The End Of Office Playtime

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The End Of Office Playtime

Words by Mr Jonathan Openshaw

19 July 2017

Here’s why the game is up for ping-pong tables and breakout zones.

The increasing overlap between our social and working lives means gamification has become a major trend in office design, where corporates attempt to woo would-be workers with wacky design features and fun perks. The seeds of this movement were sown in the Silicon Valley headquarters of Google, but it has now spread globally with even the most mundane company seeming to take cues from the floor plan of the search engine’s campus. Ping-pong tables, slides and pinball machines abound, while bowling alleys, free food and in-house dry cleaning are now run of the mill for many, especially in Northern California.

But as this amenities arms race has taken hold, has anyone actually been checking in on what us workers want? New research from property company JLL, spanning 12 countries and canvassing employees at companies such as Coca-Cola, Facebook and Google, has found that only 12 per cent want social and recreational activities at work. Could playtime be over?

There was once method to this madness. Google may be known for ludicrous perks, but – as with all things at this data-crunching behemoth – the freebies are carefully calibrated to maximise payoff. It’s telling that the company’s HR department is called the People Analytics Team and all perks are closely monitored.

Take free food, for example. This may appear to be a straightforward way of attracting the most talented workers, but a communal meal also has an important function of ensuring serendipitous interaction between Googlers. Free food also locks employees into the campus instead of encouraging them to leave for lunch or head home for dinner. What’s more, when the People Analytics Team find that unhealthy behaviour is emerging (as they apparently did with M&M consumption a few years ago), they take swift action. By hiding sugary sweets, they slashed calorie consumption in the New York office by 3.1 million over a seven-week period. Healthy workers are productive workers, after all.

So, although the £5,500 MetroNap sleep pods, spinning studio, 90m indoor running track and on-site butchery classes available at Google’s new London HQ in King’s Cross may seem excessive, you can bet there’s data backing up their inclusion in the design.

Google has the muscle power to monitor and calibrate the impact of perks on its employees, but over the past decade other companies have merely aped its practices in the hope of appearing innovative. Badly deployed freebies can distract and confuse employees, however, and can even end up actively damaging morale when they are reduced or withdrawn.

Although workplace fun and freebies were initially designed to encourage certain behaviour, it’s less clear what Ticketmaster staff gain from a two-storey slide in its London HQ, how web domain provider GoDaddy benefits from providing go-karts on its Arizona campus, whether staff at online retailer Zappos really want to engage in Nerf Dart wars with their colleagues, or what the exact productivity benefit of having a Ferris wheel on site is for insurer Acuity. There’s a fine line between a company perk and a publicity stunt.

What’s more, as elite workers have become accustomed to bountiful freebies, ever greater perks are expected at the tech giants. Apple and Facebook now offer to reimburse female employees up to $20,000 (£15,300) to freeze their eggs, while Netflix allows unlimited holidays and fully paid parental leave of up to a year. Several tech companies even cover gender reassignment therapy. As the amenities providers make a land grab into even the most intimate aspects of our personal lives, it seems there really is no limit to corporate “largesse”, prompting many commentators to question whether this really is a good thing for the workers.

Faced with employers who want to give us the world, it seems that employees are starting to bite the hand that feeds them. The same JLL report found that, although two-thirds of employees thought workplaces should be responsible for our happiness, only a third wanted a “chief happiness officer” and only one in eight thought that offices should provide games.

It’s clear that some freebies feel immature in their excesses, while others, such as fertility treatment and gender reassignment, are truly life changing. But could there be something more sinister going on? Mr Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle has just been released as a film. It features a dystopian Google-esque campus where people are locked into a system of total disclosure and exposure. Commitment to the company is absolute and opting out impossible. Critics have argued that this sci-fi vision is on the verge of becoming a reality and that office perk culture is little more than golden handcuffs. If food is free, why leave for dinner? If nap pods are available, why go to bed? If childcare is on hand, why take parental leave? If entertainment is on tap, why cultivate a social life? The list goes on.

When viewed through this lens, the most radical corporate perks, such as those relating to fertility treatment, can also start to appear dystopian. If your employer offers to freeze your eggs for you, are they tacitly implying that you should delay parenthood for your career? There’s no hard evidence that corporate motivations are anything other than wanting to improve employee wellbeing and long-term productivity, but these policies have still drawn criticism across the media.

No two employees are the same and different people will react very differently to the same incentive. Professor Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has made a career out of studying workplace benefits, and she breaks employees down into “integrators” or “segmentors”, with today’s perk culture squarely aimed at the former. Segmentors, however, can feel stifled and even threatened by employers getting too hands-on with their personal lives.

In London, Bloomberg is leading the charge against what it sees as employee infantilisation. When the new £1bn Sir Norman Foster-designed headquarters in the heart of the City opens its doors later this year, there will be a pantry area to buy snacks, but no cafeteria for lunch. It’s a way to avoid “Google syndrome” and to encourage employees to “get out and enjoy the local economy”, according to Mr Michael Bloomberg. Similarly, Amazon’s new Seattle HQ will be in the heart of downtown rather than some remote university-style campus, with 100ft-tall biospheres containing more than 300 plant species that allow Amazonians to experience nature in the heart of the urban jungle.

Instead of isolating employees in a corporate bubble of perks on some godforsaken rural campus, it seems that employers are focusing on what workers really want: proximity to culture, easy transport, excellent local bars and restaurants, decent salaries, clear job prospects, meaningful support from managers and general all-round job satisfaction. No amount of ping-pong tables, fairground rides or free food can cover the cracks if these fundamental needs aren’t addressed first.

Illustrations by Mr Fernando Volken Togni