Some years back while teaching English in Japan, I found myself speeding along on a bullet train down to Nagasaki to visit a friend whom, I’ll admit, I had a bit of a crush on. While there, my friend introduced me to one of her buddies: a successful, local architect who shared with me an intriguing tenet of his design philosophy: “Always include something inconvenient.” It didn’t take long for me to understand what he was talking about. His modern, upscale home featured a huge, open living room – all windows and natural light. Gorgeous! The bedrooms were more modest, as one might expect in diminutive Japan, but nothing out of the ordinary. But ah, the kitchen. It was tiny! A closet with elbow room. I’m talking space for one chef, maybe two at most – IF you both restrained yourselves from exhaling until dinner prep was over. In 1977, Steve Martin wrote a hilarious book of essays called “Cruel Shoes”. Well, this little house in southern Japan had the Cruel Kitchen.
Although my visit with the architect wasn’t long enough for me to receive an adequate explanation about the kitchen– remember, I was 25 years old with a girl on my mind – I’ve thought about this odd house many times over the years. Why did he do it? Why did this talented designer create a kitchen intended to torture its inhabitants? My theory, then and now, is that he must have been an advocate of the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection. To understand what I mean, try watching Japanese television sometime on cable, or go to your nearest Japantown and pick up a copy of one of those teenage fan magazines. You’ll find that half the young Japanese models and starlets, if not more, have these perfect faces, this perfect hair, this perfect skin, these perfect teeth, except for one slight flaw: one tooth is always crooked. Now, I’m no expert on Japanese art and pop culture, but it seems to me that the people over there admire this kind of thing — imperfection amidst perfection. Asymmetry within the symmetry. Can you imagine such an aesthetic choice taking hold here in the U.S., where movie stars seemingly start botoxing and photoshopping themselves in their teens! An American architect who incorporated a pint-sized kitchen into a modern suburban house would be run out of the industry on his apron strings.
I bring up the Nagasaki inconvenient kitchen today because it reminds me of something unusual Google has been doing for a while now in its lunch rooms. As you’re probably aware from all the publicity, Google is rated as one of the top organizations to work for. Applicants flock to their HR department in search of well-paying jobs, parental-leave benefits, child care, and more perks than you can shake a cursor at. According to a recent Fortune magazine article, Google is also famous (or infamous) for its non-stop, free buffet – with a twist. The author notes:
“Data-obsessed Google measures the length of its cafeteria lines to make sure people have to wait a while (optimally three to four minutes) and have time to talk. It makes people sit at long tables, where they’re likelier to be next to or across from someone they don’t know, and it puts those tables a little too close together so you might hit someone when you push your chair back and thus meet someone new.”
Employees call it “the Google bump”. Kind of sounds like the inconvenient kitchen all over again, doesn’t it?
The difference between Japan and Google has everything to do with culture, in this case corporate vs. national. Rather than adopting the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection, the lunch room architects at Google are all about social engineering. The inconvenience of long lunch lines and cramped tables serves a practical purpose at the company: namely, it forces people to get up and out of their cubicles, interacting and socializing (whether they like it or not). Even if your bonding is based on negativity (ie. complaining about the lunch room), you’re still out there bonding with new people. Misery truly loves company.
Google understands that strong work relationships lead to higher employee engagement…that encouraging a family-like corporate culture, rich in connection and relationships, is a competitive tool that leads to winning in the marketplace.
So what are you doing in your workplace to encourage inconvenient socializing? Are your elevators too large and spacious? Narrow them! Oh, and make sure they take longer to move from floor to floor! Reduce those parking space sizes! Enforce a gym rule of two people to a treadmill! The sky’s the limit when it comes to productive imperfection. J
I will say this, cramped spaces have their benefits. If I had a time machine, the first place I’d send myself back to is that inconvenient house in Nagasaki. The kitchen would have been an awfully cozy place to bond with my girl crush.