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Throughout the pandemic, Google’s Kendall Square campus has been empty — but not exactly quiet.

While the roughly 2,000 people that Google employs locally have largely been working from home, construction crews have continued to toil in Cambridge, adding floor after floor of new office space, dotted with the company’s famed “micro-kitchens,” which offer an array of free snacks and beverages. When the work is done, Google will occupy 1 million square feet in Kendall Square, cementing its status as one of the neighborhood’s three biggest tenants, along with the biopharmaceutical firms Biogen and Sanofi. Several floors of a newly renovated Google building on Broadway just opened.

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To understand what kind of work goes on there, and what the plan is for returning people to that expansive urban campus, I spoke to the four “site leads” who oversee it: Matthew Gray, Tali Sason, Kate Alessi, and Rich Miner, one of the cofounders of Android, the startup that Google acquired in 2005 to get into the business of mobile phone operating systems. (Though most of the Android employees were based in Silicon Valley, Miner persuaded Google to start hiring in Cambridge, leading the company to set up its first office inside the Cambridge Innovation Center.)

What does Google do in Cambridge?

Cambridge has grown into one of the largest Google sites outside of the company’s Mountain View headquarters. Its employees here work on a wide array of products — some of which its users see, such as YouTube advertisements, and others which are intended to make its products work better behind the scenes, like “transcoding” software that makes sure a YouTube video can play on everything from a mobile phone to a TV.

Miner, who previously worked on education-related projects at Google that are now part of Google Classroom, is chief technology officer for the company’s Android tablet business. “We’ve seen, through COVID, a huge acceleration of tablet adoption,” he says. While tablets may have previously used primarily to consume content, more people are now using them to do work or schoolwork, and adding keyboards or styluses. Miner says his team is working to enable the Android operating system to support larger screen sizes, “multitasking, better widgets, and home screen navigation.”

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Sason oversees a team that works with Google’s software developers to help support experimentation. Sason says that in developing new features, Google tends to put them in front of users to see which things they prefer — often called A/B testing. The company ran more than 400,000 of these tests last year, Sason says. Some might involve shifting a button in an imperceptible way that encourages users to click it more, but others are more prominent, like providing information about COVID symptoms from trustworthy sources at the top of a results page when someone enters the query, “Is ____ a symptom of COVID?”

Gray, an engineering director, works on a team with members in Cambridge, Tokyo, and Mountain View that tries to improve the Google search engine’s ability to better understand what information you’re looking for; recently, he says, that has been helping to surface “relevant, high-quality, and authoritative COVID information.” They also build “deep learning” software that can be trained to understand the different meanings that a given word has in different contexts — for instance, that “the word ‘bark’ means something different in the context of trees than in the context of dogs,” Gray says.

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Alessi is the newest of the Google Cambridge site leads, having taken on that role in 2019. She oversees a team that works with advertisers and agencies to create YouTube advertising formats. One example is a six-second-long advertisement — much shorter than the traditional 30-second spot that has long run on television. “We realized the 30-second ad was not the best experience from a user perspective,” Alessi says — especially if it was running in front of a YouTube video that might only be a minute long. After doing “extensive research” to balance the needs of users and advertisers, she says, in 2017 YouTube launched the six-second format, which is not skippable and plays before videos.

Other teams in Google’s Cambridge office work on products such as the Google Travel trip planning service — which now includes COVID-related notifications about visiting certain locales — and Google News, the website and mobile app that collects news from different outlets.

What has remote work been like at the company?

Prior to the pandemic, “Googlers,” as employees are called, were already accustomed to working with far-off colleagues via e-mail, instant message, and videoconference. So the adjustment to working from home full time was swift.

Google’s office culture leans heavily on perks that include free massages, coffee bars, and, in Silicon Valley, beach volleyball courts and lap pools. In the pandemic’s early stages, the company provided a budget for employees to outfit their home offices with any gear they needed, like a better chair or additional monitor, Miner says. And there were organized classes conducted over video on topics such as how to bake bread, build robots, or do various home improvement projects. (Gray’s team organized an online chocolate tasting, with samples sent to Googlers’ homes in advance.) A series of “real-time talks” gave employees a forum to discuss societal issues like racial justice and violence against Asians. Sason says: “Those were conversations that used to happen in the cafés or micro-kitchens at our campus, and they didn’t have a place in the virtual environment.”

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Miner says that when the Cambridge site leads have organized “all hands” meetings for employees over the past 18 months, they’ve been better attended than those that had taken place on the campus.

But Sason says work-from-home “has been rough” in many ways. “There are some wins that we get working from home, like cutting down the commute, and having more time with families. But it’s also incredibly challenging. Burnout is high, stress is real, and work-life harmony is really challenging.”

How will Google’s return-to-office plan play out?

Since June, Google employees who have been vaccinated have been able to reserve workspace and go into the Cambridge complex. Capacity has been limited, but some perks, including free lunch, have returned. Some employees have been taking advantage of the “quiet space to work, and the strong Internet access,” Miner says.

But while most of the site leads visited the campus to check on construction in June, they haven’t regularly been showing up to work there. “I very purposely don’t go in,” says Sason, “because I don’t want to be setting an accidental tone for my employees that they should be in the office.” Miner adds that he “heard that sensitivity up and down the chain, that if I go in, there will be downward pressure for other people to feel that they need to go in.”

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In August, Google CEO Sundar Pichai shifted the company’s return-to-office plans from this October to January 2022. But even then, the work week isn’t returning to what it looked like before. Employees will be expected to spend three days in the office, and two days working from home. (Those who want to spend every day on the campus can do that, Sason adds.) Workers who prefer to ditch their commutes for good, or who have moved to a distant hamlet, have been offered the option to become “remote only.” But even they will be expected to travel to Google offices for occasional meetings. The company has also been creating more part-time roles to “allow for a more diverse candidate pool,” Sason says.

While the site leads all acknowledge that the remote work era has had advantages, they seem to toe a unified line about the benefits of having employees back in Kendall Square.

“We strongly believe in an in office environment,” says Alessi, who adds that she has three children at home and has appreciated being able to take a break from commuting. “We can certainly get our work done [remotely]. We are productive. But it’s very challenging to maintain the energy that you get when you are with your colleagues in a Google office.” For younger employees, she says, it has been harder to get mentorship and career advice from more seasoned colleagues over the past year-and-a-half.

Gray says he has missed spending time in Google’s micro-kitchens — and not only because of the free snacks. “I can stock my own kitchen with snacks,” he says. But in the office, “I see colleagues who I don’t necessarily otherwise interact with on a regular basis.”

The benefits of that serendipity can be hard to quantify, as can the advantages of having an in-person meeting versus one using Google Meet, the company’s videoconferencing product. But Google has invested heavily in adding to its Kendall Square campus throughout the pandemic, and in January it will begin asking people to return to it on a regular basis — unless, of course, new COVID-19 developments push that date back once again.

“Being able to collaborate in person is how we build successful community and successful products,” Sason says.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.