The Persistence of the Office - Pacific Standard
More workers are telecommuting than ever before, but tech is clinging to the campus life that made it so homogenous.

Google is growing. The company recently unveiled plans for expanded headquarters it hopes to build in Mountain View, California: a “sprawling sci-fi campus” that is “unlike anything built before it.” The structure looks aggressively inspired, bordering on nonsensical. There are glass canopies and cars that look like bananas.

In a way, though, the most exceptional thing about Google’s offices is that they exist at all. Google and other tech companies build and maintain massive campuses, while other companies are expanding their telework ranks—and using the products of tech companies to do it.

The industry that makes it possible for other companies to employ teleworkers is putting massive resources into developing and maintaining its own office culture.

Telework is growing every year. It’s what many predicted as the work of the future—nimble and flexible production unconstrained by time or place. The industry that makes it possible for other companies to employ teleworkers is putting massive resources into developing and maintaining its own office culture. These offices stand as monuments against the move to virtual work spaces.

The importance of physical space persists even as our virtual worlds expand in size, complexity, and arguable reality. These offices become about culture creation and “culture fit.” They’re not really about work.

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The growth of telework was one promise of the knowledge economy, a place where workers would supposedly not need to work anywhere in particular. But we really thought we’d have better innovations by now: realistic three-dimensional holograms live-streamed across oceans, high-definition video-conferencing that doesn’t freeze every few minutes. Instead we have Skype and iPads attached to selfie sticks on Roombas.

Still, conveniences afforded by new technology have made telework a more compelling option for employers and employees in recent years. Nearly one-third of full-time employees in the United States don’t do most of their work in their company’s office, and nearly two-thirds of employers allow their workers to telecommute at least some of the time.

Google's campus concept. (Photo: Google)

Google's campus concept. (Photo: Google)

Telework has many obvious benefits. Studies suggest that telecommuting actually makes employees more productive, regardless of what their bosses may think. It ends long commutes and the resulting pollution and traffic congestion. It makes full-time work more available to parents—often mothers—needing flexible schedules and to those with physical disabilities. It saves costs for workers—transportation, lunch, business attire—and for employers—office rent, utilities, furniture, fixtures.

Jobs are increasingly located in city centers—which are increasingly expensive. But telework makes more economic opportunities available to people living in less desirable and less costly locations across the country.

But telecommuters miss out too. Without those telepresence holograms and seamless videoconferencing, the technology can be limiting. Remote workers miss the ephemeral connections made with colleagues and supervisors in a workplace, and the division between their home and work life can become blurred.

Telework distributes the power and production of traditionally centralized institutions. This cuts both ways: Employees have some extra freedoms, but might also be subjects of distrust. Regardless of whether a teleworker is doing their job, a distant boss might suspect they’re not.

They may have a great time hanging out together, but homogenous work groups are hobbled by a kind of groupthink that they might not even notice. Research suggests that diversity—gender, racial, cultural—makes companies measurably more successful.

But water cooler gossip is being replaced with Slack chats even for cubicle employees. When no office is necessary for work, offices become either prisons or playgrounds and sometimes arguably both.

Office culture has been particularly central to the technology industry for decades. For all those increases in telework, Yahoo!, Hewlett Packard, and other tech companies have recently pulled remote employees back onto campus.

Tech offices are hardly just offices. They are the presupposed central point of a worker’s life, where they do far more than just work. Campuses offer catered meals, gyms, entertainment and recreation, dry cleaning, and more. These amenities breed loyalty while keeping employees in the office longer.

These campuses do much to maintain Silicon Valley’s monoculture. They monopolize workers’ time outside of work, making it more convenient to interact and socialize exclusively within the company, from transit to lunch time to a post-work visit to the gym. Closed campus life is appealing to a certain kind of worker, and only some of those workers are a “culture fit” for those campuses. A worker can’t just excel at their job; he or she must also be fun over beers and foosball.

They may have a great time hanging out together, but homogenous work groups are hobbled by a kind of groupthink that they might not even notice. Research suggests that diversity—gender, racial, cultural—makes companies measurably more successful. But it also makes offices less fun, undercutting the mission of the campus.

This social need for sameness limits the imagination and capability of a fully “culture fitted” campus, no matter how massive its staff or how innovative its intentions. That homogeneity does make a company culture stronger, but at its own expense. The Internet has made the whole world a melting pot—tech campuses are cloistered at their own peril.

Tech companies want to show us they’re at the vanguard, with clean lines, glass canopies, and futuristic vehicles. But this isn’t true innovation, and it won’t help these institutions see the future any more clearly.

But if they could get on that 3-D telepresence hologram thing, that would be great.

The Crooked Valley is an illustrated series exploring the systems of privilege and inequality that perpetuate tech's culture of bad ideas.

Lead photo: Apple's campus concept. (Photo: Apple)

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