In 2017, Apple employees moved into the new Apple headquarters, called the Ring, in Cupertino, California. This was the last passion project of Steve Jobs, who personally made the pitch to Cupertino City Council just months before he passed away. And its design was personally overseen by Apple’s then Chief Design Office Jony Ive. The new headquarters were meant to give Apple’s Cupertino employees the ultimate “sense of place”. They were designed to be organic and flexible, evolving to continue to meet their needs.
Of course, no one saw a global pandemic in the future. COVID-19 drove almost all those employees to work from home. The massive campus sat empty. And now, as Apple tries to bring everyone back to the Ring, it seems what has evolved is the expectations of the employees, who have taken a hard left turn away from the very idea of “going to work.”
Just last month, Apple had to backtrack on its edict demanding that everyone start coming back to the office three days a week. A group which calls itself “Apple Together” published a letter asking for the company to embrace a hybrid work schedule that formalized a remote workplace. And one of Apple’s leading AI engineers, Ian Goodfellow, resigned in May because of Apple’s insistence on going back to the office.
Perhaps Apple’s Ring is just the most elegant example of a last-gasp concept tied to a generation that is rapidly fading from the office into retirement. The Ring could be the world’s biggest and most expensive anachronism.
The Virtual Workplace debate is not new for Silicon Valley. Almost a decade ago, Marissa Mayer also issued a “Back to the Office” edict when she came from Google to take over the helm at Yahoo. A company memo laid out the logic:
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”Marissa Mayer, Yahoo Company Memo
The memo was not popular with Yahooligans. I was still making regular visits to the Valley back then and heard first-hand the grumblings from some of them. My own agency actually had a similar experience, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Over the past decade – until COVID – employees and employers have tentatively tested the realities of a remote workplace. But in the blink of an eye, the pandemic turned this ongoing experiment into the only option available. If businesses wanted to continue operating, they had to embrace working from home. And if employees wanted to keep their jobs, they had to make room on the dining room table for their laptop. Overnight, Zoom meetings and communicating through Slack became the new normal.
Sometimes, necessity is the mother of adoption. And with a 27 (and counting) month runway to get used to it, it appears that the virtual workplace is here to stay.
In some ways, the virtual office represents the unbundling of our worklife. Because our world was constrained by physical limitations of distance, we tended to deal with a holistic world. Everything came as a package that was assembled by proximity. We operated inside an ecosystem that shared the same physical space. This was true for almost everything in our lives, including our jobs. The workplace was a place, with physical and social properties that existed within that place.
But technology allows us to unbundle that experience. We can separate work from place. We pick and choose what seems to be the most important things we need to do our jobs and take it with us, free from the physical restraints that once kept us all in the same place in the same time. In that process, there are both intended and unintended consequences.
On the face of it, freeing our work from its physical constraints (when this is possible) makes all kinds of sense. For the employer, it eliminates the need for maintaining a location, along with the expense of doing so. And, when you can work anywhere, you can also recruit from anywhere, dramatically opening up the talent pool.
For the employee, it’s probably even more attractive. You can work on your schedule, giving you more flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Long and frustrating commutes are eliminated. Your home can be wherever you want to live, rather than where you have to live because of your job.
Like I said, when you look at all these intended consequences, a virtual workplace seems to be all upside, with little downside. However, the downsides are starting to show through the cracks created by the unintended consequences.
To me, this seems somewhat analogous to the introduction of monoculture agriculture. You could say this also represented the unbundling of farming for the sake of efficiency. Focusing on one crop in one place in a time made all kinds of sense. You could standardize planting, fertilizing, watering and harvesting based on what was best for the chosen crop. It allowed for the introduction of machinery, increasing yields and lowering costs. Small wonder that over the past 2 centuries – and especially since World War II – the world rushed to embrace monoculture agriculture.
But now we’re beginning to see the unintended consequence. Dr. Frank Uekotter, Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham, calls monoculturalism a “centuries long stumble.” He warns that it has developed its own momentum, ““Somehow that fledgling operation grew into a monster. We may have to cut our losses at some point, but monoculture has absorbed decades of huge investment and moving away from it will be akin to attempting a handbrake turn in a supertanker.”
We’re learning – probably too late – that nature never intended plants to be surrounded only by other plants of the same kind. Monocultures lead to higher rates of disease and the degradation of the environment. The most extreme example of this is how monocultures of African palm oil orchards are swallowing the biodiverse Amazon rain forest at an alarming rate. Sometimes, as Joni Mitchell reminds us, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
The same could be true for the traditional workplace. I think Marissa Mayer was on to something. We are social animals and have evolved to share spaces with others of our species. There is a vast repertoire of evolved mechanisms and strategies that make us able to function in these environments. While a virtual workplace may be logical, we may be sacrificing something more ephemeral that lies buried in our humanness. We can’t see it because we’re not exactly sure what it is, but we’ll know it when we lose it.
Maybe it’s loyalty. A few weeks ago, the Wharton School of Business published an article entitled, “Is Workplace Loyalty Gone for Good?” We have all heard of the “Great Resignation.” Last year, the US had over 40 million people quit their jobs. The advent of the Virtual Workplace has also meant a virtual job market. Employees are in the driver’s seat. Everything is up for renegotiation. As the article said, “the modern workplace has become increasingly transactional.”
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not. That’s the thing with unintended consequences. Only time will tell.