Facebook and the Company Town

Company towns are a unique anachronism of the Industrial Age. Their golden period Facebook-Iconin the US ran from the mid-late 19th century through the early 20th. Towns built by the Pullman Sleeping Car Company, Carnegie Steel and General Electric, along with scores of other heavy industrials, created controlled communities in remote areas. Communities where company culture coursed through every aspect of an employee’s life and through every service from education to health care to law enforcement to church.

They declined, naturally, as the country developed beyond urban centers and as worker wages grew enough to spawn a different kind of employer-employee relationship.

So it is both curious and refreshing to see Facebook announce it is building Anton Menlo, a $120 million, 394 unit community replete with doggy day care, hairdressers, woodworking classes and a sports bar. All located very close to the company’s campus, just a short company-run bus ride away.

Granted, real estate prices in Silicon Valley are insanely high, and climbing. In the tech company race to be branded “different” from traditional corporations, this Facebook venture feels old school – as in very old school.

Even though this is a small-scale version of Robber Baron-style company towns, it raises questions about the reaches of company culture – good and bad. Not all the housing is planned to be the exclusive domain of Facebook employees, in fact 379 of the 394 units will be open for non-Facebook residents. But it’s likely that signs of Facebook’s culture and values will be present across every aspect of the community, in direct and subtle ways.

How will this influence its residents? Will it make them more committed and engaged? Will it feel like a seamless extension of their work environment, akin to a dormitory on a college campus? More to the point, will it create a closed culture, one with a continuous loop of ideas that grow progressively narrower with time?

Company cultures are tricky beasts. Everyone acknowledges how instrumental the right culture is to success. Nobody has figured out a guaranteed way to make it function in a predictable and controllable fashion. I have found throughout my professional life that those who speak the most about the need to “fix the culture” are typically the ones who have let it go to pot. With an approach that borders on social experimentation, these leaders naively act as if just speaking out loud what they want to see will make it happen, along with a few manager-led meetings and some engaging marketing campaign.

This works, a bit.

Broadly viewed, culture is essentially a way of life; a set of spoken and unspoken practices, beliefs, symbols and expectations. It is what people follow and rebel against. Within the confines of a company, rebellion is muted. After all, with employment at will, one can be booted off the island easily. Or one can just resign.

In truth, the best cultures – company or otherwise – share certain foundational elements:

–       They are well articulated and understood

–       They reflect themselves in every aspect of life and interaction

–       They are centered at the core yet primed for evolution

–       They are porous, allowing new ideas and events to enter and aid in their growth

Which brings us back to the idea of a company town. If Facebook’s Anton Menlo supports and expands the company’s existential mission, it could serve as a model for others desirous of attracting and retaining smart, committed people in an environment that functions as an extended corporate home. If not, then our economic society has signaled that on-the-job culture remains on the job.

At least it will have made high-tech doggy daycare very cool.

2 Comments

  1. Rick Chambers October 17, 2013 Reply

    An interesting experiment, one that assumes contemporary employees may be willing (rather than obliged) to not leave work at work. It will be interesting to see it play out. Thanks for the well-written blog!

  2. Author

    Time will tell, as they say, to see if other similar experiments pop up in the new economy. Thanks, Rick.

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