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The Myth of the Cool Office

Don't be fooled by the perks at all those Silicon Valley (and Alley) offices—it's all just part of a subtle plot to control office culture. How the so-called "escalation of perks" keeps employees in line all over the tech world and at "progressive" companies the world over.

Don't be fooled by the perks at all those Silicon Valley (and Alley) offices—it's all just part of a subtle plot to control employee behavior. The founders of Fab.com, which just got itself a $1 billion valuation, admitted as much to Bloomberg's Sarah Frier. The shopping site wields its beer on tap, free lunch, and ice-cream machine as a means to force Fab employees to send emails in a "certain font," use high-quality paper, and always "be Fab"—whatever terrible thing that means. Those types of office perks abound at startups, of course, not only as a way to attract the best talent, but also to get that "talent" working on message, official office font included. Each and every kegerator serves as a reminder of what you owe the company. And that's just the food and drink. Let's take a look, by way of a couple recent trend stories and startup proclamations, at how the so-called "escalation of perks" keeps employees in line all over the tech world and "progressive" companies the world over.

Unlimited Vacation Days Nobody Takes

It sounds like the best perk ever: You could, officially, and under official policy, get paid for a three-month summer vacation. But of course the increasingly popular you-work-so-hard-that-we-won't-count strategy doesn't work that way. First, most companies wouldn't allow it. The marketing company Xiik, for example, boasts the limitless vacation offer, but in its fine print discourages long hiatuses. "There are no hidden agendas; xiik employees can take as much paid time off as needed," claims a Xiik project manager on the company website, before clarifying what that really means: "As nice as it would be to regularly leave for months at a time, common sense prevails: In most cases, it simply doesn't make sense to be away from work for extended periods."

Translation: non-stop vacation is a ruse.

Sure, three months of leave is a bit much. But how much is okay to take when your HR manager says you can take as much as you like? An employee completely loses leverage when he or she doesn't have a set amount of days to claim. If a boss says no to a lengthy request under the unlimited policy, then there's not really much a worker can do; an employee with a set amount of time off can always go with the but-still-have-a-week-left-this-year line.

Even worse than a company that denies the unlimited vacation it promises, however, is one that discourages extra days off by convincing employees working at a cool office is more fun than not working at all. There's something incredibly Foucauldian about startup workers failing to indulge in their vacation because staying late at an office with a pool table is like a vacation, as Molly Young described in a much discussed essay in last week's New York Times Thursday Styles section.

The Open Office Space Panopticon

Despite all the idealized talk from the Yahoos and Googles of the world all about lofty, cubicle-free, office-less offices and how they increase productivity and serendiptiy and "casual collisions of the workforce," they actually don't work like that. A recent Quartz article outlines all the terrible things that come out of the open quarters, such as decreased productivity and more airborne illnesses. Which leads one to ask (even one who works in an open, office-less loft with Quartz): What's with these proliferating wall-less floor plans?

Trading in a cubicle for a shared desk not only encourages conformity—no more quirky puppy posters!—but also lets your boss see what you're doing at all times. Or at least he or she wants you to think that. On top of that feeling of watchfulness that also exists in a cubicle plan, management has also made it so that your co-workers act as a surveillance state as well. Not only do workers internalize the ever-watching boss, but they have their nosy cube mates to keep them on track too. To that end, it's no surprise that when the trend first started proliferating, office workers attempted to create barriers to block people out, per The New York Times. Also, it's a crime against humanity not to include desk drawers, a detail many of these open plans neglect. (Where to put embarrassing but necessary essentials, like tampons and drugs?)

Free Lunch Means No Lunch Break

Comped meals are an essential requirement of the fancy office these days, so much so that one Warby Parker employee acquired a "gut" after a week of working in her tricked-out office. Indeed, the startup perk-a-thon serves as an all-too-easy yet ever-so-tempting way to get employees to feel guilty about not conforming to standards, as we saw at that Fab office. And while a stocked office fridge might keep people hanging around for an extra hour on either side of their official eight hours, eating at your desk does not, in fact, make workers more productive. Workers apparently "waste" 2 billion minutes a day of "productivity" getting snacks, lunch, and coffee, according to Staples, which has a vested interest in fostering fewer coffee breaks. That same company study, however, found that short breaks increase productivity.

People, we fought for all these worker rights after the industrial revolution. Let's not give them all up for a free beer you've earned at happy hour... outside the office.


This post previously appeared on The Wire.

Presented by

Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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