In January 2013 as part of the wider UK wide Crucible initiative I was invited to the inaugural meeting of the Crucible alumni that was held at and part facilitated by Google UK at their head office in London. Just by means of a brief introduction to the Crucible programme it was originally set up by NESTA which is the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.
A "Chill Out" Area in Google HQ
I don’t want to knock Google too much as fair play to them they did support and sponsor the initiative, which they didn’t have to, and for a leading company to end its support to a group of academic researchers is encouraging. However, I must say that there were elements of the event that struck me as very staged managed and very corporate in its style. Our Google person who met us on arrival at the venue had previously worked for Number 10 and he immediately struck me as a character that could easily have come out of “In the thick of it.”
Again I don’t want to knock the guy in any way, he was obviously professional in everything he did but you could see that his role was to manage us and to present the best corporate image of Google to us. During the initial introduction the point was raised about Google’s tax avoidance in the UK and the question was expertly handled by their representative who gave us some explanation about Google being keen to honour their corporate responsibilities but at the same time as they are a global business they need to be compeditive. I interpreted the answer to be “well we will pay our tax when Amazon and Starbucks pay theirs.
A Google vending machine
The Google building and offices as I am sure you may imagine were very quirky and not how you would imagine an office working environment. In the room where we were holding our meeting there was a Chinese gong for example and an exercise bike with which you could make smoothies. (Don’t ask ) this and the fact that around the building the quirky little structures and artefacts, some of which you can see in the photos that I took were there to make the building more “Googly” we were informed.
After lunch we were then taken on a guided tour of the Google offices by what appeared to be an approved (American) guide. I don’t want to over egg the pudding but it did have a touch of North Korea about it as we were told of where we could photograph and what we couldn’t (people and screens) and as we were toured around it was evident there were certain areas that were off limits.
A Googly Office Space
There were a couple of things that stuck in my mind that we were told by our incredibly upbeat guide, for instance that food was provided free by the company for all employees and we were taken to the restaurant area where indeed that food look good, fresh and nutritious. Additionally we were also informed that employees could bring pets into work if they so wished. A someone who suffers from quite a nasty allergy to cats and rabbits and other small furry animals I found that quite alarming and furtively looked around to see if there were any of the irritating critters about, but thankfully no and I must admit throughout the whole tour and day I did not come across one dog, cat, hamster or python.
At the end of the tour the one overall impression that I had got is that there did not seem to be anybody over say about forty in the whole building. Now I don’t know if they had some sort of Soylent Green thing going on and that the healthy and nutritious food being provided in the restaurant was people based but there was a complete and utter absence of older people. Not in the canteen, not the cleaners not anywhere.
When I returned to the meeting room I did bring it up with our Google front man and others had noticed the absence as the more geriatric as well. Again our Google front man expertly sidestepped the question reply as due to the “profile” and business of the company most of those who apply to work there are young and that in fact there were older people who work there they were just not evident today.
I really don’t want to do a hatchet job on Google and I was only in their office for a few hours. I am sure that they are a very good company to work for on a number of levels and probably better than many. However, I could not help using my ethnographer’s head and eyes during my visit to the office.
One thing that made me question the whole “front” I was being offered was the amount of times our Google front men told us what a good place Google was to work and how keen people were to work there. From my feelings it struck me as a bit of a corporate competitive wolf, all be it one dressed up in Googly sheep’s clothing.