The myth of serendipitous 'bumping into colleagues' at Apple

“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” -- Steve Jobs

From "Thoughts on Office-bound Work" an open letter to Tim Cook signed (to date) by 1,445 current and former employees:

In your first email titled “Returning to our Offices”, you talk about “the serendipity that comes from bumping into colleagues” when everyone is in the same place. Except we are not all in one place. We don’t have just one office, we have many. And often, our functional organizations have their own office buildings, in which employees from other orgs cannot work. This siloed structure is part of our culture. It doesn’t take luck to overcome the communication silos and make cross-functional connections that are vital for Apple to function, it takes intentionality. We need to be able to reach out to each other intentionally, and have the chance to do so.

Slack has made this much easier over the last two years. Yet, you choose to keep us all in separate siloed Slack workspaces and try to prevent us from talking to each other, so software engineers don’t accidentally talk to AppleCare employees, and retail staff don’t accidentally meet hardware engineers. Over the last year, you have even made it impossible to create shared community spaces where serendipity could have happened, online and remotely. Be this in employee clubs for which there is a “temporary hold on approving any new clubs” or shared public Slack channels, which now need director support and can only be about work in a very strict sense...

In the original “Returning to our offices” email, Tim said “we’d make sure Apple delivered on its promises to its customers regardless of the circumstances”. It’s true, we delivered on our promises and continue to do so. We were incredibly flexible and resilient and found new ways to do our work, despite not being able to go to an office in many cases.

Now we ask you, the executive team, to show some flexibility as well and let go of the rigid policies of the Hybrid Working Pilot. Stop trying to control how often you can see us in the office. Trust us, we know how each of our small contributions helps Apple succeed and what’s required to do so. Our direct managers trust us and in many cases would happily let us work in a more flexible setup. And why wouldn’t they, we’ve successfully done so for the last two years. Why don’t you?

Or as Steve said: “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Here we are, the smart people that you hired, and we are telling you what to do: Please get out of our way, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives.

My take: Tough call. I've been the manager of an in-house staff and I've worked remotely. I could argue this round or flat.

See also: Was Apple’s 12,000-employee spaceship HQ an astronomical mistake?

19 Comments

  1. David Emery said:
    I’ve done both, worked in an office and then from home. When your job is pretty cut-and-dried, working from home is fine. We also had periodic on-site meetings (usually in California, bringing together a team that stretched across the country.) But when you’re trying to frame ideas, develop new approaches, etc, working from the office has real advantages. A lot of the most creative work I participated in was done around the lunch table with my group of co-workers. I don’t miss working, but I do miss some of my co-workers a lot.

    6
    May 16, 2022
  2. Jerry Doyle said:
    WFH is an employee benefit, not an employee entitlement.

    The purpose of the employee benefit is to afford workers more flexibility in juggling work and family obligations.

    Additionally, the employee benefit is not available to all employees, since many employees’ jobs are not suitable for a WFH environment.

    Excessive use of the employee benefit leads to worker segregation, separating workers within an organization based on those who work from home against those who work from the office because their jobs are not suitable for such flexibility. The excessive use of the policy leads to worker dissension between those who have access to the flexible worker benefit and those who do not have access.

    Workers whose jobs are not suitable for a WFH arrangement incur added expenses such as commuting, eating out, laundry, child care, etc. These added expenses run into the thousands of dollars annually, yet employees working from home elect not to receive a reduction in pay vis à vis workers required to be in the office because their jobs are not suitable for a WFH environment.

    Senior staff and supervisors use daily employee interactions to assess, evaluate and judge future worker leadership qualities leading to choice job assignments, promotions and other career development opportunities that cannot be discerned from remote locations. In fact, one employee complaint about the WFH policy is workers in remote locations often suffer from lack of promotions, choice job assignments and other career development opportunities awarded to employees in the office working daily alongside the decision makers.

    Senior management offers WFH policies as an employee benefit to be used judiciously, or otherwise that very same employee policy designed to give the worker more flexibility easily can create more employee dissension.

    5
    May 16, 2022
  3. Mordechai Beizer said:
    Agreed David. My background is in software development which I’ve always felt is a team sport. Bouncing an idea off someone, or trying to talk through an issue is easy when you work in close proximity. When working together there are many cues to let you know if now is a good time to interrupt someone, (as opposed to they’re being “in the zone” which you do not want to disturb). I also believe in management by wandering around. You can tell pretty quickly how things are going by asking someone to describe what they’re doing. Those who can’t describe what they’re doing are unlikely to be writing good code.

    1
    May 16, 2022
  4. Jerry Doyle said:
    The comments I wrote above are based on my experience in working as a Union leader alongside senior management in a major organization that attempted a WFH policy. I make this statement as I believe my practical work experience in instituting a WFH policy in a major organization gives me added insight as to the strengths and weaknesses of retaining such an employee benefit option.

    1
    May 16, 2022
  5. Fred Stein said:
    Facts:

    Housing costs in Silicon Valley are insane. For younger employees, especially, that means long commutes. Check Zillow.

    Per GlassDoor, Apple’s and Tim Cook’s rating are high, but not quick as high as Apple’s peers. Without talent, we investors lose out.

    1445 is about 1.5 % of Apple’s employees and includes former employees.

    0
    May 16, 2022
    • Steven Noyes said:
      Fred: With facts like that, you belong in working for DHS’s new DGB.

      Apple currently has over 150,000 employees and has had around 250,000 current and former employees.

      I have no idea where you came up with a “fact” of 1.5%.

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      May 16, 2022
      • Steven Noyes said:
        My guess is Apple has had 250,000 current and former employees with about 150,000 current. I am guessing at about 100,000 previous though it might be much higher.

        I would put the cap of number employees being 0.5% or so. There is a good chance not a single one is a true lynch-pin employee.

        0
        May 16, 2022
  6. I worked for years as a corporate trainer. 90% of that time was spent teaching in classrooms or factories far from my home office. Until I joined the ranks of management I was almost unknown to my co-workers, except for my daily reports and student after-class surveys. As a result I was consistently passed over for promotions, special projects and missed most employee social outings. I received performance bonuses, large pay increases but little recognition for teaching the largest clients how to use products or services. In fact, I had to switch employers to get promoted and establish closer working relationships. We had email and conferencing tools but if you didn’t regularly show up where you work you barely existed so far as management is concerned. Maybe this has all changed in 2022 but I doubt it.

    5
    May 16, 2022
    • Jerry Doyle said:
      @Thomas Williams: “…. As a result I was consistently passed over for promotions, special projects and missed most employee social outings.”

      “…. I had to switch employers to get promoted and establish closer working relationships.… if you didn’t regularly show up where you work you barely existed so far as management is concerned.”

      This was one of many findings we found in our organization that has more employees than Apple, Inc. as we attempted to institute a WFH policy. Employees stationed in remote work complained of being passed over for promotions, bonuses, choice job assignments and other career development opportunities. When we subsequently initiated investigations we found that the WFH employees complaints were substantiated. Our report-of-findings showed that employees in the offices working daily alongside their respective supervisors and senior managers cultivated more meaningful working relationships involving trust, respect and personal integrity than workers stationed in remote locations, thus leading to more favorable preferential treatment when it came to giving out awards, bonuses, promotions, choice job assignments and other career development opportunities. It became known as the “out-of-sight…out-of-mind” career trap for employees in a WFH environment. It also caused worker dissension.

      5
      May 16, 2022
  7. Daniel Epstein said:
    This sounds like an issue were both sides have legitimate concerns to be addressed. Having personally worked in the field on many television shows I can clearly say that it
    was great not to have to be working at the production companies office much of the time. However when decisions were made there often was little or no consultation with those of us in the field who might have to execute those decisions. Those who were closer to the Post production process often were more influential even if they were not knowledgeable.
    It would be hard to believe that such a large group of employees as Apple has would all agree on the question of WFH schedules. I would be suspicious if they did.

    2
    May 16, 2022
  8. Rodney Avilla said:
    A good example of taking a person’s words out of context. When Steve Jobs said those words, he required employees to show up at work. That is the context of his words. To use those words to mean something other than what the author intended, is being abusive to that person, especially when they are not present to define and defend their words.

    5
    May 16, 2022
  9. Rodney Avilla said:
    “The myth of serendipitous ‘bumping into colleagues’ at Apple”

    Anytime I find a person quoting someone else, and they do not go to great lengths to maintain the thoughts and intent of the quoter, I need to read with great caution, and suspicion, that the article is not being intellectually honest. Case in point. To use examples of improper communication channels (people in different departments who are not supposed to be bumping into each other), to show that Apple prevents serendipitous meetings, is not being fair to the author of the quote. Also the author (complainer) attests to the reality and need of serendipitous meetings, making it hard to figure out why the word “myth” is used.

    3
    May 16, 2022
  10. John Konopka said:
    Having worked remotely or from home for decades I can reinforce what the others have already said. Not only do you get ignored if you work from home, the same happens if you are in a remote office. Secretaries in the home office had more input to issues than I did as a branch office manager. There are clearly some human issues with out of sight out of mind.

    I can highly recommend some books by Edward T. Hall about human interactions. He did ground breaking research in how we interact through space and time.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_T._Hall

    I recall that his community was studying a short tape of a family at breakfast. They found countless interactions, mostly nonverbal, between them. We communicate in countless ways when we meet in person. FaceTime or zoom scrapes all that off and reduces your communications to a 2D minimum.

    1
    May 16, 2022
  11. Lalit Jagtap said:
    It is irony that around 4K employees at Apple don’t use common sense.

    i guess these employees will do ONLY digital interactions with their loved ones too. And travel around the world once the “so called Meta becomes reality”.OR stay inside their home and want everything done digitally.

    0
    May 16, 2022

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