"Returning to Office" at Google NYC

"Returning to Office" at Google NYC

Oh, how I've longed for you, Google office. The fresh-cooked meals and snacks for days. The decidedly long hallways made shorter by scooters planted at each main intersection. The distinct absence of the bed staring over my shoulder, as it liked to do while I worked in my itsy bitsy studio apartment. The people! Oh, people. People greeting me as I walk into the building, people avoiding eye contact with me in long hallways, people taking their time wrapping up meetings in the room I need. That's what I've been missing!

While I was never at the office as an employee, I got a small taste of it in my first interview way back in 2019. So in a sense, it's true that I am returning to office. And yet, it's so shiny and new. Coming in to the office as an employee has made me feel like a kid in a candy store; or, even better, a kid in Disney World, where it's so easy to get lost but when it happens it doesn't matter because everyone is nice and there's magic waiting around every corner. I am elated to be going into the office, most importantly for the productivity I've gained by working from an office environment... Just kidding, the most important thing is the free food, which, in all likelihood, has also increased my productivity by way of nutritional and motivational value (very sneaky, Google). It seems the majority of NYC-based employees are taking advantage of the voluntary WFH period, but the benefits of working from the office have been too great for me to forgo.

Google-style Return-to-Office (RTO) has been an enormous mood booster and I'm eager to share all the amazing, Googley experiences I've had in office. However, while returning to office has been a net positive, it's not without its down sides. I'll elaborate on those first, so we can end on the good stuff. Just you wait (just you wait).

RTO Pains

"Pain" is a strong word considering the immense privilege it is to get to go into the Google office. Most of the downsides are minor or fleeting, and to me they are easily outweighed by the upsides. Nevertheless, here they are:

1. COVID risks

While every employee is required to be vaccinated before coming into the office, that hasn't prevented cases from appearing. Just last week, someone on my floor who I'd had a conversation with in one of the microkitchens messaged me to let me know they tested positive. Thankfully, it was a short and socially distanced conversation, and the tests I've taken since have come back negative. Still, it's a firm reminder that, even with the vaccination requirement, being in the office presents more risk of exposure than not. I'm lucky to be in a corner of the office where there is little through traffic and only a few people are working [very far apart from one another], so the risk is considerably small. Even so, voluntarily coming to the office means consenting to the risks of being indoors with other people during a pandemic.

2. Lunchtime loneliness

In the first month or two of RTO, it was more often than not the case that I was the only person on my team who decided to come into the office. At first, this didn't bother me much, both because I was riding the highs of being in the office for the first time as an employee, and because I was one of only a few people who were back in the office, before everyone was even allowed to return (initial RTO happened in waves based on team and org).

However, as more teams started to be allowed back in office, I was seeing other people reunite with their teams, while I was still the only person on my team in-office. In the face of other teams' grand reunions and delighted conversations over team lunches, I felt an intense psychological loneliness. I get along with my team well, and I find plenty of ways to connect with them virtually, but seeing other teams gather joyfully in person, while I sat alone, was a heavy emotional weight. It was the first time in years that I'd felt like a middle schooler at lunch with no one to sit with. I'd set up the occasional lunch with people I knew from NYU, or another team I just happened to meet on my floor, but my introversion rendered these lunches infrequent. Plus, all the normal avenues Google provides for teamless, introverted Googlers like me to meet up for lunch ("lunch ninja", for one) weren't in operation because of COVID.

In the end, a couple teammates did start to come in more regularly and heroically saved me from my loneliness. More on that in a bit.

3. Commute

Considering I live 25 minutes from the office, including a short subway ride with no transfers, my commute really isn't bad. I have teammates who would be coming from deep in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Brooklyn, so I'm fine. I could even skew this as a positive by pointing out that it's psychologically useful to have a commute to delineate the start and end of my work day. On the other hand, the NYC subway needs help and rush hour should calm down.

4. Peer pressure

This isn't peer pressure in the "double dog dare" sense, but rather an implicit pressure by nature of being around colleagues. At home, there are no eyes on me (I hope... 👀). In the office, there's a constant vague awareness that anything you do can be observed by other people. If I take a break to check my personal email, or I go for a second dessert, or I step out of the office to go for a walk, those are all things that my teammates or floormates can see. Realistically, I know they don't care, and if anything they're glad because they'll feel safer to do the same and get that second dessert themselves.

I suspect there's some amount of creeping anxiety that comes with being around others in an office, away from the solitary safety of a home. And it probably says something about my self-consciousness that I would at all be negatively affected by the mere presence of other people as I work. Still, it's something I've noticed about being back in office, and something I might not have noticed had I never worked from home alone (or with family/friends) for so long.

5. Noise

Noise! Noise!! Noise!!!

Some people talk out loud when they run into a problem they're working on alone. It's fine, that's how they work out a problem. I'm not one to interrupt their process when instead I have the easy solution of putting on my noise-cancelling headphones.

I had forgotten, as well, that not wearing headphones can be a signal to officemates that I am open to conversation. 9 out of 10 times, I'm not.

There's also the openness of Google NYC's floor plan, which encourages collaboration and a sense of team-hood, but also inevitably leads to sudden loud conversations that echo through the space.

Small problems, easy solution. Somewhat hypocritical of me, too, given that I've committed most of these offenses. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

RTO Pleasures

With the RTO "pains" out of the way, on to the good stuff!

1. Food

It's already been said, but it deserves all the attention it gets. For a foodie like me, the "free" (included in my compensation) food is the ultimate treat. It's like being on a college dining plan, except that the food is consistently great and I didn't have to pay a ridiculous amount to access it. The diversity of options and the consistently high quality bar across them is just absurd, it fills me with excitement every day for breakfast and lunch. Because only a fraction of NYC-based Googlers are going into the office, not all of the cafés have reopened, but so far 4 have opened for breakfast and/or lunch. Each of those cafés has a barista bar, where you can find talented latte artists.

Beyond the cafés, there are the beloved microkitchens, which are more commonly referred to as MKs (this is also an acronym for the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. Coincidence? I think not.). Don't be fooled, these are not tiny kitchens. Especially not on the scale of New York City apartment kitchens. Each has a massive industrial refrigerator the size of 3 regular refrigerators, stocked with flavored waters, seltzers, sodas, cold brew, cheese sticks, carrots, yogurt, milk, and most recently, apple cider and eggnog 🎄. Outside of that, there are plenty of snacks, fresh fruits, cereals, and chocolates on rotation, and an espresso bar for those coffee connoisseurs who prefer to make their own rather than go to one of the café barista bars.

I could go on about my favorite foods I've had at Google, but I'll spare you and share these pictures instead:

Clockwise from top left: Microkitchen sneak peak; vanilla buttercream ghost cupcakes for Halloween, MK chocolates, breakfast omelette with kale and roasted baby potatoes.

2. Teammates & other employees

In the last month or so, a teammate has joined me in consistently coming into the office, and we're occasionally joined by one or two other teammates. For a team of 20+, this isn't many, but it's infinitely better than the first month and a half of being the only one coming in. I have people to eat lunch with now (squeals with middle schooler excitement)! People to share in the joy of exploring the office! People to join me in trips to the microkitchen for all the snacks! People to chat about work problems with, or about completely unrelated topics that imbue a sense of camaraderie to a team which, despite our best efforts, has mostly felt distant for the last year and a half! I really enjoy spending time with my teammates, and it's unsurprisingly better and more emotionally satiating when that time is spent together in person. Sure, it's distracting sometimes, but the overall benefits to my mental wellbeing far outweigh the costs of distraction. Besides, I have a lot of team bonding to make up for given how the pandemic deprived me of these opportunities.

Even smaller interactions – with cafe staff, security team members, random people in passing – add positivity to the day. I had this sort of interaction to some degree while working from home (with my building staff, for example), but I was mostly in my apartment all by my lonesome. It's easier for me, now, to feel like I'm a part of something, just by nature of daily micro-interactions (MIs?) with fellow Googlers.

3. Amenities

Because the free food wasn't spoilage enough, there's also a gym, massage therapists, a game room, a doctor's office, and probably other things I've yet to discover. As of last week, I've officially taken advantage of all of these amenities (thank you, onsite COVID testing).

The massage therapists come at a cost, but it's highly discounted, and Googlers earn "massage points" on a recurring basis which they can use to pay for massage minutes. I've gotten one massage so far, focusing on my back, and the masseuse told me after she finished, "You've... you've really got something there. But it's fixable!" Clearly, I'd better return for more massages.


5. Office space

And finally, not even accounting for the views, the cafés, and the amenities, the office space is so wonderfully designed. There are parts that may be a bit too wide open for my liking (thankfully, my desk is not in one of those parts), but one of the beautiful things about the office is that there are so many awesome spaces to work from, or to just relax in.

I've only photo-captured a fraction of these spaces, and there are many I still haven't even explored. I just went to a whole new floor last week! And I forgot to take a picture of my favorite microkitchen, which is a lodge-like space invoking cozy winter vibes, fireplace included.

Each floor is themed differently, which generally plays into the interior design and the names given to the meeting rooms. Half of my floor is themed around science fiction, which led to meeting room names including "Space Invaders", "Red Shirt", "Lord Dark Helmet", "Danger, Will Robinson!", and "Forty-Two".

Not geeky enough? How about the fact that they put a "Platform 9 ¾" on the platform 3/4 of the way up between the 9th floor and the 10th floor?

It's just right.

"Google NYC will always be there to welcome you home" – Laura Chevalier

The Future of RTO

It's unclear what RTO will look like for Google offices in general, let alone Google NYC. It sounds like the WFH option will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, which, sadly, means I may go a while longer without meeting most of my teammates in person. At the same time, it's more comfortable to take this transition slowly, both in terms of feeling like the COVID risk is minimized, and in terms of personally adjusting to a fully populated office environment and all the noise and distraction that entails.

For now, I'll continue to enjoy my time in the office, so long as I'm allowed to be there. It's been a mental and emotional haven for me, and I'm still slightly in awe that I get to take advantage of all these wonderful benefits. I'm cognizant of the fact that they'll make it harder to one day leave Google, but I'll keep that thought in the back of my head while I revel in the pleasures of being at Google NYC.