Is the utopian workplace just a ploy to keep us all at work?

Is the utopian workplace just a ploy to keep us all at work? February 16, 2017


Today’s long read is from Aeon, and asks a provocative question about whether “tech campuses” and the like are really in all of our best interests. After talking about Google’s new Mountain View campus, author Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey wonders:

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. [Read more]

I’ve done some research myself into company towns, and those founded by humane companies did, it seems, make life better for many. But they also made work central in ways that people are beginning to question (and here’s another) and they could be terribly condescending in how they decided to make life better (to quote one industrialist from my article🙂

Cadbury’s example directly influenced soap manufacturer William Lever (1851–1925 ), who built a model village called Port Sunlight on the Bournville model. His profit-sharing system reinvested profits into the village—he told employees, “It would not do you much good if you send [profits] down your throats in the form of bottles of whiskey, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant—nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation.”

It’s an unsolved and highly relevant problem, and I’m going to keep thinking about it.

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