Amusement Perks: How the Cult of Cool Offices Took Over the Cubicle World

  • “A home away from home,” is how ZocDoc director of people Karsten Vagner describes the website’s Soho offices. Which struck us as slightly misleading—how many New Yorkers’ neglected apartments have two fridges and a freezer stocked daily with healthy snacks? Which is to say nothing of a game room and a hammock flanked by blow-up palm trees.

    “More than once I’ve heard parents say, ‘Is this real?’ when they see the hammock,” said Mr. Vagner. “I brought my dad into the office last week. It was the first thing he wanted to do when he got off the train.”

    Speaking with Mr. Vagner and company spokeswoman Jessica Aptman, it was striking how happy they sounded. When we grumbled about yet more snow in March, they told us how everyone at the office was Instagramming the snow from the office’s big windows.

    “I think that people can change a company and a space can change a person,” said Mr. Vagner. “I know that if I’m sitting on my yoga ball and I can see other people, if I have plants or action figures on my desk, I’m going to be a lot happier and more productive than if I was isolated in a dark cubicle.”

    Still, some of it seemed a little silly. When did workers really need a hammock?

    “When don’t you need a hammock!” they exclaimed in unison.

    Just the prospect of moving to a cool office is enough to make some workers giddy. Ryan Alovis, the CEO and founder of ArkNet Media, a midsize Long Island startup, was surprised at how psyched his 16 employees were when he told them they’d be ditching their traditional office in Valley Stream for a hip, college-campus-like complex in Garden City.

    “They’re so hyped up, everyone’s freaking out,” he said. “I walked by my VP of operations and he showed me a pool table that they have at L.A.’s Hard Rock Cafe that he wanted us to get—every time you hit a ball, it either reveals a girl in a bikini or it looks like a ball of fire. The other day, someone showed me a robotic bar.”

    There will not be the bikini/flame pool table or a robotic bar at the new office, but there will be a normal bar, a fitness center, a “coffee center, not just coffee,” a juicer and pizza parties. “You have to wow people,” said Mr. Alovis. “A juicer, a fitness center, a cafeteria—people expect this now. Tech workers are the new rock stars.”

    And they have the Rock Band setups to prove it.

    It should not come as a surprise that corporate America—its once-promised financial security and career stability having vanished—would be drawn to the cultural blueprint and anti-status ethos provided by tech. While tech’s DNA is fundamentally capitalist—create something new and make a lot of money selling it—the industry proved that it could not only make money and be cool at the same time, but that it could make money by being cool.

    By following the path that tech forged, companies have an opportunity to remake their images along with their offices. Now companies talk endlessly of creating interactions, of CEOs getting right into the mix of things, of ideas circulating and flourishing in their open floor plans. As though we were all creative geniuses or industry trailblazers and office drudgery were a thing of the past. As though we could wipe out the thankless, unglamorous tasks that make up the entirety of some jobs right along with bad fluorescent lighting.

    The cool office sells not only an image of a creative hotbed to clients, but perhaps more importantly, to employees. It invites them to see their job as a form of self-expression rather than rote labor, granting flexibility in exchange for loyalty and long hours. And worker bees have responded enthusiastically, taking to Instagram and Twitter to brag about their amazing workplaces. Some even pen boastful CNN iReports, like the recent one by an MKG employee that started “Our office is our playground” and described taking “goofy group shots” in the office photobooth.

    There is something vaguely unsettling, though, something overwrought about the descriptions of all the fun being had: the Tuesday-night runs that “take off from the office and end at a local pub,” the spontaneous exercise breaks where employees can be found “shaking the sillies out in a no-judgement zone,” the craft nights with wine and cheese where everyone makes “holiday themed cards, or mugs, or whatever strikes our fancy!”

    Is day-to-day office life really so thrilling that a photobooth is needed to capture all the precious moments? Since when is any workplace a no-judgement zone? (And why should it be?) Moreover, who really wants to sit around making mugs with their co-workers?

    There is a cult-like undertone in this all-encompassing existence, in the blurring of lines between home and office, between personal time and work time, between employee and self. The cool office works to disguise the very basis of the relationship between company and employee: the exchange of money for work. Work is a lot of things, but this is its fundamental essence.

    As architect Sam Jacob recently wrote in Dezeen, the rise of the fun office can be seen “as a denial of the very real power structures inherent in labour relations.” And “even more fundamentally sinister is the idea of work colonising the real spaces of intimacy and freedom: when your office resembles all the places that you go to escape work, maybe there is no escape from work itself.”

    But for better or worse, Americans have always embraced that “you are what you do.” The idea that “you are where you work—literally” is new. For many of us, the cool office ministers not only to our immediate needs, but also to our fantasies: fantasies about the kind of people we would like to be, the jobs we wish we had, the lives we wish we were leading. We might not land that dream job, but the dream office could be within reach!

    And yet, as much as the cool office can seem to matter, it can also matter very little. Of the many conversations that The Observer had with the haves and the have-nots of the office world—in the twinges and, okay, flashes of envy we sometimes felt—our thoughts returned frequently to what a Google engineer said to us, after describing a Vermont ski weekend the company had taken him on, Lang Lang’s visit, and a lunch of expertly prepared salmon and roasted Brussels sprouts: “At the end of the day, whether you enjoy your job or not is more important than getting roasted Brussels sprouts.”

    But, he added, just so long as we were writing about cool offices, we should know that as good as New York’s Google headquarters are, “the truly awesome stuff is in Mountain View.”

    kvelsey@observer.com

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    WeWork's offices. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    ZocDoc's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

  • BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

    BuzzFeed's office. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)