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 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 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 pingpong 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 twenty-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 such as Google and Facebook have made even the stodgiest CEOs contemplate the potential benefits of video-game consoles and French-press coffee. A pingpong 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, 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 pingpong 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. 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 and huge terraces.

“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, 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.

“Cool has conquered all,” Spector said.

The fashion of innovation 

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. Beaudoin, a workplace strategist who helps the real estate company’s clients revamp their workplaces to enhance productivity, is working with a number of traditional companies 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.”

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 extravagant ones. The modern office is transforming into a worker’s everything—the place where someone not only works, but eats, exercises, relaxes and socializes.

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

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, 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 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.

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, the craft nights with wine and cheese where everyone makes “holiday-themed cards, or mugs, or whatever strikes our fancy!”

Merging work and life

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 labor relations.” And “even more fundamentally sinister is the idea of work colonizing 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, 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.”