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Why Go Home?

Cisco Systems
Christopher Gardner

The Company Line: Employees at Cisco Systems enjoy a variety of freshly prepared foods at the company's cafeteria.

The village is replacing the campus as the model for utopian corporate environments, as electronics- industry giants compete for the best and brightest workers

By Cecily Barnes

CISCO SYSTEMS' OFFICE COMPLEX runs down San Jose's Tasman Street for almost a mile, with buildings A, B, C, D--all the way through O--flanking both sides of the avenue. The place is so expansive that bicycles are provided so employees can get from one building to the next. Cisco PR spokeswoman Stacy O'Hara says it's not uncommon to see a pile of bikes laying in the hallways. Facilities manager Bob Thurman laughs and says, "You see these engineers pedaling around with these big baskets on the front."

O'Hara and Thurman meet me in front of Building J, virtually indistinguishable from buildings A through O except for the metal plated J sign out front. After I introduce myself, they introduce themselves to one another. It's a big place.

We begin our tour in the cafeteria. Lunch isn't quite ready yet, but the espresso and pastry bar has been in full swing since 7am.

"You should come here in the morning. They fresh-bake all these pastries, and the smell ..." Thurman drops off, but the look on his face finishes the sentence with a look of delight.

Chefs in white aprons and hats stand behind three gleaming service bars, ladling out Indian chickpeas, made-to-order pasta dishes, and hot pizzas from the brick oven. Burgers, chicken, French fries, soup, chili and sandwich fixins are also available.

We drop out a side exit and come upon a supermarket-sized glass-doored refrigerator, stocked with every kind of soda, mineral water and nonalcoholic beverage imaginable--free to all employees.

"I'm still enamored by the free drinks," O'Hara confides.

We walk by McWhorter, the on-site store which mimics those found in fancy hotel lobbies. Here, employees can pick up a Cisco T-shirt, a bottle of Pepto Bismol, a box of tampons or a back-support pillow.

Thurman swipes his pass card and a door clicks open, leading to a labyrinth of whitewashed hallways with carpeted stairways and framed still-life paintings. On the building's second level, through the access-restricted door, a maze of cubicles fills out an entire floor.

Off to the side is the beloved break room, identical to the ones on every floor of every building throughout the Cisco village. Inside, plastic-wrapped dry-cleaning orders, labeled with white paper tickets, drape a chrome clothing rack, waiting to be picked up by employees who had dropped off their soiled clothes earlier in the day. Each break room is equipped with the big glass fridge--stocked to the gills.

We leave Building J and head for L to visit TimeOut, Cisco's fitness facility. In addition to cardio equipment, free weights and aerobics classes, TimeOut offers massage, personal training, nutritional services, cholesterol screening, blood drives and classes in yoga, tai chi, self-defense and more.

And in the locker room, an athlete's-foot pump stands armed to spray anti-fungal solution between the toes of exercised employees' feet.

We head back to Building J, past the basketball courts and a parking lot filled with cars waiting for oil changes and car washes.

Cisco Systems
Shape of Things to Come: At Cisco Systems, one of the worksite amenities is the TimeOut fitness facility, which sports cardio equipment, weights, aerobics classes and massage services.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

The Working Life

WHEN LYNN MCCARTY drives to Cisco Systems each morning for work, she is filled with anticipation. She looks forward to getting to the place where she spends most of her life so she can see her boyfriend Lou, her best friend Marilyn and her running partner Sharon.

"It's not a chore for me to go to work," McCarty says. "I get to work at, like, 7am, run around the levee and shower at their facilities. Then I usually grab a latte and a muffin from the coffee bar."

Sometimes McCarty will take a lunchtime aerobics class or stay after work for yoga. She often meets Lou for lunch at the cafeteria or makes a side-trip to "leave him a little cookie on his desk." McCarty says Cisco has become a big part of her life.

"Cisco is like a little city of its own," she says. "It's huge."

McCarty's lifestyle is not unique. Up and down the new Silicon Valley, companies are one-upping each other in a race to offer more lavish employee benefits. A swivel computer chair, gelatin wrist rest and bottomless coffeepot--considered envied perks elsewhere--wouldn't even be noticed here, where generous 401k plans, colossal salaries and hefty stock options are old news.

Now, high-tech companies have come up with a new way to woo potential employees and cement existing ones in place. Workers no longer go to work just to work.

At Netscape and Cisco, a mobile dental truck putts onto the grounds every month to clean and whiten the teeth of employees who've made appointments via email. At Cisco, jewelry fairs often come to "town."

At Sun Microsystems, a full-blown sit-down restaurant--with waiters, dessert menus, cloth napkins and Italian sodas--has taken root in-house.

Netscape offers free nightly dinners to employees who work late, a break room complete with Foosball, shuffleboard and video games, and a concierge service that can track down tickets to concerts, gifts or anything else a busy software builder might need.

Similar timesavers and community activities have been brought aboard other corporate villages around Silicon Valley. At Hewlett-Packard, the gym, cafeteria and ATM machine are walking distance from any of the site's vast cubicle spreads. From the cafeteria's outdoor patio, employees can watch their co-workers play pick-up basketball, throw horseshoes in a sand pit or run the company's par course. Fliers that line the carpeted cubicle walls throughout the building announce training courses, speakers, meetings and social events.

At Sun, workers can shoot pool or play ping pong during breaks--essentially whenever they feel like it. At Netscape, workers say it's not unusual for someone to run around with a Nerf gun and play-shoot co-workers.

Cisco's Bob Thurman says his company provides all these perks to make its employees' lives easier.

"It's these little things that can consume you," Thurman says, "everything from simply going to the ATM machine to getting to the dentist."

He admits that it's in Cisco's interest to offer all this booty because happy employees benefit the company with a higher rate of productivity. But, he asks, what's wrong with setting up a situation where everybody wins?

Corporate Nation

CHRIS NEWFIELD, who teaches American culture at UC­Santa Barbara, says that although workers benefit from these amenities, which make it so employees don't have to leave work anymore, they are part of a troubling trend.

Newfield sees the emergence of corporate villages as a symptom of a deteriorating democratic condition.

"We've seen a loss of stable communities and neighborhoods, especially in California," Newfield says. "We've also seen the lowering status of the public sphere. People don't identify as much with the public parks and Little League," Newfield says. "The corporation is the new public sphere--it's the new neighborhood."

When public life is restricted to the corporate world, people no longer roam downtown on their way to the dry cleaners, gym and carwash. That, Newfield says, makes the corporate village more like a "gated community" than a true community. When people live behind gates, he says, they are only exposed to people of similar socio-economic backgrounds, education levels and lifestyles.

"The wealthy have always taken care of each other and their loyal retainers," Newfield says.

Members of these corporate communities clearly acquire a pride, loyalty and even patriotism. Fellow HPers, Cisconians and Netscapians form a quasi-nationalist identity with those in their company.

"I have a very Ciscocentric view of the world," Lynn McCarty says. "It would be difficult for me to go to Bay or a competitor at this point because I feel a part of Cisco. If I were to leave the company, it would be a big decision because it's become a part of my life, especially the people I work with."

Netscape employee Chris Lamey echoes this sentiment, saying he wouldn't really consider leaving because of the friends he's made and the loyalty he feels toward Netscape.

"It would take a lot of money," Lamey says, still wearing Spandex bike shorts and a bike helmet from his ride home from work.

Chris Lamey joined the team at Netscape in 1995, the 207th employee out of 2,400 today. Yes, he participated in the history-making stock-option plan, and yes, he's probably outrageously wealthy for a 26-year-old. But when asked about work, he doesn't talk about money. Instead, he tells of impromptu Friday night jam sessions in the office, beer bashes, Foosball, air hockey, softball games and cube-decorating contests.

He talks about one co-worker's pet tarantula and another's gecko. He mentions frogs, fish tanks and dogs. Lamey recalls fondly that in the early years, a room stacked with futons served as "home" for many employees on many a night.

They have the free soft-drink gig at Netscape, too. And while there's no on-site gym, Netscape hands out memberships to commercial fitness centers close by, spokeswoman Chris Holten confirms.

Lamey shares close friendships with most of his co-workers. "If I don't see them over the weekend I'll usually stop by their cube Monday morning, or they'll stop by mine to reconnect," he says.

"One time this guy brought in, like, 5,000 little rubber balls and started handing them out," he laughs. "Within five minutes, everyone was just pelting each other with little balls."

Cult Culture

BOB THURMAN boasts that everyone in Cisco has the same size office. "My office," Thurman says, "is the same size as John Chambers', the president of the company."

Big deal, Newfield says. If the valley's high-tech firms mean to offer progressive benefits, they should consider shared management and group decision-making.

"This stuff is limited in its final power to suspend the crueler side of capitalist life," Newfield says. "Maybe these happy communities of the high-tech, white-collar workplace are partly compensatory for the pressures that companies won't allow people to deal with any other way--desire for shorter hours, more personal time or more power over corporate decisions."

There is no doubt that the loyalties inspired by the little perks can be almost creepy.

In the course of making calls to research this story, old friends, co-workers and acquaintances--friendly as could be at parties and social engagements--clammed up or transferred me to the head of public relations. Others wouldn't return phone calls, and most wouldn't even talk when I promised our conversation was completely off the record. Come on, I told them jovially, it's me, we used to gossip about the company. Nothing doing. They wouldn't crack. It almost made me sad, like running into an old lover and being treated like a stranger.

A co-worker's sister, a 10-year Sun Microsystems employee, transferred me to the company's PR spokesperson after she had said it was OK for me to call.

"I would need to get my supervisor's approval because I'm not sure what information I can give out," she said.

Even a close friend, with whom I've watched countless movies, drank countless bottles of wine and advised on woman troubles more than once, looked away when I asked about his brother, a programmer for Cisco. He warned me that his brother would have only good things to say about the company, if he said anything at all. That seemed to be the general theme, even though my harmless questions were about using the company gym and cafeteria.

I found only one crack in the seamless gung-ho attitude bred by the stacks of free sodas and exercise equipment. Only one person interviewed would say that Silicon Valley's high-tech industry is too bureaucratic and hierarchical.

"I'd never work for a company as large as Cisco again, because getting anything done is like being in a vat of molasses," Stephanie Hafner says. "You can't really be creative around here and have it work within any kind of time frame. You have to go through a million people to get anything done."

It's not Cisco, per say, that Hafner disdains; it's what she views as the dysfunctional corporate family, where the powerful "parent" or manager doles out gifts on a conditional basis and manipulatively passes along strong suggestions.

While she was working at 3Com, Hafner says, she received pre-election email messages from her bosses recommending a yes or no vote on certain ballot propositions.

Sick of both the perks and the pressures, Hafner is cutting ties with her corporate family and going back to school for a master's in psychology.

"But I'd like to come back someday," Hafner laughs, "to do counseling in the work place."

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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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