If you took an American history course at any point in your life, it's possible you heard about the Industrial Revolution phenomenon known as the Company Town. If you didn't dwell on it too much in your history class, it's probably because it was the result of some of capitalism's more unseemly tendencies. In such a model, major corporations would set up their own full-service towns, complete with housing for their employees and simple amenities such as churches, libraries, company stores and theaters. Employees bought their groceries from the company, paid their rent to the company, and owed pretty much the entirety of their social life to the company.
Sounds like a thing of the past, right? An archaic, almost cruel system of "life monopolism?" Not so fast. Turns out, the scare of life monopolism didn't die at the turn of the 20th century. There's a new Industrial Revolution in America, and it's taking place in Silicon Valley. Granted, a lot of things have improved by leaps and bounds since the first Industrial Revolution, but if you look closely, you might be surprised to find some of the same underlying concepts in the employer-employee relationship rearing their ugly heads even today.
It's no secret these days that there's a huge push among forward-thinking companies to provide employees with a comfortable, enjoyable, sometimes even luxurious workplace experience. The giants like Google and Facebook have taken this model to the extreme, with full-service campuses that operate like little towns. Whether it's the nap pods, the free food all the time, the fitness centers, or the laundry services, every inch of one's life could be covered on these campuses. Many of these life-monopolizing employers even have doctors and dentists on their campuses.
This is all well and good, but the model has become so bloated for many of these larger companies that it has some people accusing them of becoming gilded cages for workers, in which you might feel like no more than a cog in the wheel of a major corporation. One reviewer on Glassdoor, who had five years of full-time experience in Mountain View, went as far to say, "It's become too big and too bureaucratic... [The] work-life balance isn't balanced anymore. It's more work, less of a life, if you want to keep getting good performance reviews. Tough to draw the line when your colleagues and boss are sending emails at 11 o'clock at night."
It's this work-life balance that has become the problem. It seems that these companies that offer every possible amenity for their employees do it with the full understanding, and perhaps even hope, that said employees will quickly become addicted to the company, in a way that sacrifices their life outside their job. This phenomenon can even extend into employees' social lives.
"You're expected to drink with your co-workers, be social, hang out outside of work, talk about your lives, etc." one Facebook employee commented. "There's a lot of the peer pressure type elements that don't exist at other companies."
The products and services that tech giants offer are undeniably world-changing, but at what cost? Do tech workers, or any workers, for that matter, have to feel like they've sold their souls to the company for the sake of enterprise and progress?
Turns out there are companies out there fighting hard to prove that the answer to that question is, simply, no. You can have it all: great, inspiring work and a fulfilling life at the same time.
Zappos, for example, has a similar free and open workplace environment to some of these life-encompassing tech giants, but with one key difference: an emphasis on the individual's prerogative to customize his or her own working life. Many other companies are resolving to let employees create the best work-life balance on their own terms by allowing them to work from home, and studies show that there's some good business sense behind that trend, too.
Some companies are pushing extremely hard against the life-swallowing work environments of Silicon Valley. Take Toptal, the global network of elite freelance engineers and designers. The company's distributed model allows employees to dictate their own work life, meaning the workers themselves have the only say in what constitutes a good work environment. The company's community is taking full advantage of that freedom, recently launching a Toptal Roadtrip initiative, where members of the company are taking a 3-month trip through South America and continuing to work full-time while doing so.
"This 9 to 5 office system is not only dangerous for you health, it's also just plain dehumanizing," says Kenan Salihbegovic, Head of Community at Toptal. "You leave your home, drive for an hour, sit at the exact same desk as everyone else, doing the exact same work, then you leave, drive an hour home again, go to sleep. You may not even get to spend time with your family that day. What kind of life is that?"
Buffer is another company operating under a similar fully-distributed model, following the same notion that a good personal life setting will dictate your performance in the workplace. If all other aspects of your life are up to you (location, hours, workstation, etc.), then the work will be as good as it could possibly be. Buffer also consistently touts its distributed model and the freedom therein for its employees as a significant source of creative inspiration and productivity.
"Our goal is to make Buffer as inviting as possible for team members to bring their full self to work, including their life outside of their job," says Rodolphe Dutel, Operations Manager at Buffer. "We're trying to create an environment where family, hobbies, lifestyle and side-projects matter just as much as the work done for Buffer itself. We'regetting together about twice a year, and invite significant others and kids to join us too.
"We've seen a strong trend toward covering as many team members' needs as possible over the last 10 years, and my sense is that the next 10 years will be a lot more flexible. Allowing employees to work from anywhere, and on a schedule that fits their life choices will probably be a step closer to employees feeling even better towards their workplace."
So why sell your soul to the company store when you can keep your soul and let the company's perks come to you? Why live in the gilded cage when you could make the world your playground? If going distributed and letting workers decide their own workplace perks seems like some crazy new development that will happen in a Jetsons-like future, that's because it probably is. The future often looks very different from the models we're used to. Luckily for you, the future is now.