Are Campus (or Campus-like) Offices Filled with Perks or Traps?

By: Emma Hickey

In 2013, Dave Eggers wrote a book called The Circle, in which he imagined life at a fictional technology company of the same name. He describes the Circle’s office of dreams like this:

There was a tour of the health center, and an introduction to the dreadlocked Dr. Hampton who ran it. There was a tour of the emergency clinic and the Scottish nurse who did the admitting. A tour of the organic gardens, a hundred yards square, where there were two full-time farmers giving a talk to a large group of Circlers while they sampled the latest harvest of carrots and tomatoes and kale. There was a tour of the mini-golf area, the movie theater, the bowling alleys, the grocery store. Finally, deep in what Mae assumed was the corner of the campus—she could see the fence beyond, the rooftops of San Vincenzo hotels where visitors to the Circle stayed—they toured the company dorms. Mae had heard something about them, Annie mentioning that sometimes she crashed on campus and now preferred those rooms to her own home (p. 29).

It sounds pretty great, right? And, not too far off from reality. Eggers actively avoided researching tech companies when writing this book, and he chose not to visit any corporate campuses or interview employees for his novel, and yet, the paradigm of cool offices he imagines isn’t too different from the actual offices of some of the top tech companies in the world.

The Apple Park campus, in Cupertino, California, is an architectural feat in terms of energy efficiency and design. The grounds are covered in carefully curated nature, there’s a wellness center on site, and there’s a pizzeria with patented circular boxes that keep your pies from getting soggy. Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, has free laundry facilities, sand volleyball courts, and a replica of a dinosaur skeleton. Facebook’s Menlo Park campus is modeled after Disneyland’s “Main Street” neighborhood and is filled with free restaurants, a health center, a bank, and a barber. These campuses provide for their employees’ every need, at little to know cost, and in doing so, the campus itself improves the team’s quality of life.

Even as a small startup, you can bring elements of a corporate campus into your workplace. You may not have the financial resources, the bandwidth, or the physical space (Apple Park is 175 acres!) to create a complete campus experience for your team, but you can still make them feel looked after and valued. One of the most simple ways of doing this is to provide free snacks in your office. From fruit, to chips, to yogurt and popsicles, don’t underestimate the positive effect a free and accessible afternoon snack can have on your team. It’s also a great perk, and a community building tool, to cater team lunch once a month, or even once a week if you’re able. If you don’t have the space in your office to create a wellness center (and honestly, who does?), consider providing your employees with a wellness stipend they can put towards gym memberships, yoga classes, rock climbing, horseback riding and anything at all that contributes to their well-being. Finally, you may not have the ability to create an entire video arcade in your workplace a la Facebook, but you can definitely purchase board games to keep on hand and even a video game console to hook up to a company TV from time to time for your team to destress. Implementing some of the perks of a campus office in your workplace will go a long way towards making your team feel supported and valued as people, not just as employees. Not to mention, they’re useful recruiting and retention tools. 

To many of us, these corporate campuses and campus-like offices sound like they offer more than all-inclusive vacations, but not everyone agrees that this type of environment is a dream come true—not even the man who wrote a book about one. The following exchange takes place in The Circle between the main character, who is a Customer Experience representative, and her manager:

“...But what we need to talk about is the, well … Let me put it another way. You know this isn’t what you might call a clock-in, clock-out type of company. Does that make sense?” 
“Oh, I know. I wouldn’t … Did I imply that I thought …” 
“No, no. You didn’t imply anything. We just haven’t seen you around so much after five o’clock, so we wondered if you were, you know, anxious to leave.” 
“No, no. Do you need me to stay later?” 
Dan winced. “No, it’s not that. You handle your workload just fine. But we missed you at the Old West party last Thursday night, which was a pretty crucial team-building event, centered around a product we’re all very proud of. You missed at least two newbie events, and at the circus, it looked like you couldn’t wait to leave. I think you were out of there in twenty minutes…” (p. 176)

In a workplace so fully loaded with perks and benefits, you might find yourself joking that you never have to leave… and if you’re the cynical type, the realization might set in that this could be exactly what your company wants. It’s certainly what they want in The Circle.

That’s not to say your company built a giant, beautiful corporate campus—or that your startup offers free lunch and snacks—as some kind of trap to keep you at work. These perks ultimately come from a good place of wanting to provide for the team, make employees’ lives easier, and help them get from the beginning to the end of the work day as seamlessly as possible. As both the employer and the employee, though, it’s important to be conscious of the side effects these benefits can have on a team. For example, catering lunch everyday is a generous perk for which the team will be grateful, but it may also prompt the team to regularly work through lunch instead of taking a break. An office keg makes after-hours socializing easy, but it also keeps employees in the office longer at the end of the day, for better or for worse. 

If you’re going to offer these perks in your office, or on your campus (and you certainly should!), you simply have to be thoughtful about your messaging. Encourage your team to take breaks for lunch, whether it’s provided for free or not, encourage them to leave the office at a reasonable hour, don’t create the expectation that their whole lives should be built around the workplace, and don’t make them feel guilty for accepting your workplace benefits. If you’re in charge of such things, remember that perks are there because you decided to offer them, and the way they’re received is out of your hands. Don’t use them to inflict guilt on your team. 

Campus offices and campus-like offices are meant to bring life into work so the two are easier to balance, but in practice, these perks can often come at the expense of work-life balance. As long as your mindful of the culture surrounding your office perks, though, you should be fine. Just keep this mantra in mind: Don’t be like the Circle

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