Bubble or Babylon? The Bay Area Tech Boom

07/21/2011 01:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

While the rest of the country seems to be stuck in hiring neutral, visitors to the Silicon Valley could be forgiven for thinking they'd stepped back to 1999. Here, it seems, the long lines are not at the unemployment office, but at the free gourmet company cafeteria.

As commuters sit in traffic on 101, they see dozens of "help wanted" billboards from Groupon, Zynga, and the like, but they pass very few "for rent" signs between SoMa and San Jose. Fuelled by the frothy tech sector, both commercial and residential real estate activity in much of the Bay Area are some of the few bright spots in the nation's otherwise dismal markets.

Indeed, there's a new battle brewing among our nerdy neighbors, one that on the surface might resemble some of the dot-com era Foosball-table-and-bean-bag silliness, but is potentially a transformative period in American economic life.

Such is the competition for space and talent that all the big tech industry players from Apple and Facebook to Google and Microsoft to Salesforce and Twitter are currently in the process of designing and constructing significant new facilities right here in the Bay Area. And each is trying to outdo the other in an effort to lure top engineering talent.

Apple's recently-announced "spaceship" reflects its focus on clean details and sophisticated simplicity, while Google's new buildings further it's "do no evil" sustainability mantra. Facebook's adaptive re-use of its new Menlo Park campus is aligned with its young start-up culture and its do-more-with-less vibe. Salesforce's new Mission Bay campus is committed to being a good urban citizen in the image of its founder, the namesake benefactor of UCSF's new Medical Center.

With networks of free shuttles linking these campuses with major residential zones, 3 freshly-prepared meals a day, on-site doctors, fitness facilities, gourmet coffee, and other amenities, these companies are locked in a pitched battle to one-up each other and to poach top developers.

But the big story here is not the extravagant perks like doggy day care, onsite massage therapists or late-night made-to-order artisan pizzas, but the transformation of the Bay Area working world from a land of uninspired office buildings filled with bland 8x8 cubicles to one where design and culture are combining to create engaging, innovative, human-centered environments.

Whether it's fresh air, light, and views of the Bay or outdoor workspaces, bike trails, and hiking paths, the metrics of what makes a successful workplace are changing, and with it, the notion of what it means to work might also be changing. These companies are planning not for simply "butts in seats," antiseptic conference rooms, or sad break rooms, but are deploying a host of more productive and innovative spaces to facilitate cross-collaboration, idea sharing, and, ultimately, innovation.

Designers of this new Bay Area tech office space are rejecting decades of systems furniture (that's industry code for cubicles) and instead turning to collaborations with small, upstart furniture and graphic designers that better match the culture each company is aiming to nurture.

These cutting-edge Bay Area workplaces are creating a new worker's paradise that is becoming increasingly set apart from any other labor market in the country and the world. Their innovative approach to work is allowing the Bay Area, once again, to become the preferred destination for the world's most talented minds.

Not since the company towns of the late 19th century have American employers focused this much attention on the needs and wellbeing of their employees. And rather than being locked into the quasi-indentured servitude those company towns represented, Bay Area tech workers have unprecedented opportunity and freedom to develop their own careers, and seed their own future Facebooks and Googles.

Of course, this may not continue if policies out of Sacramento continue to be perceived as less than business friendly. But for now, Silicon Valley can help us ignore the problems the rest of the state is facing.

The question that needs to be answered is this frenzy the sign of one of Silicon Valley's legendary bubbles that's about to burst (see 2001) ? Or are we witnessing the future of the American workplace right here in our own backyard? As we emerge from the most painful recession in nearly a century, we could all use some optimism.