21st-Century Company Town: The End of Privacy?

By Michael Johnson (PhD Student at UMass Boston, OSC Track).

Would you want to live just footsteps away from work? The question stayed in my mind as I read the recent Wall Street Journal article about Facebook’s plans to build a “394-unit housing community within walking distance of its offices” that will include amenities such as an “on-site café, convenience store, resort-inspired pool, rooftop entertainment deck, etc.” (Albergotti).  Facebook corporate headquarters are located in Menlo Park, CA, an area with high real estate values and a shortage of housing.  The lure of a one-stop work-life environment can be incredibly attractive to today’s workers who want a company that is accommodating to both their personal and professional needs.  With many companies vying to attract and retain talent, Facebook is taking a popular strategy to a new level.

Facebook notes that one of its goals is to “take care of as many aspects of its employees’ lives as possible” (Albergotti, 2013 Oct 03), a goal that many companies have in mind when they offer benefits and perks like on-site fitness or health services, day care centers and even pubs and snack bars. This idea of taking care of employee needs is a resurrection of old strategy that can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution era, and in particular the “company town” concept. George Pullman had this idea in mind when he built company housing in Chicago to take care of the needs of the employees.  The Pullman community “was populated by parks, playgrounds, a church, an arcade, a theatre, a casino, and a hotel,” and it was said that Pullman had a genuine interest in improving living conditions for his employees and their families as well as creating an improved capacity for attracting and retaining employees” (Carroll).

fb town

As genuine as they sound, these types of benefits and perks may have the underlying effect of controlling and shaping the behavior of employees.  They certainly pose work-life balance concerns.  Facebook’s “genuine interest” could be viewed as a form of paternalism and welfare capitalism, whereby companies create welfare benefits or perks, such as company housing, in the hope of creating a loyal, productive, engaged employee. But paternalism leads not only to shaping an employee at work, but could also lead to controlling the lifestyle of the employee outside of work.  By living in a 21st-century company town, your privacy could be limited.  Just think about it: if you lived in community-owned housing, you’d think twice about things you would normally do outside of work.  The cookout at your place might have a different feel when your boss’s office is in your line of sight.  Think twice about calling in sick.

This is not to say that these types of benefits and perks are not attractive and beneficial to employees.  The question is this: How much are employees willing to tolerate when their employers provide benefits and perks at the expense of autonomy?

References

Albergotti, R. (2013 oct 03). Facebook’s Company Town — The Social Network Is Building a 394-Unit Housing Community Near Its Offices. Wall Street Journal.

Carroll, A. B. (n.d.). A History of Corporate Social Responsibility: Concepts and Practices. Oxford Handbooks Online. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199211593.003.0002

The town of Pullman (old example of company town)

Picture: Renderings of Facebook’s planned Anton Menlo Community housing (from: R. Albergotti article)

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11 thoughts on “21st-Century Company Town: The End of Privacy?

  1. This is a very interesting concept, but one that seems to go against the American mindset of having the freedom to keep your job and personal life separate. As Charles mentioned above, one question that I would have is the amount of variety this type of town would give to its employees and to what extent the company would be responsible for providing that variety. If you were an employee from another state or country, I can see the attraction of having this type of set up so that a person can adjust more quickly to their environment, but I would be hesitant about this type of situation. What happens if you decide to leave your job? Would you be forced to move out of this town?

  2. It would be a great way to engage with the employee. And employees will save money because they just walk to work. It would be great for those employees who live far away such as from other state. Especially those employees don’t know the environment that’s much. The company town would be a good start for them. So the company can get more talent to work with them by providing good housing. However the company culture is also important that to make the employees willing to stay in the company town. As the article said the company town is so near the office that may affect employees`s lifestyles outside of work. If this is the problem, the employees will move out soon no matter how great the town it is. The company culture may help this problem by empower employees on their work. If the company culture can make employees feel like home , the company town idea may work. The employees work comfortable in the company, they also feel comfortable to live near the company.

  3. Company Town is good for employees moving to areas where they know nobody for easy integration with other members of staff as Michelle said in her reply to the article. it is also a confinement and lack of autonomy especially where the company town is far from the commercial cities.. In other words, you will be restricted to only the facilities within the town and this could make life boring .My question is, how many churches , markets , theaters, parks, Restaurants , schools ,Hospitals and hotels they going to provide?, Life is good when we have varieties.

  4. Work Life Balance
    Autonomy wins for my personal choice at this point of time in my journey.
    For others they may choose the platform Facebook is offering.
    But that too is autonomy .
    ***We have choice***

  5. This is a very thought provoking discussion. One that I believe will vary based on age and whether your are the employer or the employee. This culture would certainly pave the way for a strong sense of community and loyalty unique to Facebook or any organization embracing this concept. This model could prove to be a tremendous benefit to an individual moving to the area where they know no one and are unfamiliar with their surroundings. It would allow them to integrate and form relationships at a quicker pace than traditional environments. One could almost say it has the potential to enhance creativity as collaboration is much more accessible. In addition, it could prove to provide health benefits by serving only healthy options in the cafe, a local farmers market, and having a swimming pool and/or excercise equipment at the employees disposal. However, all of these points have very valuable counter points to them making this the interesting discussion that it is.

  6. First, this is very interesting and my first thought was “what a great idea!” Then as I really thought about it from a working mom perspective; it would be great to have more time with my children with no commute to work. However, I would be concerned with really having quality time with them being so close to work. I could see myself needing to run into the office to do a few things over the weekend to prepare for next week; a few minutes can turn into a few hours very quickly. There is always that constanct struggle with being a great mother and being a great employee; balancing both can be very challenging. I think in-order to create work/life balance, this option would not be a good one for me. I see this as being very appealing to the “Y” Generation – from what I am learning about Generation Y they would see this as a positive and added benefit. It will be interesting to see what happens! Great job Mike!

  7. This article certainly raises some good questions and thoughts. I agree with your perspective that these perks might modify a worker’s behavior. I even think about this on a simple level, when it comes to ordering food for a meeting or purchasing a birthday cake for a colleague. These things, although well-intentioned, might tempt workers to eat more unhealthy food.

    In response to your specific example with housing, I think it also limits the employees opportunity to gain new perspectives and bring energy to the workplace. If they are living and socializing in the same area of town that they work, does this inhibit creativity? Does it cause people to be less diverse in their experiences outside of work? Are they as likely to spend time with diverse individuals across the city or region? Does it inhibit their energy at work because they may feel like they are “always at work” or “always at home”?

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  8. This plan is just an extension of the office foozball tables and stocked kitchens that employees think make the workplace more supportive, but which are really just designed so that people never leave and work like mules. The real human need for work-life balance isn’t addressed by being able to shower or get dry cleaning dropped off at work — it’s getting out of the office to see the outdoors and maybe interact with someone who exists in another sphere.

    Living at work? That’s not progress. That’s called a plantation.

  9. As I was reading this article a quote by Mark Twain kept reverberating in my mind, and I paraphrase here, history doesn’t really repeat itself but it does rhyme. The rhyming scheme that I am thinking of is the boarder houses that were set up next to textile factories in Lowell, MA. The purpose, similar to Facebook, was to attract rural workers, mostly women, to move to the city and work at the local mills. The nefarious part of this bargain was that these women were held to an enforced curfew and had to abide by a strict moral code. Now obviously much of this moral law stemmed from the zeitgeist of that period which either looked down upon or outright forbade women from living alone unsupervised, but it does lend itself as an example from history. I guess we will learn in time if Facebook follows in rhyme. Thanks for the article it was very interesting.

  10. Mike, you bring up an excellent point; one that many might not consider when focusing only on the convenience of living so close to work. After all, with gas prices so high, and the average American’s daily (one-way) commute being almost 30 minutes, seeing the benefits of this arrangement would be easy. For most of us, we simply never have enough time in our day. What would that extra hour each day be worth? Would it be worth the potential sacrifice of privacy? I will say, as I look at the picture you posted of what this might look like, it does almost seem “Melrose Place” – esque. I can see how some young 20-somethings would find this very appealing as a way to meet new people, but don’t they want to leave the dorm experience in their past? As someone who struggles daily with maintaining a healthy work-life balance, the decision would be easy – this is a benefit I would definitely opt out of during open enrollment.

  11. This is an interesting take on benefits offered by companies like Facebook and Google. At first, programs like this are extremely enticing to me as an employee, but I never gave consideration to the potential loss of autonomy arising from so much time being spent in close proximity to my place of work.

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