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Apple’s New Open Office Sparks Revolt

September 1st, 2017 · 19 comments

Not Open to Openness

Apple’s new Cupertino headquarters cost $5 billion (see above). One of its prominent features is a massive open office space in which many Apple engineers sit on benches at long shared work tables.

As Apple aficionado John Gruber revealed in a recent episode of his podcast, not everyone is happy with this decision.

“I heard that when floor plans were announced, that there was some meeting with Johny Srouji’s team,” said Gruber, before explaining that Srouji is an important senior vice president in charge of Apple’s custom silicon chips.

Srouji, to put it politely, was not pleased with the idea of moving his team to a cacophonous, distracting, cavernous open office.

As Gruber tells it:

“When he [Srouji] was shown the floor plans, he was more or less just ‘Fuck that, fuck you, fuck this, this is bullshit.’ And they built his team their own building, off to the side on the campus … My understanding is that that building was built because Srouji was like, ‘Fuck this, my team isn’t working like this.’”

To be clear, this story is just a rumor. But it smells right.

Designing silicon is a complicated, painstaking process that requires copious amounts of deep work. Nothing about it is helped by surrounding yourself with unrelenting disruption.

True or not, I like the broader point underscored by this rumor. In knowledge work, your primary capital investment is in human brains. If you’re not careful about the environment you setup for these brains to function in, you cannot expect a good return on investment.

To date, Silicon Valley has tried hard to ignore this reality to instead chase vague trends and embrace tired signifiers of innovation. But if more and more senior people like Srouji react by saying “Fuck this,” things will change.

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(Hat tip to Mike B. who pointed me toward this interview via this Silicon Valley Business Journal article.)

19 thoughts on “Apple’s New Open Office Sparks Revolt

  1. Meg says:

    This is completely unsurprising! At my company, several departments are moving to a new building that will have an “open office” plan. And about a year ago, I was invited to move to a higher position in a new department. One of my very first questions was, “are you moving to his new building because if so, I don’t think I can take this job.” Thank goodness they weren’t! I’m a data analyst, and the thought of doing all that deep work in an open space makes me want to cry. I hope this is a fad that disappears soon because I just don’t think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

  2. EA says:

    I worked in both environments… there is no comparison. Open offices are the most awful thing even invented by HR and planners. It reduces productivity and also it makes everyone feeling observed.
    Another important note is how messed up is the psychological reason behind it. Management thinks – erroneously – that the layout of the office is what encourages collaboration, work, and even friendship. That is, the human element is secondary and a consequence of the physical layout of the building.
    The truth is that humans are much more complex and creating, managing, and pushing a team requires hard WORK. If management is good and the mission is worthwhile all the good things will happen naturally.

  3. Quote from EA: “Another important note is how messed up is the psychological reason behind it. Management thinks – erroneously – that the layout of the office is what encourages collaboration, work, and even friendship.”

    I agree. An open office is more likely to do the opposite. It is hard to collaborate with someone when a dozen other people are forced to hear everything the two of you say. And the lack of privacy kills the possibility of friendship. Again, others are forced to hear everything you say.

    Were I a Cupertino architect, I’d develop ways to convert these open plan offices to private offices and conference rooms. In a couple of years, Apple might come a knocking.

    1. Tim says:

      All it’d cause is make me think “Shut your damn piehole” and get me irritated.

  4. IB says:

    I don’t know what it’s like at Apple, but my husband’s IT firm just moved into brand new open plan offices (fortunately for him, his team is in a corner from which his boss is refusing to move despite some pressure).
    The interesting thing is that the big wigs don’t sit in open plan spaces, they have offices. If they believe so much in open plan why don’t they participate? It seems clear they are pinching pennies in order to waste pounds.

  5. Akram Ahmad says:

    Thought provoking stuff here. But first I have a burning question: I’m torn about reconciling (with what I’ve learned from your philosophy of doing meaningful work—in particular, your book Deep Work comes to mind) the observation which someone made that “successful people hyper-organize to hyper-achieve”. Do you think that hyper-organizing is a viable, tenable, and sustainable strategy? Is that where these “cacophonous, distracting, cavernous open office” spaces are leading us, the knowledge workers?

    BTW, to add some context, I came across that observation in the pages of—as best as I recall because it’s been at least a decade—the book The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison by Mike Wilson.

    Reading this post brought back memories of that observation, and I’m intensely curious about what you and other readers think about it…

  6. Eric Blomquist says:

    I read several years ago that Microsoft gives everyone a private office. I don’t know whether that is still true but this, and the company’s success, is telling.

  7. Brian J. says:

    I wonder if there is another dimension here: the open office space seems is an instance of the same utopianism behind some bygone company towns. Those towns were built on the belief that life would be Shagri-La if only management (and consultants) controlled all the spaces.

    See, for example, this article from Forbes:
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2013/01/17/the-evolution-of-company-towns-from-hersheys-to-facebook/#85691ba294f4

    To me, Apple’s campus smacks of the same utopian visions that doive failed company towns.

  8. Andrea says:

    To defend open space office work, I think there are some kinds of work that can benefit from this style. Particularly work that is primarily inherently creative and collaborative. The biggest mistake I think is the thinking that all types of people and work thrives best in the same environment (and as someone pointed out – that it’s a different environment the more power you have). I think the ideal would be to provide a space that had BOTH types of spaces. For many companies this might be cost prohibitive but clearly not for Apple.

    1. I agree!

      Open offices work for some but definitely not all.

      It depends on the type of work, the phase you are at in a project (diffuse thinking time versus focused thinking time), and your level of introversion or extroversion.

      According to “Thriving in Mind: The Natural Key to Sustainable Neurofitness,” extroverts seek out intense stimulation and introverts try to diminish stimulation to avoid overwhelm.

      What could be the perfect playground for an extrovert could fry the circuits of an introvert.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  9. Ayesha says:

    Another faculty was moved to a gorgeous new building, with one drawback – the academics are in open plan spaces. When I asked them how it was going, they said they all had noise canceling headphones and were more or less used to it now. I asked how they find time to ‘write’ (aka all the value-add stuff academics need to do) and they said most of them go elsewhere to do that. Pretty much sums it up for me.

  10. Wonder office the apple company now design. The office look so unique.

  11. Rachel Rall says:

    Hi Cal!

    As a student studying Interior design, and someone who is interested primarily in office design and other commercial areas of design, I am so grateful to have come across your concept of deep work. It is so easy for designers to follow what is trendy without thinking of some of the major repercussions that ideas like open offices might result in. I will surely keep your principles in mind if I ever am granted the opportunity to design an office space.

  12. Frank SanPietro says:

    I am in agreement with the engineering team lead on this one.
    Open plan office space could be a great environment in which to do brainstorming in which the entire group participates, or , other collaborative work in which everyone participates.
    However, it’s likely a terrible approach for individual or small group work on detailed, technical and complicated projects like, well, like engineering.
    Open plans evolved following the move from offices to cubes and as a reaction to peoples dislike of “cube farms”, but the stories of their success have been very few and limited to specific environments.
    In my field, academic finance – there are those times when working with a group makes sense, but there are also those times when heads down focus is the only way to get things done.
    As with most things in life – one size does NOT fit all.

    Keep Working and Keep Thinking,
    Frank SanPietro,

  13. One of my very first questions was, “are you moving to his new building because if so, I don’t think I can take this job.”

  14. Vana says:

    Open office plans = relentless interruptions. In our pod, we instituted a policy of conscious quietness. We no longer felt compelled to say good morning or good night. Polite conversation was to be avoided. Little barriers went up so we could avoid eye contact that might prompt a polite smile or a word. It marginally helped productivity, but at a human cost. No thanks. The only reason for cubicles is cost reduction and someone in building services had a cost-reduction deliverable in their performance contract. Simple as that.

  15. Francis Fish says:

    This isn’t news. In Peopleware they say what a stupid idea it is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peopleware 1987. They have a whole chapter on it if I remember right.

    It makes the offices cheaper for the bean counters. There is a nominal saving of space per employee and they argue that you can’t measure productivity gains from better designed spaces.

    In fact we need spaces to collaborate, and spaces where we can think.

  16. Being an interior designer, it is great office looks amazing we can learn lot of things looking at this building as interior designer. Apple always bring something new and unique.

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