(NYTIMES) – Google is creating a post-pandemic workplace that will accommodate employees who have got used to working from home over the past year and don’t want to be in the office all the time anymore.

The company will encourage – but not mandate – that employees be vaccinated when they start returning to the office, probably in September. And over the next year or so, Google will try out new office designs in millions of square feet of space, or about 10 per cent of its global work spaces.

The plans build on work that began even before Covid-19 sent Google’s workforce home, when the company asked a diverse group of consultants – including sociologists who study “Generation Z” and how junior high students socialise and learn – to imagine what future workers would want.

The answer seems to be Ikea meets Lego. Instead of rows of desks next to cookie-cutter meeting rooms, Google is designing “team pods”. Each pod is a blank canvas: Chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters can be wheeled into various arrangements and, in some cases, rearranged in a matter of hours.

To deal with an expected blend of remote and office workers, the company is also creating a new meeting room called “campfire”, where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with impossible-to-ignore, large vertical displays. The displays show the faces of people dialling in by videoconference so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.

In a handful of locations around the world, Google is building outdoor work areas to respond to concerns that the coronavirus can spread easily in traditional offices.

At its Silicon Valley headquarters, where the weather is pleasant most of the year, it has converted a carpark and lawn area into “Camp Charleston” – a fenced-in mix of grass and wooden deck flooring about the size of four tennis courts with Wi-Fi throughout.

There are clusters of tables and chairs under open-air tents. In larger teepees, there are meeting areas with the decor of a California nature retreat and state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment. Each tent has a camp-themed name such as “kindling”, “s’mores” and “canoe”. Camp Charleston has been open since March for teams wanting to get together.

Google has said it was also building outdoor work spaces in London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York and Sydney, and possibly more locations.

Employees can return to their permanent desks on a rotation schedule that assigns people to come into the office on a specific day to ensure that no one is there on the same day as their immediate desk neighbours.

Despite Google’s freewheeling corporate culture, coming into the office regularly had been one of its few enduring rules.

That was a big reason that Google offered its lavish perks, said Ms Allison Arieff, an architectural and design writer who has studied corporate campuses. “They get to keep everyone on campus for as long as possible and they’re keeping someone at work.”

In 2018, Google’s real estate group began to consider what it could do differently. It turned to the company’s research and development team for “built environments”. It was an eclectic group of architects, industrial and interior designers, structural engineers, builders and tech specialists led by Ms Michelle Kaufmann, who had worked with renowned architect Frank Gehry before joining Google a decade ago.

Google focused on three trends: Work happens anywhere and not just in the office; what employees need from a workplace is changing constantly; and workplaces need to be more than desks, meeting rooms and amenities.

Google’s “campfire” meeting room, which would put virtual attendees on the same footing as in-person attendees, at the company’s Mountain View headquarters. The company that helped popularise open office plans and lavish employee perks is trying to reinvent office spaces to cope with workplace sensibilities changed by the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO: NYTIMES

“The future of work that we thought was 10 years out,” Ms Kaufmann said, “Covid-19 brought us to that future now.”

Mr David Radcliffe, Google’s vice-president for real estate and workplace services, said that in its current office configurations, the company would be able to use only one out of every three desks in order to keep people 2m apart.

Psychologically, he said, employees will not want to sit in a long row of desks, and there may be a need to “de-densify” offices with furniture or plants.

The company is essentially unwinding years of open-office plan theory popularised by Silicon Valley – that cramming more workers into smaller spaces and taking away their privacy leads to better collaboration.

Real estate costs for the company aren’t expected to change very much. Though there will be fewer employees in the office, they’ll need more room.

Last July, the company asked workers how many days a week they would need to come to the office to be effective. The answers were divided evenly in a range of zero to five days a week, said Mr Radcliffe.

In its annual survey of employees, about 70 per cent of roughly 110,000 employees polled said they had a “favourable” view about working from home compared with roughly 15 per cent who had an “unfavourable” opinion.

Since the pandemic, many Google employees have got used to life without time-consuming commutes, and with more time for family and life outside the office. The company appears to be realising its employees may not be so willing to go back to the old life.

“Work-life balance is not eating three meals at a day at your office, going to the gym there, having all your errands done there,” said Ms Arieff. “Ultimately, people want flexibility and autonomy and the more that Google takes that away, the harder it is going to be.”