Why Are America's Most Innovative Companies Still Stuck in 1950s Suburbia?

New corporate headquarters for Google, Apple, and other cutting edge tech companies are hailed as innovative and “futuristic,” but besides their size, they are a lot like the facilities that corporations built in the mid-20th century as they moved to suburbia. Companies not only got more space, they located near the white, middle class, educated suburban workers they wanted, not to mention that their executives already lived there. UC Berkeley architectural professor Louise Mozingo, author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes, tells us about that era. Those new workplaces had employee lounges for collaborating, services to help a worker with errands, and even recreational facilities like those we see today in tech startup offices.     

“All these perks had a certain element of welfare capitalism,” Mozingo says, “this idea that the all-inclusive physical environment is going to foster certain kinds of behavior, which are profitable for the company.”

The focus on amenities for office staff was also a way to prevent them from organizing, particularly the legions of low-paid female employees needed to maximize profits. “They were terrified that female clerical workers were going to unionize,” Mozingo says, “In the era before computing, companies ran on vast amounts of paper, and that paperwork was almost all done by women. That was one of the reasons they wanted to get out of downtown—if the secretaries unionized, they’d all be sunk.”

Even the shift to personal vehicles rather than public transit was hailed as a perk: Private cars were supposedly more reliable and allowed for more flexible work schedules, particularly in an era before highways were clogged with traffic. In actuality, this encouraged employees to extend their workday past the standard hours of nine-to-five, and helped isolated workers to ensure company loyalty. “This is something that Silicon Valley companies still do—they capture the employee for the entire day,” Mozingo says. “The descriptions were extremely explicit about this, about solidifying corporate culture, instilling loyalty, and minimizing happenstance meetings with people from other companies who might steal you. It’s about making the corporation your entire life.”

That sounds like a lot of tech companies today. Read more about the corporate move to suburbia and how those old ideas are new again at Collectors Weekly.

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