Apple Employees Are "In Revolt" Over Open Offices. Really?

©. Apple Park via Dezeen

They may be giving up four walls, but they are getting a lot in return.

According to Apple expert John Gruber of Daring Fireball, a lot of Apple employees are not happy about the open office plans at the new Apple Park. Dezeen quotes him:

"Judging from the private feedback I've gotten from some Apple employees, I'm 100 per cent certain there's going to be some degree of attrition based on the open floor plans, where good employees are going to choose to leave because they don't want to work there," Gruber said.

One senior vice president is simply refusing to move, but we can’t quote him in this family friendly website; you will have to read it in Dezeen. But design chief Jony Ive is looking forward to the experience:

"I'm just looking forward to going to see an engineer I'm working with on something, to sit there and perhaps walk out and sit outside for a bit with him, to be able to go to the workshop and start to see how we're building something," he said.

office interior from website

© Kierantimberlake offices

As a TreeHugger writer, I have been critical of this building since the day it was announced. But as an architect, I am a member of a profession that rarely has private offices; it is all about the mix and the interaction. We learn how to focus on what we are doing. But somehow, different professions think that they are somehow different. There was a frenzy of articles about this subject a few years ago and after one of my posts (summarized in the title The open-office backlash continues, but it is a lost cause to hope that the private office is coming back.) I got this comment:

I have worked as an architectural draftsman and a programmer. The insight I can bring into this is that IT DEPENDS. Open offices simply suck for programming. It's incredibly distracting and you need a special kind of focus involving language and math. You need to get in the groove and that takes a certain amount of time. Constant "interactions" simply kill that.

Open offices are great for architectural design. The low-level banter keeps things humming along and you can quickly share ideas. At least for me, visual work is far less impaired by noise and conversation than programming. It's simply a different part of the brain.

He’s not alone in thinking that some professions are different; writer and journalist Allison Arieff tweeted:

...and was immediately contradicted by writer and journalist John Barber, who spent his career in a wide open newsroom.

apple park interior

© Apple Park via Dezeen

Jony Ive has called Apple Park the greenest building on the planet. It’s not, but one of the greenest things about it is that open plan. As architect and writer Lance Hosey notes,

... open space also allows natural light and outside air to spread more easily, lowering dependence on electrical systems. Many smart office buildings require no artificial lighting at all during the day, and this simply cannot be achieved with too many walls.

Some would make the case that access to natural light and fresh air (which Apple Park is full of) is important if you have to focus, to work long hours.

Republic Square, Berlin

Republic Square, Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Germany, it’s actually in the codes, that everyone be within a certain distance of a window so that they get natural light. Their buildings are designed for it. That's why you often see such skinny buildings- to give everyone light. But then, they invented the open office.

In the end, it’s all about design. About density, about sound absorption, about how it’s done. Dr. Nigel Oseland of Workplace Unlimited, a British consultant in the field, writes:

I have witnessed good open plan design resulting in high levels of satisfaction, motivation, performance and staff morale.... I have also observed poor open plan design with dire consequences on staff satisfaction. The contrast in results is because open plan is not a single absolute variable, it is multivariate and should be treated so.

He continues, noting that there are a lot of factors that lead to job satisfaction which have nothing to do with your desk:

More importantly open plan offices vary by organisational factors such as: role and job function, team size, management style, sector, autonomy and responsibility, work hours, salary and reward, career path and so on. If one aspect of open plan does not work, we cannot generalise that all open plan offices are bad. It is the individual elements of open plan that cause problems not the overarching design concept.

Apple Park windows

© Apple Park via Dezeen

For all my complaining about the building, more care has gone into Apple Park and its amenities than just about any office building ever built. If there are problems with it, I suspect that the open offices are the least of them.