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).
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?
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)