterias, several special food shops, and three small restaurants, and shortly a noodle shop. Everything is free or subsidised.

Facebooks’ unofficial slogan is “hack”, which has come to mean remaking something with an amateur’s passionate disregard for the usual rules. Their Hackathons are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does so.

There are posters everywhere, that exhort change, hacking and fearlessness – like ‘Taking risks give me energy’ and ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Facebook moves around as many as 1,000 out of its 6,000 employees every month, re-assigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so that they are short and decisive.

The print and wood working shops are intended to keep employees grounded in offline experiences, including personal projects and the printing of many of the wall posters, which the company hopes will help them create more consumer-friendly software. Bike repair shops, along with a bank and the free food, help keep people close to campus.

Couches in the casual areas are often replaced with no advance warning, and design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as ‘moving the furniture around’, something that initially annoys consumers but pays off over the long haul – people get used to change when change is expected.

At Twitter’s headquarters, irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas – the company encourages informal meetings in this low-stress setting, hoping that it will help foster new ideas. Back in the business areas, there are open-plan work spaces, along with individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working. Here there is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: we must all change, all the time.

Information sharing has become the hallmark of Silicon Valley companies, particularly when things are going well. It is another way of fostering the idea, borne in the programming world, that hidden data is actually more valuable when shared.

Google’s new headquarters has its dinosaur and cupcake sculptures and multi-coloured bicycles for intracampus transport. But what seems like whimsy is a result of careful, data-driven decision-making. A team-leader in Google’s Real Estate Department cites studies of ‘biophilia’ – love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels. He is after the Holy Grail of the Knowledge Industry – ‘how to measure productivity, which is not just how quickly you type or how well you make a line of code, but how you feel about it, and whether you had enough energy to play with your kids when you got home’.

Google Real Estate is more lab that furniture department: it tests chairs in order to provide each person with the correct chair; it tests desks, lighting systems, heating systems etc. It has ripped out ceilings and installed skylights in order to provide more natural lighting; and it provides ‘nap pods’ where people can catch a few winks in enclosed silence, with noise reducing cushions. ‘The harder we work the more important it is to have to space to get away from the chaos for a while’.

*Adapted from the `International New York Times’ 3 March 2014

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