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. 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 employees' 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 are the expectations of employees, who have taken a hard left turn away from the very idea of “going to work.”
Just last month, Apple had to backtrack n its edict demanding that everyone start coming back to the office three days a week. A group that 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.
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.
Sometimes, necessity is the mother of adoption. And with a 27(and counting)-month runway to get used to it, it appears the virtual workplace is here to stay.
In some ways, the virtual office represents the unbundling of our worklife. Constrained by physical limitations of distance, we tended to deal with a holistic world. Everything came as a package that was assembled by proximity. 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 them 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, with 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.
As 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 unintended consequences.
You could say this situation is like 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 two 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.”
We’re learning -- probably too late -- that nature never intended plants to be surrounded only by other plants of the same kind. Monocultures led to higher rates of disease and the degradation of the environment. The most extreme example of this is how the 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 till it’s gone.”
The same could be true for the traditional workplace. 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 U.S. 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.