Why Facebook Likes to Keep Its Employees Close

A mile radius around Facebook’s new West Campus in Menlo Park, Calif. Credit: Google Maps, annotated using Oliver Beattie’s Map Radius tool.

Facebook, as we noted last week, is the new partner in a coming 394-housing complex in Menlo Park, Calif., one designed to appeal to the sort of person who might work at Facebook, complete with a sports bar and doggy day care. But one of the biggest perks is location. The development will be “located less than 1.5 miles from the new Facebook West Campus,” according to the project’s architect.

This is, of course, hardly the first time that location has mattered in a real estate transaction. But there’s a bit more going on here. You may have heard of Kate Losse’s 2012 book, The Boy Kings, on her experience as one of Facebook’s earliest employees. Losse has suggested that it provided uncredited fodder for Dave Eggers’ new novel The Circle, on life inside a Facebook-like or Google-like company. Eggers, for his part, has responded that he hadn’t read Losse’s work, nor anything else on what it might be like to work in California’s tech scene, before crafting his own book.

Despite the topic being of considerable interest, I’d never read Losse’s book, either. But I picked up a copy from the library this weekend, and it gives a smidgen of insight on the new Anton Menlo project, as the planned development is known. Circa 2006, Losse writes, Facebook employees would wander the hallways, asking one another, “Do you live within the mile?”

The context: Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had decided to offer a $600 monthly subsidy to Facebook employees who chose to live within 5,280 feet of the office. Facebook’s technological infrastructure was quite wobbly back then, and it was scaling with a shocking quickness. Having engineers on-call and quickly available made sense. (Indeed, per Losse, the subsidy only applied to engineers until Facebook’s employees raised a fuss.) But it fit the ethos of the company.

“We didn’t have a nonwork life,” she writes. “Life was work and work was life.” That dynamic was made tolerable, she argues, by the esprit de corps of those heady early days — and the coming financial payoff.

Zuckerberg, though, explained his thinking in typically data-driven fashion:

But keeping us close to work and ready to jump into it at any time wasn’t the explicit purpose of that six-hundred-dollar-per-month housing subsidy. “The reason for the subsidy us that I’ve heard statistics saying that people who live within a mile of their workplace are happier, and I want people to be happier,” Mark explained.

Either way, according to Losse, putting up with Menlo Park’s near-complete lack of nightlife and culture, as well as its sky-high rents, was a way of signaling that the company was, if not first among your life’s concerns, way up there:

Living within the mile meant you were all-in, willing to compromise all other aspects of your life in order to remain fully available to Facebook. Some employees chose to live in San Francisco, which gave them the option of spending time with non-Facebook employees, but that seemed like a suspect choice to those of us within the mile, whose lives revolved around the company.

Let’s throw into the mix one more bit of evidence. This morning at a session in New York City, Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of the Cornell NYC Tech Campus planned for Roosevelt Island, made the case that highly skilled and successful people in the tech world are finding that they like to spend some of their non-work hours with highly-skilled and successful people from outside the tech world. That, Huttenlocher said, is pulling technologists toward places like San Francisco and, the bet goes, New York City.

But San Francisco is at least a 35-minute drive from Menlo Park. That’s way outside the mile. Perhaps, though, a sports bar and doggy day care will be enough to entice Facebook’s existing and future employees to make their homes near the office.

Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

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