Those cool offices where we all want to work? They’re based on a once-exploitative model

Maybe it’s time to reconsider what we, as workers, want from our jobs, and how much independence we’re willing to give up for a seemingly utopian workplace. 

Mere photos of the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, inspire admiration. The colorful decor, looming glass windows, toy-like bike stations, and gigantic baked goods statues make the campus seem more like a futuristic Disneyland than an office building filled with worker bees churning out the company’s latest products.

But behind these new-age corporate campuses lies the haunting legacy of industrialization, and with it the models created to attract employees tied to their corporate institutions. Though offices with craft beer on tap and masseuses on call may seem a far cry from the company towns that defined corporate life into the 20th century, according to Quartz, the two business strategies share structural similarities that may make us cringe when we consider the implications.

Living at work

As the Industrial Revolution pioneered new factory models that used game-changing technology, workers began to move to industrial centers for jobs in a newly minted workforce. But, as evinced by the insights of famed theorists such as Karl Marx, the contemporary urban landscape had not modernized enough to accommodate an influx, and workers’ rights and benefits were concepts foreign to a society that had barely distanced itself from feudalism.

Company towns were a solution to a still dependent workforce that relied on employers to provide necessities such as healthcare and food. Nestled near industrial hotbeds such as coal mines or chocolate factories, the employer-run towns harbored everything a worker could need but still tended to benefit the business owner.

Some of the company towns were downright exploitative, charging workers inordinate sums for basic goods and plunging them into a lifetime of debt. But others were at least intended to improve quality of life for employees.

Regardless, they were all based on the same principles: Centrality, or keeping work central to life; enclosure, or isolation from other communities; insularity, or seclusion based on a fully functioning internal community; and completeness, or lack of need for anything beyond work.

Sound familiar?

Work/life balance today

Ride in a WeWork elevator, and you’ll notice a calendar with the month’s events. Perhaps there’s an exercise class one morning or a comedy show at night. The opportunities are endless.

In fact, the schedule sounds so fun that it would seem silly to ever leave. Why go somewhere to pay for the things you love when you can stay put and do them for free?

To a certain degree, these perks are an upgrade for the workforce. For example, some companies have started catering meals for their employees, which saves untold sums for people trying to live in the country’s most competitive real estate markets. These accommodations show consideration and care from discerning CEOs who understand the needs of people who work around them.

But as major companies such as Amazon and Facebook increasingly gravitate toward “campuses” that go far beyond free food, a disconcerting pattern emerges: Their offices use centrality, enclosure, insularity, and completeness to justify long, late hours at the office and a precarious relationship between work and life.

The logical extreme of these worker trends lands somewhere along the lines of Dave Eggers’ book “The Circle,” which shows how the personal and professional can become one blurred entity as employees live at work. But even in less dystopian circumstances, the new environments and their similarities to company towns beg the question, “Is this really healthy?”

As eye-catching as the Googleplex may be, its stunning facade cannot mask all of the power dynamics its very design implies. So maybe it’s time to reconsider what we, as workers, want from our jobs, and how much independence we’re willing to give up for a seemingly utopian workplace.

Alexandra Villarreal|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at avillarreal@theladders.com.