Google wants returning staff to share desks with a ‘partner’ to maximize office space—but they’ve got to agree on ‘tidiness expectations’

February 23, 2023, 11:03 AM UTC
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet and Google
Staff at Google had been told they needed to be in the office three days a week, but it appears the Cloud team only needs to go in twice now.
Kyle Grillot—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Googlers are being asked to share their desks with a “partner” in a bid to maximize space efficiency at some of the tech giant’s largest offices.

While other Big Tech firms are battling to get people to come back to the office and Amazon CEO Andy Jassy facing down a petition of thousands of workers unhappy at the prospect, Google appears to be embracing a hybrid—and rotating—work model.

In an internal document seen by CNBC, Google has asked staff to alternate the days they come in, Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays, in order for one desk to be shared between multiple people. Members of staff are invited to come into the office on unassigned days, but they will be asked to sit in an “overflow drop-in space.”

The memo adds that the changes will effect staff in Google Cloud’s five biggest locations in the United States: Kirkland, Wash.; New York City; San Francisco; Seattle; and Sunnyvale, Calif.

The motive behind the move is clear with the FAQ citing “real estate efficiency” as the reason for the switch, as well as confirming some office spaces will be vacated as a result.

It also seems the company has been thinking about the project—dubbed CLOE for “Cloud Office Evolution”—for some time. The document states that this arrangement is not a temporary pilot but a permanent change, backed up by internal data showing staff’s return-to-work patterns.

Google adds that “combining the best of pre-pandemic collaboration with the flexibility” of hybrid work will lead “ultimately” to the best use of its space.

A spokesperson for the tech giant told CNBC: “Since returning to the office, we’ve run pilots and conducted surveys with Cloud employees to explore different hybrid work models and help shape the best experience. Our data show Cloud Googlers value guaranteed in-person collaboration when they are in the office, as well as the option to work from home a few days each week.

“With this feedback, we’ve developed our new rotational model, combining the best of pre-pandemic collaboration with the flexibility and focus we’ve all come to appreciate from remote work, while also allowing us to use our spaces more efficiently.”

Playing match maker

Google is going further than just asking staff to share—bosses want to play matchmaker too. Instead of forcing people who don’t like the same setups to meet in the middle, they’re pairing people up as “desk partners.” The document explains: “Through the matching process, they will agree on a basic desk setup and establish norms with their desk partner and teams to ensure a positive experience in the new shared environment.”

And there’s nothing worse than arriving at your station to find it covered in crumbs or photos of other people’s pets. Which is why Google has also launched “neighborhoods” as part of the scheme.

Neighborhoods, the document explains, will be made up of 200 to 300 employees and “partners” across a range of functions, in order to make sure the desk sharing is running smoothly. Each neighborhood will have a vice president or a director, the document adds, who is responsible for dividing and allocating the space.

“Neighborhood leads are encouraged to set norms with their teams around sharing desks, ensuring that pairings of Googlers have conversations about how they will or will not decorate the space, store personal items, and tidiness expectations,” the document says.

And to make sure people are actually sitting at their desks instead of “camping out” in conference rooms, a booking cap is being brought in. It notes bigger meeting rooms are “already difficult to book.” 

What do staff think?

The news comes after a year of changing tides at the Baird creator. Last year from April staff were asked to return to the office three days a week, which appears to have now been scaled back down to two.

The drive for efficiency also comes after a slowdown in hiring and the layoff of 12,000 people in January. Staff said they were devastated and angry, alleging they were locked out of their corporate accounts overnight and as a result, could not say goodbye to their former colleagues.

According to CNBC, staff quickly started poking fun at the jargon in the CLOE rollout. Company platform Memegen quickly featured posts about “corpspeak” with many claiming that the desk-sharing initiative was actually merely a cost-cutting exercise.

One read: “Not every cost-cutting measure needs to be word-mangled into sounding good for employees. A simple ‘We are cutting office space to reduce costs’ would make leadership sound more believable.”

The cloud team in question makes up around a quarter of the company’s headcount.

Google did not immediately respond to Fortune‘s request for comment.

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