Welcome To The New Company Town With all the great amenities companies are offering these days, you could spend your whole life at work. That, in fact, might be the problem.
By Jerry Useem Reporter Associate Ann Harrington

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Within the compound's high walls, people laze on hammocks strung between pine trees. Others pump iron in the gym, practice their jump shot on the gleaming basketball court, or hang around the putting green, horseshoe pits, or beach volleyball court. Cooks harvest oregano from the herb garden for the day's meal. Free bananas are everywhere. And an array of services--bank, store, dry cleaner, hairdresser, nail salon--complete the self-contained community. Notes 30-year-old Christine Choi: "You never have to leave the place."

Biosphere III? Actually, BMC Software in Houston.

Welcome to the new company town.

It's not a town, literally speaking, but a corporate office park or campus. Yet this new workplace is not just a place to work. It's a place to live. It's where you can eat, nap, swim, shop, pray, kickbox, drink beer, run your errands, start a romance, get your dental work done, wield plastic lightsabers, and sculpt nude models. It's where you can bring your whole self--mind, body, and spirit--to work each day. Which is a good thing, because you'll be here, if not from cradle to grave like the old company towns, then certainly from dawn to dusk.

The proliferation of such fancy workplace amenities is, we're told, a function of the tight labor market and the war for top talent. But it's also part of another war: the war for time. Americans are working longer, harder, and faster, creating a "time famine" that has been documented in such bestsellers as Juliet Schor's The Overworked American, Arlie Hochschild's The Time Bind, and the 751 time-management titles listed on Amazon.com (including Eating on the Run and Please Hold: 102 Things to Do While You Wait on the Phone). Recognizing that work is becoming home for many people, "companies are taking the best aspects of home and incorporating them into work," observes Helen Mederer, a sociologist at the University of Rhode Island. But this raises the question: Do these new amenities really ease overwork? Or do they just make it easier to overwork?

The employees of BMC (No. 56 on FORTUNE's 100 Best Companies to Work For list) certainly aren't complaining about the benefits. "This is probably my dream job," gushes Randy Garner, a technical support analyst. On each floor of the company's two glassy towers, there's a large kitchen with free fruit, popcorn, soda, and coffee, a TV, comfy booths, and a Texas-sized bottle of Advil. A sign in the hallway beckons: MASSAGE THERAPY THIS WAY. Downstairs, where the dulcet sounds of a Steinway player piano greet employees in the morning, a valet will wash your car and change the oil. But make no mistake: You might live comfortably here, but you'll also be working all the livelong day. Many BMCers report putting in ten- to 12-hour days, and a trip to the gym and the "Dot.Commissary" (one of two blindingly sparkling cafeterias) is often followed by a long night at the office. As one employee puts it, "This place isn't for wimps."

Work/life balance? "I know this is hard to believe," says Roy Wilson, BMC's chief of human resources, "but you do feel like you can get away while you're here. It gives you a balanced life without having to leave."

BMC isn't the only place where the line between work and life is blurring in a big way. "This is basically home," sighs attorney Keith Gottfried from his office at the law firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom in New York, where he eats most of his meals and works out in the company gym. At JM Family Enterprises (No. 49), a Toyota distributor in Jacksonville, Fla., employees swim laps in the company pool and get their checkups with two on-site doctors. Merck's (No. 38) New Jersey campus features a Main Street lined with many of the same services as BMC's. "There's people working here 24 hours a day," says a product manager at Microsoft (No. 21). "It's set up so you never have to go home."

Pick just about any aspect of private life, and it's being subsumed into the workplace. Start with domestic chores: 46 of the 100 Best Companies offer take-home meals to liberate people from having to cook dinner. Twenty-six of the 100 offer personal concierge services (up from 15 two years ago), allowing employees to outsource the time-consuming details of buying flowers and birthday presents, planning bar mitzvahs, or, in the case of one Chicago suitor, organizing an engagement dinner (he wanted rose petals sprinkled everywhere). An Atlanta concierge service called 2 Places at 1 Time reports having delivered chilled fertility drugs to a woman at her office. The payoff? Well, LesConcierges in San Francisco estimates that each dollar spent to provide its services yields $1.75 in gained employee productivity.

Or take civic activity. We've been told by such commentators as Robert Putnam, in his essay Bowling Alone, that Americans aren't voluntarily associating with each other anymore. But peer into companies like Lands' End (No. 87) or biotech firm Amgen (No. 27), and you'll find thriving little civil societies: clubs for chess, genealogy, gardening, model airplanes, public speaking, tennis, karate, scuba diving, charity, and the like. At software maker SAS Institute (No. 6) in Cary, N.C., there's a breast cancer support group, a single parents' group, an international club that prepares foods of its members' native lands once a month, and a company-sponsored singing-and-dancing troupe called Vocal Motion. Downstairs at BMC, a troop of Brownies is busy decorating Christmas trees.

There's religion, too, in the form of on-site Bible study groups, which the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International numbers at 1,000 nationwide and growing fast. And there's romance: A 1999 study by Roper Starch Worldwide found that 38% of employees had dated a co-worker. Southwest Airlines (No. 2) has 821 married couples, and SAS supports a dating scene with a singles' group called Mingle.

The result can be a weird sort of intimacy. At Health Care & Retirement Corp. in Toledo, human resource director Harley King trains employees to hug each other, noting that "the average human needs eight to ten hugs a day--the minimum is four." (Two caveats: You have to get permission before you hug someone, and you can't just go around hugging the most attractive people.) At Vision Service Plan (No. 45), an eye-care provider in Rancho Cordova, Calif., a female employee volunteered to serve as a surrogate mother for a couple, friends of hers, who also worked there. In an article published soon after the birth, the surrogate explained that "I've always considered VSP a second family."

It's only a matter of time, it seems, before people start sleeping at the office. Well, actually, it's already happening. When Rachel Bias of Kansas City architectural firm Gould Evans Goodman Associates gets one of her pounding migraines, she climbs into one of the company's three "spent tents"--camping tents pitched in a corner of the office and equipped with sleeping bags, pillows, alarm clocks, and soothing music. Lancit Media in New York City is building what it calls a "womb room," and Yarde Metals in Bristol, Conn., actively encourages sleeping on the job to keep people alert. (If that doesn't work, the company's $40,000 coffee roaster also helps.) Bill Anthony, a professor at Boston University and co-author of The Art of Napping at Work, says one woman he surveyed naps by sneaking into a toilet stall and putting her head on the toilet paper roll. She obviously needs the Executive Napping Kit--a goose-down pillow and accessories available from the Company Store for $89.99.

All these trends seem to have found their apotheosis in NetP@rk, a project to convert shopping malls into New Age office parks, beginning with one in Tampa Bay and another in Hampton, Va. When construction of these "electronic villages" is completed, employees of tenant companies will be able to drop their children at the day-care center, their parents at the elder-care center, and perhaps even their pets at an on-site kennel. Once they're at their desks, computer screen video will let them keep an eye on the family. Also at their disposal will be a swimming pool, post office, outdoor jogging track and nature trail, electric shuttle buses--even an extended-stay hotel where they can crash if they can't make it home. "We're going to keep them there from beginning to end," says Gerald Divaris, the developer. "We've even got a spot to bury you."

He's joking about the burial part, but the rise of the new company town raises some serious questions. Sure, employees love the amenities that make it possible to do their jobs while also staying in shape and putting dinner on the table. But can it be healthy to do so much of one's living on the job? If work is where the heart is, where does that leave families and communities? And must we hug even our most crotchety colleagues?

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, author of The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, worries that the trend could leave public life increasingly barren, widening the gap between haves and have-nots. "It's basically privatizing the village green," she says, "and denuding the real community outside the corporate realm." While many of the benefits clearly do ease life for employees, Hochschild adds, it's important not to forget their ultimate purpose: undistracted, profitable workers. (As one HR exec puts it, "When they're at work, they're at work.") Free coffee and Advil are a benefit, sure--but so are the free drinks in Vegas.

Others worry that over-swaddling employers could foster a new sort of dependence. "It used to be that people lived in their homes. Now they sleep in their houses," says Dave Arnott, a professor at Dallas Baptist University and author of Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization. Arnott looks at the afterwork beer busts, the barbecues, the "tell us your most embarrassing moment" retreats--not to mention the Nike employees who get the swoosh logo tattooed on their calf--and sees not a worker's paradise but something more troubling. Look at the three traits FORTUNE identified as making a great place to work a couple of years back, he says: "a sense of purpose," "inspiring leadership," and "knockout facilities." Now look at the standard definition of a cult: "devotion," "charismatic leadership," and "separation from community." "It's the same thing," says Arnott.

Okay, so the cult comparison is a stretch; BMC employees might down gallons of free coffee and soda, but there's no Kool-Aid, and this Texas compound doesn't seem likely to go up in flames. Yet one need not assume sinister intent or see Dark Satanic Mills to see Arnott's larger point: "Anytime you sacrifice who you are for what you do, you've given up too much of yourself."

Ilene Philipson, a psychologist with a practice in Berkeley, sees the truth in that firsthand. A few years back a certain type of client began appearing in her office. These people talked about their companies in the first-person plural; they obsessed over small traumas experienced at work; and their distress seemed out of proportion to the setbacks they'd suffered there. "Quite frankly, I didn't get it," says Philipson. "As a psychologist, you're sort of trained to think that work isn't that significant in people's lives." But when these patients didn't get any better, she began rethinking things. "I realized it wasn't an individual psychopathology so much as a growing social trend," she says. "People's imaginations, their longings, their libidos in certain ways are really connected to work."

One of her clients was Yolanda Perry-Pastor, the customer service manager of a large plant nursery. "My whole life revolved around this company," says the 34-year-old mother of three. "I was there all day, all night. I literally embraced my job like my family." Perry-Pastor loved the casualness with which she could mix with upper management; the free tchotchkes the company bestowed on her; the pep rallies where "We Are Family" blared from speakers and the company's married couples took the stage. She moved to a new house a few blocks from the office, covering it with company-logo items and her children with company-logo clothes. "She was in love," notes Philipson.

So in love that Perry-Pastor didn't mind it when her pager woke her at 3 A.M. Or when she brought her kids to work evenings and weekends because, she explains, "day-care centers aren't open all those hours." Or when "vacation" consisted of hanging out with co-workers a couple of extra days after a sales conference. "They make you feel like you're somebody there," she says. "When you don't receive that in your personal life, you're like, 'Wow, I'm appreciated.'"

Then something changed. A round of layoffs in Perry-Pastor's office heaped still more responsibilities upon her. Soon she was barely sleeping or eating and feared she'd have a heart attack. Finally convinced that something was wrong, she says that she asked for a scaled-back workload, but never got one. "I felt betrayed," she says. At her doctor's urging, she took an extended sick leave and has been drawing workers' compensation for the past year.

Today, Perry-Pastor is at home, piling the company trinkets and clothes into bags to be thrown away, struggling to cut the emotional "umbilical cord" that she still feels connects her to the company. "Now I see it so clearly," she says. "All that family stuff was fake. They were just using me to get that bottom line."

Perry-Pastor's case is extreme, but Philipson says it's emblematic of what she calls the "underbelly" of the new workplace. "When anybody invests in one arena of life to the exclusion of others, there's bound to be a downside," she says. "It becomes a cycle. The more you invest in work, the less you invest in home, and then the less you want to go home." What will it be like when the next economic downturn sends people home involuntarily?

Philipson has since formed a support group for the work-trauma victims and is writing a book titled Married to the Job, which she hopes will recast the dialogue about work/life issues. "The whole discussion of work/family balance has an assumption that people really want balance," Philipson says. "But in truth, none of the people I see want to spend more time at home, because work has become all sparkly and glittery, and home seems kind of empty and colorless. It's frightening to see what their lives are like. I'm always trying to suggest that they pursue some new interest, that they get in touch with dreams they had as a kid. But they can't think of anything! None of them. It reminds me of the women in the '50s who invested all of their identities in their husbands and then divorced. Where were they? For many women of that era, it was really the end of their lives."

For people who'd rather spend time with their real families--as opposed to the work kind--the new company town presents a different set of challenges. "Peter, come back in here," Sheila Childs calls to her 7-year-old from the kitchen. "Honey, we have to finish this homework up." Peter fidgets, eyeballing his stack of Pokemon cards. "I don't want to," he murmurs, "I don't want to, I don't want to."

Childs, 40 years old, is a product manager in BMC's R&D department, and the mother of four children, ages 6, 7, 12, and 13. It's 8 on a Monday night in her suburban Houston home, and a host of family issues need to be dealt with before bedtime in an hour or so, including Peter's second-grade writing assignment. "Time is a commodity I don't have a lot of," Childs smiles wearily. To give the visiting reporter a sense of what she means, her husband, Rick, a financial consultant in Houston, plunks down the family calendar on the kitchen table. It looks like an ancient text, every square inch covered in small script. A typical weekday entry reads: "Maddie--soccer 6:30-8. Peter--soccer 6:30-8. Tim--hockey 7-8. Peter--Pack meeting. T-shirt Day. Mom--Atlanta."

Childs loves her job at BMC but notes that few working mothers seem to make it work. "The amenities definitely make it comfortable for you to be there," she says. "But if I'm not in the office from 8:00 to 5:00, I feel like I'm playing hooky. I have this tremendous guilt." This morning she was up at 4:30 to train for her next marathon; showered at the company gym; ate lunch at her desk; and rushed out around 6 to pick up 12-year-old Maddie at soccer practice. In the evenings both she and Rick often need to make work calls, and then there's the home-office equipment BMC gave her: "It's always there," says Childs, "always staring at you." Adds Rick: "It does take a toll on the kids. They think when we come home, it's their time." Maddie, who's still walking around in her shin guards, nods in agreement.

So are all Americans this pressed for time?

Harvard economist Juliet Schor stirred up the debate with her 1992 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, in which she calculated that Americans were working 163 hours longer per year than they were in 1969. Her "extra month of work" was quickly attacked, notably by time researchers John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, whose method of asking participants to fill out "time diaries" throughout the day showed no increase in worktime at all. Granted, time usage is notoriously difficult to quantify. (Does doing work in front of the TV count as work or TV time?) But other studies have buttressed Schor's claim; a Families and Work Institute survey, for instance, showed the average workweek increasing from 43.6 hours in 1977 to 47.1 hours in 1997.

We certainly feel as though we're working harder: In the same study, 60% of participants said they "never seem to have enough time to get everything done" at work, up from 40% in 1977; and 88% said their job required them to work "very hard," up from 70% in 1977. (Interestingly, Robinson and Godbey found not only that people tend to overestimate the time they spend at work, but that the size of those overestimates has increased over the years.) To the familiar list of time-squeeze culprits--dual-career couples, lengthening commutes, the 24-hour global economy--can now be added e-mail, with its unending bombardment and suggestion of urgency. Soon, an extended trading day on Wall Street will make the list too.

Overwork in part seems to be a class thing. While hours for unskilled workers have actually been falling slightly (even taking multiple-job holders into account), they've been headed skyward for highly educated professionals, suggesting a semantic flip-flop: The working class now has more leisure, and the leisure class has more work. A recent report from the Boston Bar Association warned that law firms were close to becoming "institutions where only those who have no family responsibilities--or, worse, are willing to abandon those responsibilities--can thrive." Bureau of Labor Statistics data show "occupational stress" cases overwhelmingly concentrated in white-collar professions. And according to an Exec-U-Net poll of 800 senior managers who report working an average of 56.2 hours a week, nearly one-quarter consider themselves workaholics.

At the same time that work is becoming more homelike, the home is being invaded by work. According to the Families and Work Institute study, 16% bring work home more than once a week, up from 6% in 1977. Vacations too: An AT&T study found that half of travelers either call in to work or check their e-mail while on holiday. Now the ever-present burden of work can be felt, quite literally, as the tug of the laptop on our shoulder or the vibration of the pager in our pocket. On one Internet chat group about such "electronic leashes," a contributor recommended putting dead batteries in one's pager to have a "valid" excuse for not calling the boss back.

What makes these developments all the more striking is that working hours in other industrialized nations are flat or even declining. France recently enacted a 35-hour workweek, and according to statistics released by the International Labor Organization last Labor Day, Americans are now outworking even the notoriously work-addled Japanese, 1,966 hours per year to 1,889. And these are a people who publish books like Shinu-hodo Taisetsuna Shigoto-tte Nan desu ka (For What Did You Work to Death?).

Overwork didn't always seem so inevitable. In the early part of the century, reducing work hours was issue No. 1 for labor unions, culminating in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the 40-hour workweek. "Shorter hours was part and parcel of what people thought was economic progress," says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian of work at the University of Iowa. "Progress meant opening up life beyond the pecuniary--to family, community, the life of the mind." Because productivity gains meant workers could produce the same level of wealth in a shorter span of time, John Maynard Keynes predicted that leisure would become humanity's next great challenge. George Bernard Shaw foresaw a two-hour day by 1980.

Why the trend headed precisely the other way is a subject of some contention. Schor lays the blame at the feet of our consumerist society, which presumably makes us want to work more so that we can buy more stuff, and of greedy corporations, who find it cheaper to hire fewer workers and drive them harder. Then Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild came along with an altogether different spin. In her three-year study of an unnamed FORTUNE 500 company, she found that the corporation offered workers many opportunities to scale back their hours, but that the workers didn't take them. Her explanation: People enjoyed the breezy camaraderie of the office, the recognition they received there, and the escape it offered from the complexities of home life. In short, work was fun.

This was a subversive hypothesis, muddying, as it did, the line between perpetrator and victim. But at a time when whining about one's schedule is as much a complaint as a peculiar sort of postmodern boast, it seemed to ring true. "When you're working yourself to death, you don't have to deal with the fact that you have a crummy marriage," says Carey Sipp of Atlanta, who was working 16-hour days in advertising before she downshifted to spend more time with her children. "You and your husband are arguing over whatever, but, hey, the client still loves me."

Indeed, those rare companies that try to institute shorter hours (as at SAS Institute, where the gates shut at 6) find they must practically kick workers out the door. Moses Ma, founder of BusinessBots, a 28-person software company in San Francisco, tried fostering balance by telling employees to take a half-day off each week and authorizing managers to distribute 20 "mental health" days a year. The result? "People tend to work 60 hours anyway," he says. "The truth is, there's much too much work."

So Ma has settled for building what he calls a "Renaissance company," where employees can fulfill their nonwork aspirations on the job. There are periodic poetry slams where everyone is encouraged to write a poem and read it aloud. An employee with a Ph.D. in psychology is available for informal counseling. Another employee has been leading the company in a once-weekly seminar on figure sculpting. And when Ma and his girlfriend of ten years started drifting apart because of overwork, he decided there was only one solution: She would have to come work for his company. "When we started working together, we felt like we had common goals," he says.

In Silicon Valley, where the rush of winner-take-all competition has created an almost narcotic relationship with work, such dilemmas are rampant. "I love the Web and I'm passionate about it, and I love my wife and I'm passionate about her too," says Daniel Greenberg of his new startup, Active Research, and his new wife, Janna. But increasingly, it's the Web that wins his attention: He's not often home before 10 P.M., and even the weekends were all business until Janna insisted on setting aside Saturdays as no-work zones. "I feel very single during the week," says Janna, whose hours at Website builder Organic aren't much better. "Underneath it all, I think I'm in perpetual angst."

"The thing is," she adds, "it's so fun. Work is fun. I can lose myself in it, I laugh a lot, I feel like I'm very much myself here; there's no poker face." At her husband's brightly painted offices, there's a foosball table, a Sony PlayStation, an open space to play Frisbee and badminton, a fridge with beer in it, and remote-control car races--"the kind of thing you always wanted as a kid," says Daniel. On hot days, someone makes a run to a nearby ice cream factory. "Relationships are getting very, very tight here," he says. "It's fun. But if it's too much fun, people spend even less time at home."

At the Greenberg household, unpaid bills are stacked high, the garden is a thicket of weeds, and two years of photographs are waiting to be put in albums. "I have these standards for how I want to live, and I'm not living by them," says Janna, who took the bus home at 5 one day and was surprised to see it full of commuters. "Then I think, Okay, we're going to have kids one day. What will I give up? Something will have to go, and I don't know what that is." Daniel's business partner, Tom DuBois, isn't much of a role model on that score. He was on an early-morning conference call when his pregnant wife called out that she was going into labor. DuBois convened with his wife, agreed she didn't need to go to the hospital just yet, then returned to the call. "I'm lucky that I'm still married," he says sheepishly.

Says Daniel: "I don't know when it's going to stop."

At a recent groundbreaking for a new child-care center at Cisco Systems' (No. 3) Milpitas, Calif., campus, HR chief Barbara Beck announced that the concept of work/family balance needed to be updated. The goal, she said, ought not to be balance but "integration"--to help employees move seamlessly between on-the-job and off-the-job duties throughout the day. That's why Cisco installs high-speed DSL lines in employee homes to facilitate productivity there, and why it's considering adding spouse orientation to new-employee orientation.

While her pronouncement was accompanied by the customary Up With Family incantations, it's hard not to wonder: Is this an admission of defeat? Is there no longer any hope of walling off separate time away from work--time to think, time to be, or time simply to do nothing? Is leisure destined to become nothing more than fragments of downtime between work engagements? Has Homo sapiens been relegated to a subspecies of Homo economicus?

Ilene Philipson thinks so. "All this discussion between balancing work life and family life I think is anachronistic," she says. "I think it's work and its offshoots."

If that's true, it would certainly be one of the more depressing developments of our time. "Work has become a modern belief system, a new religion," says Benjamin Hunnicutt, the work historian, who's working on a book he wants to call Saving Work: A Failing Faith. "All those questions that life slaps you in the face with--Who are you? How do you make sense out of the world? What can you hope for in the future?--we now look to work to answer. But it's not a belief system that's going to meet our needs or explain the world to us or organize our personalities. We're trying to take something that is by definition for something else and make it into an end in itself. That's why it's a failing faith."

The new company town may keep us comfortable, but it probably won't keep us happy. All the free popcorn in the world isn't going to change that.