Sometimes you find yourself in surreal situations. Not long ago, I was on a roof-top terrace watching people in the mid-twenties age group playing on brightly-coloured swings with cake in one hand and ice cream in the other. These individuals could also legitimately say that they were at work.
Very few people get to see what actually goes on behind the scenes at internet giants Facebook and Google. When I was invited to join a press trip visiting both Dublin-based offices, as part of the launch of the Digital DNA Summit, I jumped at the chance.
The media has portrayed an image of 'razzle dazzle', particularly where Google is concerned, releasing images of hot tubs, pool tables, bean bags and free haircuts, all listed as just some of the long list of employee perks. I understand that in this time of global IT skills shortage in order to attract and keep the best staff you have to go above and beyond, but I admit to thinking this was going to be a bit of PR spin.
In a very corporate street, surrounded by offices packed full of suit-clad lawyers and accountants, stand three tall buildings all devoted to Google's EU Headquarters. From the outside they look normal, only flower pots in the bold Google colours give the owners away. This is Google's 10th anniversary in Dublin, with 2,500 employees now working there in business operations, sales support and marketing.
We were greeted at reception and directed to an automated sign-in system, flanked on either side by vending machines stocked full of sugar-free soft drinks. From the time that you are signed in, everything in Google is free for staff and guests.
A lift took us to the 11th floor, a communal area for staff to relax and enjoy the views out over Dublin. The dress code throughout was casual. Rarely would you spot anyone over the age of 30.
We were joined by Gabhain Neary, who works in procurement for Google. Mr Neary said: "Google are good at looking after their staff. It is a hard interview process to get here, but once you are in they want to make sure you stay. We have the opportunity to travel with our job, they offer flexible working hours and they are focused on a solid work-life balance approach."
Dave Geraghty, director of Small Medium Business Sales, Google, said it was their ability to recruit people into Dublin that made it an attractive base: "We have staff from 65 different countries... we needed people who are young and experienced, with strong academic backgrounds. We hire 70% from outside Ireland. We need them to be long-term employees."
Who wouldn't want to be a long-term employee in a place where you can get a head and neck massage during your lunch hour? Where your lunch is cooked in front of you by chefs and, perhaps most importantly, it's free? In a place where you can visit the gym without leaving your office, speak to your own personal trainer or go for a swim at any time that suits? Or, my favourite, in a place where you can go and sit on swings on a brightly-coloured roof-top terrace while eating free cake and ice cream?
Facebook and Google regularly compete for the same staff and have offices less than a 10-minute walk from each other. While Google is in a more corporate street, Facebook has a glass-fronted office, surrounded by cafes and bars, with views overlooking Grand Canal Dock.
This is home to their Europe, Middle East and Africa headquarters, set up in 2009. They have 450 employees, with plans to expand by another 100 this year.
Gail Power, director of Global Sales Service, Facebook, took us on a guided tour and again similar themes prevailed. An impressive canteen serves up free food with a side of electronic music, table football games are dotted around the place, micro kitchens stocked with free snacks are on every floor and flexible working hours are all temptations for potential employees. The employees again were young and multi-cultural.
An open-door policy prevails through every Facebook office in the world, with no closed-door offices. Not even CEO Mark Zuckerberg gets the luxury of his own office.
What was interesting about Facebook and Google was that while the 'razzle dazzle' was what impressed visitors like us the most, when asked about the perks it was the working from home options, relocation opportunities and flexible working hours that meant the most to the employees.
Dave Geraghty, Google, and Gail Power, Facebook, will be among the headline speakers at the Digital DNA Summit in September at Titanic Belfast.
This all-day event is organised by the MBA Association of Ireland Northern Chapter in conjunction with event sponsor NYSE Euronext and is aimed at boosting the profitability of local business, providing individuals with an opportunity to network and build knowledge in relation to all things digital.
With Google and Facebook driving digital change in new and established businesses, both speakers will show how these technologies hold the potential to help Northern Ireland gain a competitive advantage and open doors to new markets.