Thursday, May 5, 2022 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Open Letter About Apple Remote Work

Stephen Warwick (Hacker News):

A group of Apple employees has penned an angry letter to the company’s executive team over its office-bound work policy that doesn’t let them work remotely for more than two days a week.

[…]

The group says the most important reason that the hybrid working pilot is bad, is because it sends a bad message to customers:

We tell all of our customers how great our products are for remote work, yet, we ourselves, cannot use them to work remotely? How can we expect our customers to take that seriously? How can we understand what problems of remote work need solving in our products if we don’t live it?

The same irony was not lost in a March video posted by the company touting the benefits of remote working using devices like its best iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks for remote collaboration. The film told the story of a group called ‘The Underdogs’ who literally escape “from their evil boss’s clutches.”

Apple Together:

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.

[…]

What is also required for creativity and excellent work for many of us is time for deep thought. But being in an office often does not enable this, especially not many of our newer offices, with their open floor plans, which make it hard to concentrate on anything for an extended amount of time.

And with everyone working “remotely” it was much easier to reach out to colleagues in other offices. For example, a US team member could easily have a meeting with someone from the UK in the morning and meet with someone from Japan a couple hours later in the afternoon. This enabled a kind of international collaboration that we didn’t see before, where especially colleagues from “far away” locations could finally contribute as well as people in our major offices and no longer felt like second-class participants in meetings.

They make a lot of good points. It’s hard for any of us on the outside to adjudicate how well the previous remote policy worked, and different people and groups probably have different opinions on that. I think the main weakness in the letter’s argument is that it’s framed as “people should get to choose,” but that’s not really possible. If anyone can choose to be remote, that prevents the rest of their team from being able to choose to work (with them) in person. I don’t think anyone prefers hybrid meetings. There’s no solution that will please everyone.

Previously:

Update (2022-05-09): Sami Fathi:

Apple’s director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, has resigned from his role a little over four years after he joined the company after previously being one of Google’s top AI employees, according to The Verge’s Zoë Schiffer.

Update (2022-05-20): Richard Lawler and Zoe Schiffer (MacRumors):

Apple is delaying moving forward on its hybrid return to work for office employees, saying in a memo seen by The Verge and (reported earlier by Bloomberg) that “we are extending the phase-in period of the pilot and maintaining two days a week in the office for the time being.” Employees who are in the current two-day-per-week pilot will have the option to once again work fully remote if they feel uncomfortable coming into the office.

In the memo, the company’s COVID-19 response team says that its updates are based on monitoring local info like test positivity and hospitalization rates. The memo also asks employees to go back to wearing masks when in common areas like meeting rooms, hallways, and elevators.

Juli Clover:

Goodfellow has now found another company to work for, taking a position with DeepMind, a subsidiary of Alphabet, reports Bloomberg.

Update (2022-08-29): Juli Clover (Hacker News):

Apple today informed corporate employees that they must return to the office for three days starting the week of Monday, September 5, reports Bloomberg.

6 Comments

"If anyone can choose to be remote, that prevents the rest of their team from being able to choose to work (with them) in person. I don’t think anyone prefers hybrid meetings."

I work for a company where people get to choose, and the concern you raise here has turned out to be a complete non-issue. The primary reason people want to go back to the office is not that they want to have meetings in person. They want to go back because they don't enjoy being alone all day, but instead enjoy being in an office with other people. They like taking coffee breaks and going for lunch with their work friends, and having random Nerf battles.

All of our meetings are online, but we do offer multiple ways for people who are in offices to join. They can use a shared meeting room where all local meeting participants can go. It has a projector and a room microphone, so they can all join the meeting as a party. We also have soundproof phone booths that people can use. In reality, 99% of people in offices just put on a headset and join from their normal workplace.

I should also add that, as the letter points out, purely local meetings already did not exist before the pandemic for all but the smallest companies. Every company of any size above maybe two dozen people has multiple offices across different locations, external contributors, clients that are involved in meetings, people who are sick (but still want to join a meeting) or need to look after a kid at home for a day, and so on. For many companies, office-local meetings did not exist before the pandemic, and they won't exist after the pandemic, and forcing people back into the office won't change that one bit.

Kristoffer

Do you really have Nerf battles in the office?

Sounds like a nightmare.

@Kristoffer: presumably the Nerf battles are fully consentual, and they're not randomly sniping unwilling bystanders.

"Sounds like a nightmare."

No, it's fantastic, because the people who want to go to the office are generally also people who want to participate in Nerf battles. And since I don't have to go to the office, everybody wins.

"they're not randomly sniping unwilling bystanders."

Not intentionally. But also, the office is huge, so people know where the Nerf zone is, and don't sit there if they don't want to end up as collateral damage.

Old Unix Geek

I hope more people behave like Ian. The neoliberal ideology that people are indistinguishable "resources", cogs in a machine, is difficult for many people to combat. However, those who have a track record of inventing things others didn't, can make the point much more forcefully. No, we are not cogs. Each of us is unique, and deserving of humane treatment.

As someone who finds working in an office to be challenging (interruptions means I end up waiting until everyone else leaves to actually do my work), I have very little sympathy for the "serendipity" which helps those who know little and constantly "need" help but not those who don't constantly need help but instead need quiet space to think. To me, their so called "serendipity" means "opportunity to turn everyone into a cog, rather than reward competence".

> 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.

Yup.

I think that serendipity is real, and can lead to results that are hard to replicate in asynchronous communication. But let's not pretend the old status quo was that everyone ran into everyone else.

>They want to go back because they don't enjoy being alone all day, but instead enjoy being in an office with other people. They like taking coffee breaks and going for lunch with their work friends, and having random Nerf battles.

Yup.

(Foosball table, in our case.)

> What is also required for creativity and excellent work for many of us is time for deep thought. But being in an office often does not enable this, especially not many of our newer offices, with their open floor plans, which make it hard to concentrate on anything for an extended amount of time.

Yup.

You'd think a computer company would understand that a lot of engineering requires peace and quiet more than anything else. It doesn't even really require much machinery. Shower thoughts are real; some of the greatest insights happen in an environment completely devoid of distractions.

Me, I sometimes like working from home in long stretches. And sometimes I like spending a day working with a dozen other people. Chatting, whiteboarding, eating lunch. Then focusing again.

>I should also add that, as the letter points out, purely local meetings already did not exist before the pandemic for all but the smallest companies.

This. And even those small companies have phone calls with customers. All the same arguments apply there: sometimes, adding video to the call makes it better. Sometimes, adding screen sharing does. Sometimes, it would work best if it were local. Sometimes, the opposite is the case: just fire of an e-mail or make a ticket and let the engineers get to the issue when they can.

But that obviously adds a lot of cost and latency, so until we have Star Trek teleportation, we pick the right medium for the right time. Not everything should be or needs to be synchronous, but yes, asynchronous also isn't always the best option.

Apple was already facing a problem of attrition before this policy, and they're only making it worse. They're being stubborn, and it's about to hurt them.

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