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Is Your Company Your Hometown?

September 29, 1998

Technology manager Kristen Thurber buys birthday cards, mails letters, picks up dry cleaning, and gets her morning coffee fix on Main Street _ all without leaving work.

That’s because Thurber’s employer, West Group, has just converted part of its sprawling headquarters in suburban Minneapolis into a mini-downtown _ dubbed Main Street _ complete with bank, general store, cafe and library.

Owen’s Corning has a ``Village″ at its Toledo, Ohio, headquarters with a health club, gift and snack shop, and coffee bar. Xerox, as part of a sweeping office redesign nationwide, calls work group areas ``neighborhoods.″

No wonder corporations are becoming a home-away-from-home for employees who are too tired or time-pressed to fill up their refrigerators, cars or social lives once they leave work.

``I think of the workplace as the new American neighborhood,″ says former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, now an executive with Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a major corporate child-care chain. ``We have to support families where families are.″

Yet if companies are our new neighborhoods, what does that say about our ties to our families, communities, the people we know _ or don’t know _ next door? As we live out more of our lives at work, are we giving ourselves wholly to our companies? Some are frightened of the prospects.

``The idea of the corporation as the new neighborhood sends chills down my spine,″ says Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor and author of ``The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life.″ ``I wouldn’t want Microsoft as my family.″

Becky O’Grady, a rising General Mills executive who seems as wholesome as the cereals she helps produce, does consider it a ``little spooky″ that her life revolves around the company that locals in Golden Valley, Minn., fondly call ``Generous Mills.″

Still, she calls her employer her family.

She joined in 1990, one of 30 MBAs recruited by the company _ six of whom _ including O’Grady _ ended up marrying each other. Today, she does her dry cleaning, car tune-ups, film developing, exercising, and much more at the shops tucked along the company’s labyrinthian corridors. When she’s not at work, where she’s the marketing manager for cereals, O’Grady socializes almost entirely with workmates.

``We’ve made a whole life here,″ she says with a grin, hugging a sheaf of papers like a schoolgirl with a notebook.

Corporate conveniences are no doubt a godsend for many. Few people are home during the day to take care of chores, as our Moms were. Plus, Americans work an average of 46 hours a week, so have little time to shop, cook or fix things once they do get home.

``If we didn’t have access to all these niceties, I really don’t know how I’d get those things done,″ sighs Kathy Nusbaum, a single mother who routinely works 12-hour days as an executive secretary at USAA, an insurance company based in San Antonio, Texas.

USAA offers employees free shots for their children, work-site neck and back massages that cost only a pittance, and maintains manicured fields where they can play softball.

Nusbaum uses the dry cleaner at work even though it’s more expensive because other cleaners are closed by the time she finishes work. Several times a week, she confesses with reluctance, she takes packaged cafeteria dinners home for her teen-age son.

She’s hardly alone. Employee hotlines first set up to help with child care or work issues increasingly are propping up workers’ daily lives. Where do I find a diamond ring, a plumber, a parking space?, workers ask. How do I keep my toddler happy on car rides?

``If you needed an electrician years ago, you’d usually call over the back fence and ask for a name,″ notes Linda Hall Whitman, president of hotline provider Ceridian Performance Partners. ``Those are the things that people used to have the discretionary time to chat about.″

Ceridian began offering help on everyday issues three years ago. Now that’s its fastest-growing sector, with calls rising to 1,000 monthly this year from 350 a month last year.

Of course, companies aren’t simply being altruistic when they pay for such amenities. ``Lifestyle benefits″ are becoming an important recruiting tool in a tight labor market. On-site conveniences also keep workers at the office. If you mail letters at work, you don’t need to take a long lunch hour finding a post office.

``To the extent that we can provide tools to make (life) easier, presumably people will have time to seek better balance or have more time to spend here,″ says Mike Major, director of human resources at Netscape in Mountain View, Calif.

``Getting to a situation of having a neighborhood at work wasn’t what we intended, but it does seem we’re going that way,″ he says.

Yet when workplaces exert a strong pull on private lives, do workers still feel connected to old neighborhoods and communities?

Jill Siewert, an easygoing General Mills logistics planner, laughs one day that she hadn’t seen her husband, a fellow employee, all weekend because he was playing softball with co-workers. Often as not, the couple socializes with friends from work.

But as she strolls down to the company cash machine and over to the company gift shop to buy an after-lunch sweet, she says she values her church and neighborhood as much as her work community. ``I don’t want my whole life to revolve around General Mills,″ she says.

Certainly, local communities aren’t dead. Americans on average belong to four churches, clubs or other organizations, according to a national survey by the American Association of Retired Persons.

Still, researchers such as Harvard professor Robert Putnam, author of ``Bowling Alone,″ a controversial essay on declining civil involvement, maintain that Americans are joining more groups _ such as book clubs _ that serve their personal interests and abandoning those that strengthen communities.

Neighborhood ties are weakening. Only 20 percent of people socialize with neighbors several times a week, down from 30 percent in 1974. And asked where they get a real sense of belonging or community, 38 percent of people cited their neighborhood _ while 34 percent said work, according to the polling company Yankelovich Partners.

That means for many people, the neighbors they know best may be those across the cubicle wall.

Not too long ago, Cheryl Kiser felt almost entirely disconnected from suburban Weston, Mass., where she lives, because she did almost all her errands around her workplace in Boston.

``If I’m doing everything at work, what’s left at the community?″ wondered Kiser, who now spends more time in her town since switching from public relations to a marketing job at Boston College.

Workplaces have always stood for more than a place to earn a dollar. Work is part of our identity, an anchor in our lives. But when work is your neighborhood, when you depend on your company to help solve many of life’s problems, you’re entering into a new kind of social contract with your employer.

Help with child care may come to a halt if the company downsizes or merges. A hotline’s tip sheet on finding a nursing home is a lot different than hearing a neighbor’s own experiences.

Ultimately, finding a neighborhood at work may mean giving your whole self to work _ a bargain people may not even realize they’re making.

Kristen Thurber hobbles over to West Group’s postal counter to mail letters one summer afternoon on a bandaged ankle broken during a family canoe trip. Her friends outside of work and family count just as much as her community at the legal information publisher, she insists.

``I don’t see this would ever replace my community at home,″ she says. Then she adds, ``Well, maybe the Monday through Friday community ... .″

Asked what else she’d like West Group to provide for employees, and she’s quick to answer. ``A gallon of milk, eggs,″ she smiles. ``That would be nice.″

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