Culture clash: There's nothing virtual about Google's urban expansion plans

Google is expanding into the heart of cities -- but how will it keep its workforce from becoming radicalized? Cities ferment revolution and dissidents.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor
Google's remote HQ on the edge of the bay. (Image: Tom Foremski)

You don't need a physical location. You can create a virtual business overnight using Google's Cloud enterprise IT services, your employees log-in from their homes using Google videoconferencing, group spreadsheets, and collaborative documents -- plus gmail with your company name on the dotcom. There are plenty of virtual businesses, and you wouldn't know it. They benefit from a distributed workforce that has almost no office expenses or commuter travel.

Also: Google's futuristic Fuchsia OS will run Android apps

But there's nothing virtual about Google's business. It hates telecommuting, and it loves offices. In 2019, it plans to add office spaces for tens of thousands tech workers in the heart of urban centers such as San Jose, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and New York -- in addition to European cities.

David Streitfeld at The New York Times reports that one of Google's planned expansions is to embed San Jose's Didiron Transit center inside a massive new office complex, located about 25 minutes away from its cramped Googleplex headquarters.

"The eventual result will be a new Google campus of eight million square feet with offices for 20,000 workers, a figure that is more than the company's total employment in 2009."

The city of Palo Alto is closer to its headquarters, which makes it a natural focus for Google, which plans for a large office near downtown. Google is expanding in San Francisco and it has huge plans for New York. It bought the iconic Chelsea Market building in 2017 for $2.14 billion and has several other properties in the city. 

In Canada, Google parent Alphabet is remodeling a large section of waterfront in Toronto into a "smart city." And it has built six large office complexes it calls "Google Campus" in the heart of major cities such as London, Madrid, and Warsaw. However, its Berlin Campus had to be scrapped in mid 2018 following two-year long protests by local activists. 

Segregated tech

Google's push into urban centers is problematic because it keeps its own workforce as segregated as much as possible from outside influence. In early morning in San Francisco, Google's fleet of huge black-windowed buses crawl from bus stop to bus stop scooping up silent workers to take them to Google's HQ 40 miles away and bring them back late in the evening. There's little chance to mix with locals -- or with engineers from other companies.  It easy to see why Google likes this arrangement and hates telecommuting, but this segregation creates distrust by local communities, because they don't know the workers that live among them. 

Also: How to enable and test the new Google Chrome dark mode on Windows 10

Urban expansion might lessen the need for long-distance bus trips but it comes amid growing hostility by locals in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere, who resent the gentrification and the higher rents. And they also kill local small businesses.  

Living in the shadow of a large Google campus is often impossible for a small business, because they cannot compete with all the free services, breakfast, lunch, dinner,  gyms, etc., to staff. San Francisco has tried to ban such free services.   

  • Why is Google a company of the future? It's so focused on a very old-fashioned approach to the workplace and willing to spend billions of dollars acquiring more office space every year? 
  • Why does Google insist everyone comes to work -- 
    especially when its own research has shown no productivity differences between remote teams and those in an office?
  • Why is Google so hostile to telecommuting and refuses to eat its own dog food and use its powerful telecommuting technologies to allow its own people to stay to work from home or a local coffee shop?
  • Why don't the cities insist on telecommuting tech workers? One day a week telecommuting in exchange for allowing the use of bus spaces and bus lanes. This would help integrate tech workers with their communities, they would spend money locally instead of eating at the company cafeteria, exercising at the company gym and riding the company bus. (It never used to be cool to be a company man or company woman.)

Google clearly wants to keep its workers inside its own environment as much as possible. Google is building a company culture -- and all cults hate any contact with the outside world. But segregation is incompatible with urban life. 

Also: Google employee protest: Now Google backs off Pentagon project 

Cities rely on integration to build harmony and understanding  in areas of high population density. Yet the HR policies of Google (and other big tech) are divisive -- favoring segregation and not integration. 

Solving City Problems

A New York Times Letter to the Editor expressed the wish that:

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if just a few of the incoming engineering geniuses were assigned to work on the improvement of our city -- the horrific traffic for starters, including public transit; poorly maintained lower- and middle-income residential buildings; the environment, including noise; the schools. Each of us can make up his or her own list."

Cities share common problems. Solve one of them, and you help more than one city. Instead of trying to make San Francisco into a bedroom community for Silicon Valley tech workers -- it should be kept as an urban research lab. 

Also: Google employee protest: Now 'Googlers are quitting'

Software engineers love to solve problems -- but if they are segregated -- they don't see any problems. Their bus always arrives on time, the Wi-Fi is always on and fast, and lunch is always great. But if they had to use city transport and services they would quickly see the problems everyone else deals with daily.

The Burden of Tech

Segregation negates the benefits of having lots of tech companies. San Francisco and its Bay Area cities face the same problems all other cities face, if not more: Failing public schools, struggling small businesses, clogged transit, and rapidly rising homeless populations. Yet its small geography has more visionaries and tech pioneers per square yard than any place on the planet. With so many geniuses you'd expect San Francisco and surrounding communities to be shiny futuristic showcases -- not basket cases. 

Also: Berlin protests halt Google plans: Will recruitment suffer?

Silicon Valley tech companies have failed to live up to their rhetoric of a bright future -- it's all hot air and stinks -- a halitosis of hypocrisy. It's no wonder local people are suspicious and growing hostile towards tech companies in their midst.

Urban radicals

It's not just outsiders. Google faces internal challenges from an activist workforce that managed to kill two big ventures in 2018: Project Maven, a military drone facial recognition technology; and Project Dragonfly, a government censored search engine for the Chinese market. 

San Francisco and New York have deep and long lasting traditions of rebellion and challenging the establishment dating more than 150 years. In the 1950s, the Beat Generation overturned literary censorship. Alternative newspapers in the 1960s countered the media establishment, and Silicon Valley's microcomputer revolution created personal computers that became sophisticated media machines -- capable of viewing and creating high quality media and distributing it anywhere, instantly -- instantly challenging big media and government propaganda.   

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Cities ferment revolutions and draw dissidents. Google risks further radicalization of its workforce. Who will trust Google with sensitive projects if it has to continually second-guess how its workers will react?  

A culture clash with urban neighbors is inevitable if Google (and other tech firms) continue with divisive policies of worker segregation and aggressive tax avoidance. 

Greater integration of tech workers into their local communities is what city governments should seek because there will be clear benefits in having insiders on your side, in my honest opinion.

What it's like inside a life-size Google Home Max

Previous and related coverage:

2019: The continuing rise of tech worker power

In early 2018, Google dropped its "Don't be evil" motto -- but its workers didn't, and they managed to stop two controversial projects. Tech workers at other companies have also demonstrated against their employers. There's more to come in 2019.

Why is Google so bad at innovation? 44 dead products and counting...

Will Google ever be able to diversify its business from online advertising?

Mind the gap: AI and machine learning lag in adoption

Business executives know these emerging technologies are vital to success but many don't know how and where to use them.

Tech worker power: The ghost in Google's boardroom

Google dropped "Don't Be Evil" earlier this year but its workers picked up the ethical and moral responsibilities discarded by its leadership and now they want a seat at the table-- but Google doesn't share.

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