Big Internet companies love to talk about how they are “disrupting” one thing or another, but they still want what big companies have always wanted: workplaces that memorialize their products and values.
That is a challenge, because software is invisible and change is high technology’s most valued commodity. Insubstantial as a cubicle seems, in the tech industry it has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-Fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.
Want privacy? Wear headphones.
The blank-slate look of a big room may encourage communication, but it has an important drawback. “Without inspiration, open plan runs counter to creativity,” said John Maeda, a former president of the Rhode Island School of Design and now the design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm. “When you inject the ethos of the company, you’re trying to stand for something amid perpetual change.”
Increasingly, Silicon Valley companies are paying builders to fuse their values of speed, change and productivity with their perceived corporate smarts and quirkiness. It is a big shift. Silicon Valley long prided itself on building world-changing technologies from the humble garage, or the nondescript office park. The new spaces are more distinctive, as companies seek to build a consumer profile and maybe even lasting loyalty.
The companies are dreaming big. Apple plans to build a new ring-shaped headquarters that will be as distinctive as its products. Up in Seattle, Amazon is building a new urban-style headquarters — utilitarian and functional, like its website.
When companies feel that they are changing the world as much as these tech enterprises do, they don’t need just offices. They need monuments.