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

  • Last winter, BuzzFeed got a pony. Well, technically it was a miniature horse named Mystic, and she came by for a visit one morning—a surprise treat for hitting a web-traffic goal. Sure, a cash bonus might have been more practical, but a little pony with pink ribbons in her mane and a tiny gold party hat that stuck up like a unicorn’s horn? So much cooler. And judging by the photos that employees quickly posted on Facebook and Twitter, Mystic’s visit was basically the best day ever. At least until the time she visited with a piglet and a tiny bandana-
    wearing goat. Or the time Grumpy Cat—the famous cranky-looking feline—stopped by.

    It was enough to make even a Google employee jealous. Not that Google’s New York offices don’t have their own enviably cool visitors—Stephen Colbert, Lang Lang and Toni Morrison, to name just a few. Employees also get razor scooters. And pool tables. And arcade games. And subsidized massages. And free gourmet meals. And a full-service, full-size dessert truck permanently parked on the eighth floor.

    These days, visitors to a New York office are as likely to stumble into a game of Ping-Pong as they are to find suited workers shuffling through a grim landscape of carpet tile and cubicles. Thrillist has a kegerator; building-mate Foursquare has shuffleboard and a beer of the week. Etsy’s Dumbo headquarters blends homemade coziness and high-end design so masterfully it could make an Urban Outfitters executive weep.

    Until quite recently, such perks were considered the eccentric luxuries of 20-something tech prodigies, edgy advertising firms and cash-flush startups. Corporate America dismissed the cool office as a fleeting phenomenon. But the wild successes of companies like Google and Facebook have made even the stodgiest CEOs contemplate the potential benefits of video game consoles and French-press coffee. A Ping-Pong table in the middle of your office used to imply that you were run by a 24-year-old. Now a lot of companies want to imply that they’re run by a 24-year-old.

    Indeed, the cool office has become a national fixation. And in the country’s collective imagination—an imagination fed by countless magazines, blogs and secondhand stories—it is a utopia of lofted ceilings and abundant natural light, where no one ever seems bored or blocked or fatigued (how could anyone be tired with both a nap room and an espresso machine?), where workers always appear to be seriously having fun, furiously exchanging ideas, or seriously having fun as they furiously exchange ideas. Even the after-work hours are better. Rather than rushing home to drown their sorrows in drink (like some mid-century suburban send-up), workers hang out in their hip, bar-like lounges, knocking back craft brews in celebration of yet another ridiculously productive day of creative cathexis.

    In this way, the cool office goes so far as to suggest that the inherent tensions of the workplace—between labor and management, between our authentic selves and our professional selves, between working for love and working for money—can be overcome. It’s a paradise wrought by the Protestant work ethic, where creativity and massive profits can be merged painlessly, a delightful feedback loop in which greater happiness yields greater productivity yields greater happiness—salvation by way of Ping-Pong and Stumptown coffee.

    Last October, French beverage conglomerate Pernod Ricard moved into an 82,000-square-foot space at 250 Park Avenue—a buttoned-up 20-story tower in Midtown that has traditionally been a great favorite of white-shoe law firms (Sullivan & Cromwell occupied the space before Pernod).

    While the location and the building seemed an obvious choice for a huge international corporation, the distillery-chic space was not: exposed 14-foot ceilings, concrete floors, vast walls of brick and glass, plus a massive bar, a game room (foosball and pool) and huge terraces. If you overlooked the fact that it spanned the 16th through 18th floors of prime Manhattan real estate, Pernod’s office was more suggestive of a craft Brooklyn brewery or one of the many places where the company’s ubiquitous labels (Absolut, Malibu, Jameson, Beefeater, et al.) are consumed than a corporate headquarters.

    “They all want some kind of cool vibe,” said Scott Spector, a principal at the Spector Group, the architectural firm that designed Pernod’s space, adding that even law firms and hedge funds are requesting the “factory-meets-art-gallery look.”
    While the first cool offices started appearing more than a decade ago—Mr. Spector credited Deutsch advertising with pioneering the use of scooters for intraoffice transportation—there’s now been a fundamental shift in office design. What were once features found mostly at tech companies—open, collaborative areas, kitchens, game rooms—are becoming standard. Even traditional firms that grimace at the idea of clients catching them playing pool still want the hardwood floors and pendant lights.

    “Cool has conquered all,” he said.

    At the very least, it has helped fuel the growth of places like WeWork—a co-working company that started two years ago with the intention of catering to creative freelancers and startups with less than 50 people. The company now has five offices in Manhattan, with two more on the way at (Bryant Park and 222 Broadway), and three in California. And while some of that growth is connected to the thriving startup scene and the dissolution of the traditional economy—freelancers needing places to work—the company is increasingly being asked to accommodate larger companies in a range of industries, from modeling agencies to nonprofits.

    “I definitely think that there is something that makes you feel more excited to come here in the morning and stay late at night,” WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey told The Observer when he took us on a tour of the company’s Varick Street offices in late February. Weak winter sunlight flooded through the 105,000-square-foot space. Decorative items were scattered about—a vintage bike here, a typewriter there—banishing the impersonal barrenness that is a hallmark of so many offices.

    He pointed out a paper shredder that had been covered in a purplish-gray floral print.

    “We thought, ‘We can’t put that super-ugly gray box in here,’” Mr. McKelvey said. “We would never stand for the ugliest, easiest solution. We always try to analyze things and say, ‘How can we make this look cooler?’”

    A decade ago, workplace innovation revolved primarily around where people worked. Working remotely was all the rage, and “being able to work in your pajamas” was talked about as though it were one of the great hopes of humanity that could finally now, through the miracle of technology, be achieved. Companies contemplated the cost-
    saving potential of vastly reduced work spaces, and workers welcomed the end of commuting and simpler child care arrangements.

    But like other work-space panaceas before it, telecommuting proved less than revolutionary. (It’s worth noting that the cubicle, maligned though it is today, was seen as an innovative solution to the problems of the modern office when it first debuted in the 1960s.)

    “Now innovation is all about what’s cool,” said Lenny Beaudoin, a senior managing director of CBRE’s global corporate services. Mr. Beaudoin, a workplace strategist who helps the real estate company’s clients revamp their workplaces to enhance productivity, is currently working with a number of traditional companies (a large bank, a San Francisco law firm) that want to create “cooler,” less traditional offices in happening neighborhoods.

    “The new office is part hospitality, part retail. People work 24/7, and they want their workplaces to appeal to their lifestyles,” he said. “The idea of going into a high-rise and sitting in a cubicle all day, the tyranny of the traditional office, that’s going away. It’s about lifestyle integration.”

    And why shouldn’t it be? Given that the BlackBerry has long since sullied the domestic sphere, aren’t we entitled to comfortable furniture and good lighting in the public sphere? Even the idea of the domestic versus the public sphere sounds quaint, a Victorian concept burnished in ’80s academic conferences more than something resembling the lived experience of professional workers in 2013.

    Google has been criticized in the past for using its admittedly amazing amenities to lure workers into longer and longer days at the office. But its offices remain the envy of workers everywhere, because many Americans aren’t offered any trade-offs for their devotion to their desks, let alone a package of lavish, extravagant ones. The modern office is transforming into a worker’s everything—the place where she not only works, but eats, exercises, relaxes and socializes.

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  • 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)

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

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