The business of play: are we infantalising the workforce?

As Silicon Valley’s tech titans open extravagant new corporate headquarters, the issue of turning the workplace into one big creative playpen has sharpened debate on both sides of the argument

As the tech giants unfold their extravagant plans for freshly minted corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley, the fevered speculation about what Google, Apple and Facebook are doing with their new offices has had one unintended side effect: it has reopened a debate about the role of play in the workplace.

Google, which has paired the Bjorke Ingels Group (BIG) with Thomas Heatherwick for its new HQ at Mountain View, has in the recent past been particularly associated with a trend towards filling the office with brightly coloured toys – with slides, ping pong tables, artificial beach huts, flying pods with propellers – to engage and entertain their employees.

Apple, meanwhile, in developing its Foster-designed Apple Park in Cupertino, a huge circular corporate doughnut visible from space, has been less connected with workers’ playtime. Indeed the influential critic Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times in London has commended Apple for ‘turning its back on fun and going for beauty instead’ in its new landmark scheme.

Ugly, stupid and ageist

According to Kellaway, ‘Apple Park is made for grown-ups. For the past two decades office spaces have been built as if for primary school children… This pernicious trend – ugly, stupid and ageist – started in Silicon Valley and has spread’.

Kellaway points the finger at Google ‘as a world leader its infantalising its workforce’. As for Facebook, which has commissioned the OMA design practice of Rem Koolhaus to add to architect Frank Gehry’s Menlo Park complex, this company sits somewhere in the middle on the spectrum between fun time for Googlers and Apple’s more austere and serious use of quality design elements to support staff.

While it is fun to speculate on why the Silicon Valley tech titans, many of whom started life in humble garages and sheds, should opt for such expensive palaces of commerce in this latest round of expansive campus building, underlying questions remain.

Does treating the workplace as one big creative playpen do positive things for productivity and wellbeing? Or is there a real downside to what the architectural critic Jonathan Glancey has described as ‘the tyranny of forced fun at work’.

Battle lines sharply drawn

The battle lines are sharply drawn in this debate. In one corner are the proponents of play, irrepressible funsters who argue that sandcastle contests, ping pong tournaments, hula-hoop making classes and paintball away days help to build teams, improve communication and allow colleagues to form bonds in a relaxed setting. Play is an essential part of creating a strong workplace culture, especially for millennials. And if it worked for Google, it must work for all.

In the opposite corner are the miserabilists who argue that pretending that work is play when it  is really a grown-up economic transaction between individual and employer can be dangerous and counter-productive. A series of social activities, they suggest, don’t really solve how you get to the root causes of cultural issues in the workplace. Staff should be encouraged to take responsibility, not be constantly infantilised.

For many employees, enforced playtime can also be highly stressful, favouring extroverts rather than introverts who just want to get on with the job. And just because worked for Google, which has a specially curated culture, it does not mean it will work for all. Indeed it can be argued that simply copying Google’s playful workplace designs and cultural traits – brilliantly clever though they may be – is a cop-out that too many workplace professionals lazily take when clients tell them ‘we want to look like Google’.

The biggest killjoy

I recently made that point myself in an article for a well-known design website only to get caught up in a social media storm and be branded ‘the biggest killjoy of all time’. It only goes to show how fiercely people feel about this subject.

Long after the Silicon Valley giants have dusted down their big new showpiece offices, the debate about work as play will run and run. But amid all the counter arguments, I sense that the tide is turning just a touch away from forced fun with brightly coloured props and towards a more serious and multi-faceted debate about what really creates a better workplace experience.

WORKTECH Academy Director Professor Jeremy Myerson discussed the role of play and the planning of new tech corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley in a programme for the BBC World Service alongside Professor Louise Mozingo, Chair of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at UC Berkeley, and Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times. See BBC World Service, Business Daily, Billion Dollar Headquarters