Work imitates life

The utopian workplace is here, complete with roof gardens, therapists and time to nap. Can the employee ever escape?

Architect impression of the proposed new Google HQ in California. Image courtesy Google / BIG / Heatherwick Studio

writes on American history, technology, media, and music. He lives in New York City and currently works in digital production at NPR.

3,300 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Few companies could announce a new office in the messianic way that Google did last February. Then again, few companies have ever built this sort of office.

‘Google’s presence in Mountain View is simply so strong that it can’t be the fortress that shuts away… the neighbours. It really needs to become a neighbourhood in Mountain View,’ intones the lead architect Bjarke Ingels of the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in the introductory video. The camera sweeps high over an edenic Mountain View in the San Francisco Bay Area. It pulls back to reveal Google’s proposed new office: a neighbourhood nested beneath glittering glass domes.

On approximately 3.5 million square feet of commercial land, Google intended to build a campus office that might best be described as a new part of town. Beneath the glass canopies, a thriving neighbourhood hosts stores, bike paths and modular office spaces. In building this new neighbourhood, Google hoped to expand their working space while accommodating the Mountain View population inclined to view them as a ‘fortress’. The utopian campus was meant to assuage fears that spiking numbers of Google employees would create a Google voting bloc, according to The New York Times. Such fears are understandable. As of 2013, the company employed roughly 10 per cent of Mountain View’s workforce and owned approximately the same proportion of taxable property.

Despite promises that the campus would be open to all, in May 2015 the Mountain View City Council denied Google the majority of the land they’d requested. Google submitted a similar but smaller plan to the city later that month. This one proposes to treat its own water supply and expand the suite of amenities that, anecdotally, have enabled at least a few Google employees to forgo private housing – sometimes by sleeping in trucks and vans while otherwise living on campus.

‘We’re blurring the outside world and the inside world,’ explains Thomas Heatherwick, the London-based designer who is the project’s other lead, in the Mountain View video. He cites the ‘historic city model of making streets’ as Google’s inspiration. As The New Yorker writer Nathan Heller put it: ‘Inside, it is about turning Google into not only a life style but a fully realised life.’

It’s a life many want. Google boasts more than 2 million job applicants a year. National media hailed its office plans as a ‘glass utopia’. There are hosts of articles for businesspeople on how to make their offices more like Google’s workplace. A 2015 CNNMoney survey of business students around the world showed Google as their most desired employer. Its campus is a cultural symbol of that desirability.

The specifics of Google’s proposed Mountain View office are unprecedented, but the scope of the campus is part of an emerging trend across the tech world. Alongside Google’s neighbourhood is a recent Facebook open office on their campus that, as the largest open office in the world, parallels the platform’s massive online community. Both offices seem modest next to the ambitious and fraught effort of Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online fashion retailer Zappos, to revitalise the downtown Las Vegas area around Zappos’ office in the old City Hall.

Such offices symbolise not just the future of work in the public mind, but also a new, utopian age with aspirations beyond the workplace. The dream is a place at once comfortable and entrepreneurial, where personal growth aligns with profit growth, and where work looks like play.

Yet though these tech campuses seem unprecedented, they echo movements of the past. In an era of civic wariness and economic fragility, the ‘total’ office heralds the rise of a new technocracy. In a time when terrorism from abroad provokes our fears, this heavily-planned workplace harks back to the isolationist values of the academic campus and even the social planning of the company town. As physical offices, they’re exceptional places to work – but while we increasingly uphold these places as utopic models for community, we make questionable assumptions about the best version of our shared life and values.

Get Aeon straight to your inbox

Just as Google sought to build a new neighbourhood in Mountain View, so did Thomas Jefferson in 1819 intend to make the campus of the University of Virginia an ‘academical village’. The famed architect Le Corbusier once described the US college campus as ‘a world in itself’, and it’s these cloistered worlds that launched our technological ideals. Tony Hsieh of Zappos had a formative business experience manning a dormitory diner in Quincy House at Harvard College; David Fincher’s film The Social Network (2010) would have you believe that Mark Zuckerberg’s empire – which earned $12.47 billion in 2014 alone – is still, at its core, a vengeful dorm-room enterprise.

‘Certainly tech campuses – not just in their layout but in their work rhythms – are meant to resemble college life,’ said Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed (2014), a history of the office. ‘The fact that you’re meant to put in long hours but those hours are punctuated by hours of leisure, boredom – you know, you can take a nap.’

Tech campuses and college campuses seem ideologically aligned. Once, those college campuses held as much sway in the US mind as our tech campuses do now. According to the architectural historian Paul V Turner’s Campus: An American Planning Tradition (1984), the US college campus was ‘an experiment in urbanism’ – a more open follow-up to European universities such as Oxford, whose individual residential colleges emerged in the 13th century and came to prominence in the 15th as a means of organising the college experience, keeping out the townies, and controlling students prone to whoring. These urban experiments became a vision of US utopia. Campuses are worlds apart; places that address the whole of the student in order to nurture the whole of the student. Early college campuses were one of the first major architectural undertakings of the new world, and they mapped US values and aspirations. They were the first of our cities on a hill.

The campus culture that seems to serve, shape, and employ the whole worker has as its corollary a boom in positive psychology

Increasingly, that’s the role tech campuses have assumed.

These offices are seen as utopian partly because ‘they’re more thought-out than most American offices,’ explained Saval. ‘The reason they’re more thought-out is that those companies are in some ways obliged to care in a way that other American corporations in other industries aren’t.’

That’s because workers with tech skills are in demand. As members of a leading cultural and economic paradigm, they have a kind of economic security that those in many other fields now lack. Their offices, then, cater to their needs in a rare way. As the architectural critic Alexandra Lange points out in The Dot-Com City (2012), these places keep the surrounding world at bay – often at a cost to the local economy – to keep employees on campus longer.

Ultimately, school campuses seek to shape rounded and informed citizens. On corporate campuses, workers are still workers. But in both environments, people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to their work. So the campus culture that seeks to serve, shape and employ the whole worker has as its corollary a boom in positive psychology – management principles centred on things such as mindfulness, perceived autonomy, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself.

‘The resources that managers and businesses are trying to extract from workers are in some ways very personal to the worker,’ explained William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry (2015) and a senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. ‘Their imagination, their dynamism, their levels of energy – all these sorts of things.’

Yet Davies views the approach with skepticism. ‘The idea that you can target an emotion with a brand or for that matter with a particular management strategy is… a kind of behaviourist fantasy,’ he notes.

That’s one way to explain the drama of Zappos, which started as an online retailer selling shoes in 1999. The current CEO, Hsieh, has been a student of utopian communities since his first warehouse rave, a significant experience recounted in his autobiography, Delivering Happiness (2010):

The entire room felt like one massive, united tribe of thousands of people, and the DJ was the tribal leader of the group… It was as if the existence of individual consciousness had disappeared and been replaced by a single unifying group consciousness.

The insight gelled with the burgeoning new field of positive psychology, which, Hsieh felt, confirmed ‘that the combination of physical synchrony with other humans… leads to a greater sense of happiness.’ In his book, he sketched out his vision for ‘a path to profits, passion, and purpose. ’ Soon he had spun off a happiness consultancy called Delivering Happiness, which offered coaching and talks delivered by VHPs (Very Happy Persons) along with a Happy Business Index survey to help companies optimise workforce happiness.

That’s been the mission at Zappos, too, through core values such as ‘Deliver WOW Through Service’ and ‘Create Fun and a Little Weirdness’. And on a 60-acre patch of land in downtown Las Vegas, not far from the Strip over in Paradise, Nevada, it’s become the guiding vision of a new sort of townan alchemical effort to revitalise Vegas’ downtrodden downtown by making it a start-up utopia.

They play ukuleles and hope to create a ‘smile pandemic’ in the city

The Downtown Project is a sandbox for start-ups, an umbrella organisation that funds, supports, owns and co-owns around 300 businesses that, according to their website, together employ more than 900 people. Though not technically constituting the Zappos campus, the Zappos company sits at the heart of things in the old City Hall. At the Downtown Project, according to a special report by Nellie Bowles for the website Re/code, a preschool trains children in the skills they need for the start-up of life. A Downtown Project-funded hospitality-cum-security force called ‘The Rangers’ aims someday to monitor interactions between workers in a search for the coveted innovation-producing encounter. According to Joe Schoenmann of the Las Vegas Weekly, they play ukuleles and hope to create a ‘smile pandemic’ in the city.

‘The emphases [of these offices] is on a soft coercion towards people interacting with each other in planned ways,’ said Saval. ‘That’s what the original Google campus is about. The Downtown Project just changed the scale of that to the level of a neighbourhood.’

Yet for all the positivity of the Downtown Project, its surrounding casinos have become an unfortunately fitting landscape. The Project’s combination of high-stress entrepreneurship, a surface emphasis on positivity, and the isolation attendant in an office away from some employees’ homes was a gamble, and the house has often seemed set against them. Since 2013, the Project has seen major layoffs, a series of suicides, and the loss of faith among many, serving as a cautionary tale.

What went wrong? Hsieh seems to think he hasn’t gone far enough. ‘Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity per resident increases by 15 per cent. But when companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down. So we’re trying to figure out how to structure Zappos more like a city, and less like a bureaucratic corporation.’

Hsieh’s impulse has historical precedent. In the past, company towns realised a life in line not only with profits but also with certain value systems, and a model of corporate control. In the early to mid-19th century at the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, you could both enjoy a refined intellectual community and be fired for drinking or attending dance classes, notes Hardy Green, a former BusinessWeek associate editor, in his book The Company Town (2010). Later on, towns such as Hershey, Pennsylvania, built by the chocolate maven Milton S Hershey, combined some of the best living amenities of the early 20th century – a school for orphans, electricity, a free zoo – with the precarious lack of elected government and the chance to have Hershey himself as your mayor. Like other such towns, Hershey had a ‘moral police’ that would enforce clean living by noting homes that weren’t kept up and employees who were alcoholic.

The risk of the company town, of course, is the dependence of a neighbourhood on the originating corporation – one reason that Mountain View rejected Google’s proposal. In part, the company town was an attempt to remake the world in the industrialist’s image, and often stemmed from a separatist urge. No one embodied the dynamics of those places better than Henry Ford, the poster child of US technology and entrepreneurship. Ford might have made the modern world with the Model T, but he made many smaller worlds with his model towns. In the 1920s, according to the historian Greg Grandin, Ford even proposed a ribbon-shaped city in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that would be five and a half times as long as Manhattan. There, he sought to build a culture of ‘farmer-mechanics’ – industrial workers who spent their summers tending the land – which Ford, a farmboy-turned-mechanic, saw as the industrial future of the US.

It wasn’t until years later and miles away that he’d succeed at scale. In 1927, on a roughly 2.5 million-acre land grant from the state of Pará in Brazil, Ford began to build a rubber plantation. It was a new city on the fresh breast of the verdant Amazon: Fordlandia. Throughout his detailed 2009 account of Fordlandia’s halting rise from overrun jungle to town with a Main Street, bakery and perfume store, Grandin highlights how the economic and organisational obstacles of the project turned it into less a business proposition than an ideological battle ground for Ford’s vision of US life versus the primal jungle. In 1941, Walt Disney visited Ford’s city, and in 1955, aged 53, he started Disneyland. A half-century after that, Disney designers visited Facebook to consult on the company’s campus design, the new world begetting a small world, after all.

A month after Google’s announcement, Facebook unveiled a 430,000-square-foot open office, which Zuckerberg called ‘the largest open floor plan in the world’; Wired called it a ‘Garden-roofed fantasyland’. Vending machines dispense tech hardware – such as keyboards – to its employees for free. Nearby, on an older campus, a Main Street designed like Disneyland boasts numerous high-quality dining options – each free. That office, too, is a vision for how we should work today from a company that, like Google, aims to offer more employee housing – an ambition that prompted the journalist and scientist Tim De Chant, writing in Wired, to invoke robber barons and company towns alike. Facebook’s wide-open spaces are well-aligned with the popular belief in the innovation-producing value of the spontaneous encounter. On its roof, Facebook’s nine-acre garden with more than 400 trees lets these encounters happen in nature. In the print-making shop on the campus Main Street, there’s a poster that reads: ‘Is this a tech company?’

It’s a fair question. As the influence of these offices grows both physically in their local communities and ideologically in US work culture, they affect the idea of community in ways that aren’t always visible.

there’s something symbolic about tech companies moving into old government buildings

‘Cities were already turning into giant offices in front of everyone’s eyes because people were working in all kinds of spaces – working in cafés, working in co-working spaces – the office is basically just your laptop and your phone,’ said Saval. ‘It started to make sense to office designers to try and plan out that process, or to broaden it.’

But if these companies inform an ideal of how our shared life should be ordered, then their ideologies must be seen as more than office politics. Near the High Line Park in the Manhattan neighbourhood of Chelsea, you can glimpse Google’s New York office. A white Google logo stands out against the building’s grey façade. But just beneath the logo, etched into the face of the building, its old title is still visible: ‘The Port of New York Authority Inland Terminal One’.

Google isn’t the only company in that building, but there’s something freighted about tech companies moving into old government buildings. To some degree, it echoes what’s happening more broadly in the culture. It’s easy to be fed up with government (try Googling ‘GOP candidates 2016’), and the best and biggest tech companies provide efficient technologies with powerful, often democratising applications across fields. But we should recognise that, in broadly embracing these technologies, and viewing the offices producing them as visions of the future, we’re turning over some portion of the stewardship of our common life to the platforms, structures and values that they provide.

Like their offices, these companies’ products pose healthy challenges for the government and the law: how might Facebook’s effect on voting yield what Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain calls a kind of ‘digital gerrymandering’. If self-driving cars are widely adopted, should it be illegal for human drivers, with their potential for human errors, to endanger everyone else on the roads? Companies such as Google and Facebook have moved the world forward through their innovative products. And in philanthropy and investment in endeavours like Civic Hall, Facebook and Google do consciously engage in the public sphere. But the offices and communities they build represent something old – the strong, timeworn urge towards walking away from the inefficiencies and frictions of a shared life. They represent the privatisation of community and the seductive urge to address human problems by reducing their messier human elements. You can charge for delivering happiness only if you can measure it.

In February 2014, in the midst of turbulence and layoffs, the Downtown Project changed its motto, which had long boasted the ‘3 Cs: Collisions, Community, and Co-Learning’. Hsieh changed the word ‘Community’ to ‘Connectedness’. In a 2015 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, he explained the trying time: ‘We had some people start expecting us to do certain things that maybe would be expectations for what the government should be doing.’ For better and for worse, such expectations emerge when companies build city-like campuses and adopt the rhetoric of the company town.

Often, the problems that communities face are knotty, personal ones – issues that don’t lend themselves to efficient solutions or communal models that prize frictionlessness or corporate oversight. Nonetheless, it isn’t so wild to dream of a society where innovation consistently enhances civic life; where a more efficient government can provide some security for risk-takers of any age; where humanistic pursuit is a valued guiding perspective, not just content for a new platform. The real utopia is one that embraces the innovations of imaginative companies such as Google without forsaking all that came before, or assuming that newer is necessarily better.

And utopia should be a place big enough to include everyone still outside the walls, and all the towns that they come from.

Essay/History

What Mortimer did

A diplomat in British India blundered a border. The consequences continue to shape world politics

Rafia Zakaria

Idea/Poverty & Development

Girls of the global South can’t fix the world alone

Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Video/Nature & Environment

Humane horse-training means understanding humans as predators and horses as prey

6 minutes

Essay/Religion

Against Muslim unity

Even the pilgrimage to Mecca exposes the myth of a united Islam and the formative power of the wider world

Faisal Devji

Idea/Human Rights

Why is the Iranian government opening the world’s biggest bookstore?

Holly Dagres

Video/Law & Justice

Can video of the police shooting an unarmed civilian ever be viewed objectively?

30 minutes