Who pays for the free lunch?

Steve Gale asks if corporate kindness is killing the community

At the beginning of August this year Nellie Bowles wrote in the New York Times: ‘The corporate campuses of the Bay Area’s technology companies have become independent fiefs with dry cleaning, gyms, doctors, shuttle buses and bountiful free meals, made by the best chefs poached from the region’s famous restaurants.’
In the technology sector this is common to the point of being normal in Silicon Valley, and many campuses are relocating into the city, away from the leafy suburbs. We see it now in the UK – and particularly in London. The reason for these benefits is partly to encourage people to spend more time at work, and partly to persuade people to join up and stay once enrolled.
Journalists usually trace the origin of the tech free lunch to Google, and now any firm wanting to compete for talent has adopted a version of the high quality food offer and other services normally found in the high street. What could possibly be wrong with such kindness?
As a potential employee, it is hard to imagine a downside. When I discuss this with colleagues at work, especially single people hovering under and around 30 years old, they usually express envy and would love not to pay for food, waste time finding a gym, or cook lunches at home. However, people outside see real problems – and there is a growing reaction to the idea.
In the workplace, community usually means the collection of employees in one location, but outside it means the people you share your living space or town with. Now members of the greater community are feeling unwanted pressure from the isolated workplace version. A regiment of several thousand workers fed handsomely for free are not going to leave the office to pay for the same on the street.

These tech companies have decided to leave their suburban campuses because their employees want to be in the city, and yet the irony is, they come to the city and are creating isolated, walled-off campuses

When a campus is a long drive from the nearest town, these perks make sense, but in a city, local businesses lose out. An early adopter of the inner city HQ in San Francisco was Twitter in 2011, and other big names have followed. Generous tax breaks encouraged new blood to seed the area’s run-down commercial scene, and even promote apartment building.
But the optimism has ebbed as businesses that invested to serve the mainly young workforce have struggled and failed. Restaurants, bars and markets glean slim pickings from subsidised workers. It is hard to compete with free.
This imbalance has become a voting issue in some places to the point where Mountain View in the Bay Area has granted planning permission to Facebook on condition that it severely limits the provision of subsidised food. They have barred free meals to give local stores a sporting chance. In San Francisco itself, a much wider ordnance has just been introduced to persuade tech companies to do the same – to force workers out of their subsidised or free cafeterias and onto the street into local restaurants.
Not all tech companies indulge. Zendesk holds back and recommends local eateries, and each week pays a team to try out a new neighbourhood restaurant. Salesforce, one of the first and biggest tech employers in San Francisco, has resisted subsidised cafeterias but is worried about the effect on recruitment.
On top of these rather commercial issues are more spiritual questions about how desirable it is to remove so much risk from adult workers, treating them like school children who need looking after. The word ‘institution’ sounds a bit derogatory, but they do have many institutional characteristics. A San Francisco city supervisor put it nicely, ‘These tech companies have decided to leave their suburban campuses because their employees want to be in the city, and yet the irony is, they come to the city and are creating isolated, walled-off campuses.’ Leslie Berlin, Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University, wonders if employees are losing out because of a reduced engagement with the city community they claim to love – and calls the campuses ‘siloed monocultures’.
Most historians view the 19th century worker communities in the UK as relics of authoritarian utopia, powered by religious and social ideals, but restricting freedom and choice. Can we learn from these and the experiments in Silicon Valley?