By Yves Salomon-Fernandez
It’s not every day that I get to have this type of a mesmerizing experience through the course of my work. Of course students reading essays or explaining their experiments are often captivating. Their gripping stories of how they overcome serious obstacles to succeed in college sometimes bring me to tears. Faculty sharing their sabbatical work is almost always a highly intellectually stimulating experience that lights up my own passion for teaching and research. I have experienced nothing in my personal or professional life that equates my experience visiting with Google executive, Steve Vinter this week.
As I reflect back on this experience, the image that it conjures for me is that of the children in Charlie Wonka’s Chocolate factory movie. Ironically, it is the classic version that I think of rather than Johny Depp’s recent high-tech version. Yes, I felt like a child in a chocolate factory. Writing this blog piece, I feel like one of NPR’s This American Life narrators telling a story that I can’t write fast enough to share with my audience. Taking the tour at Google, I couldn’t wait to ask Vinter if I could bring my students to experience this. If I could be in such awe, I couldn’t imagine how they would feel. If you’ve never been inside of it, you cannot imagine it!
Prioritizing Employee Satisfaction as Much as Productivity
Google’s 1,000 employees occupy 12 floors of a massive modern, three-connected building facility in Cambridge’s high tech and innovation hub in Kendall Square. The company takes prides in the fact that each of its campuses has a unique identity and design. Google Cambridge embraces the open floor concept, so closed spaces consist mostly of super high-tech conference rooms, an auditorium, a private massage room, a library, Vinter’s office, and two small sleeping rooms with a bed, which I did not get to see because they were occupied. (These are all the closed spaces that I can remember).
Each floor has its own micro-kitchen. One of the two cafeterias was serving breakfast at the time of my arrival. The cafeteria was impressive and the food is free. To top that off, they sometimes serve lobster, Vinter added. I shared with my host that I am a big lobster aficionada. There is a patio and a garden located on separate floors. While there is a gym, there are also work stations that are treadmills tailored to accommodate a computer to allow employees to take a walk as they work. There are standing work stations and the workspaces are decorated by their occupants expressing their personalities. The informal work spaces range from college hang-out spaces to modern living room look-alikes. There is mini-golfing, a photo booth, nautical-themed spaces, a room with two traditional airplane seats and another with two airplane sleeping pods. Lastly, there is the filepole that has not been authorized for use.
The integration of aesthetics, function, form, comfort, utility, and accommodation made me realize immediately how much emphasis was placed on employee satisfaction as much as productivity in designing each floor. It felt like the kind of environment I have always wanted to create within my own industry.
Closing the Opportunity Gap Together
As he gave me the tour, Vinter explained the significance and rationale for each area. He also shared how the employees themselves were integral to designing their own work space and, at times, even overruled him. It wasn’t just the office that captivated me, it was also the Steve’s ideas about education, educational change, and his commitment to closing the opportunity gap for all disadvantaged students and his work with inner city kids. What started as an effort on my part to create opportunities for our students and recruit a potential member to our college’s Board of Trustees or Foundation ended up being the beginning of a meaningful professional relationship. In speaking with Vinter, I felt that I had just met a kindred spirit in terms of leadership, innovation, stewardship, and social justice.
Vinter and I first met through the Governor’s STEM Council a couple of years ago, though neither of us could remember the specific event. He is also the co-founder of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), which is a K-20 collaboration promoting computational skills in K-12 schools as part of a multi-sector partnership. Vinter is also a major contributor to the recently adopted computer science standards for K-12 schools. We recently reconnected at a Department of Higher Education event that my community college co-sponsored with our partner Framingham State University.
I look forward to my students getting the same experience I had and to cooking up some new initiatives with Vinter in the near future. By the end of our meeting, we had already set up our next one.