In Facebook’s downtown New York office, staff have access to an in-house pastry chef, virtual reality sessions, and a vending machine of free batteries, keyboards, and phone chargers. At LinkedIn, employees can play FIFA in the office movie theater, pick toppings from a pop-up poke bar, or throw baby showers in an office speakeasy. Uber’s Chelsea home offers a seasonal rotation of wines, “brunch for lunch” options that include chicken apple sausage and challah French toast, and office-wide table tennis tournaments. With so many goodies at the office, why would you even want to go home?
That, of course, is the point. As Rowan Moore at the Guardian explored in a piece last summer, these tech giants have created “calibrated lands of fun, wherein staff offer their lives, body and soul, day and night, in return for gyms, Olympic-sized swimming pools, climbing walls, basketball courts, running tracks and hiking trails, indoor football pitches, massage rooms and hanging gardens, performance venues, amiable art and lovable graphics.” Silicon Valley has perfected a work environment that offers seemingly endless perks in exchange for a blurring of the line between work and life (a model that smaller companies imitate as they can), and in turn, normalized a culture where trading 10 or 14-hour work days for an Equinox membership seems reasonable.
This trend of fun offices and Instagrammable perks is part of a new “coping economy”—a handy phrase in the headline of Laura Marsh’s recent Dissent piece on the trend—where companies constantly push their workers to do more with less. Their incentive, rather than wages that rise with the cost of living or a job that ends when they leave the office, is gourmet food and mindfulness workshops. Marsh explains:
The new economy is characterized by instability and disruption; its ideal worker is calm in the midst of it all, productive and focused. The mindfulness training his company offers isn’t so much a perk as it is the means of turning him into a new type of person. He can work all weekend, multitask frantically on Monday morning, and reset mentally just by breathing in and out on his lunch break. His employer is not just the center of his overflowing, unpredictable working life but the center of his simple, dependable spiritual life too.
It’s true that mindfulness programs may actually bring employees measurable increases in quality of life, and that challah French toast may help get you out of bed on a Monday. But let’s not be naive: While companies may well be interested in keeping their employees happy and sane, the success of coping economy perks is also measured in healthcare cost savings and increases in productivity—in other words, the bottom line.
And part of that productivity is accessibility: Employees effectively exchange guided breathing exercises for being instantly and perpetually reachable—through email, Slack, or text. The near-constant anxiety of constantly being “on” is supposedly offset by these perks, as workplaces become purveyors not only of health and fun but, as Marsh reports, spirituality. They create a perverse feedback loop in which overworked, underpaid employees feel a weird sense of gratitude, touting these benevolent stress-reducing perks that wouldn’t be necessary if the job hadn’t been unduly stressful in the first place. And, as Marsh writes, “a culture of calm and acceptance might actively interfere with workers’ ability to resist unreasonable demands at the office, or to organize for a better deal in the new economy.”
Indeed, you could read job perks like these as a form of distraction—not just from rising inequality between the leaders of companies and their workers, but also from the harm these corporations cause. Silicon Valley’s impact on rising homelessness in the Bay Area is well-documented. And Facebook’s video game arcade did nothing to mitigate the fact that they allowed Russian bots to purchase more than 3,000 ads during the 2016 presidential election. Individual workers aren’t necessarily responsible for this large-scale issues, of course; but if life inside the headquarters feels like a mindful utopia, self-criticism can’t help but become more difficult.
Companies use these benefit strategies to elevate their profiles, both to prospective and current employees and to the public. And again, some of the efforts may actually be helpful. But as we move into an economy increasingly defined by underemployment, overextension, and never-ending work, true structural reforms are going to be needed. Ten minutes of meditation by the water cooler just isn’t going to cut it.