Constant theatre

Imagine a young lad on a street corner, waving a paper and shouting, “OPEN OFFICE SPARKS REVOLT! FIVE BILLION DOLLAR HEADQUARTERS OF TECH GIANT LEAVES ENGINEERS UNSATISFIED!” That’s what’s happening at the new Apple Cupertino HQ:

“Some Apple employees reportedly hate the open office plan at the company’s brand new $5 billion headquarters.

The company has spent more than six years planning and building Apple Park to precise specifications. From a 100,000-square-foot fitness and wellness center, to meticulously designed fire exit signs, the company spared no expense in getting the details right — except, perhaps, when it comes to employee workspaces.

Prominent Apple podcaster and blogger John Gruber passed along rumours that some high-level Apple staffers are unsatisfied with the company’s open floor plan — which has many company engineers working at long tables with co-workers, instead of in cubicles or offices.

Some employees have reportedly insisted on their own space outside of the main spaceship-style building.

“I heard that when floor plans were announced, that there was some meeting with [Apple Vice President] Johny Srouji’s team,” said Gruber. “He’s in charge of Apple’s silicon, the A10, the A11, all of their custom silicon. Obviously a very successful group at Apple, and a large and growing one with a lot on their shoulders.”

Gruber continued, “When he [Srouji] was shown the floor plans, he was more or less just ‘Fuck that, fuck you, fuck this, this is bullshit.’ And they built his team their own building, off to the side on the campus … My understanding is that that building was built because Srouji was like, ‘Fuck this, my team isn’t working like this.’ ”

I found this via a Cal Newport article. In it, Newport posits that the reason that people at Apple—and people in general—dislike open offices so much is because they restrict an individual’s ability to do deep work, which Newport defines as “ the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” He’s right. Open offices don’t encourage creativity and collaboration. They constrict them. Of course, that’s not what designers, HR staff and management say; it’s what the practitioner’s forced to work in these spaces have discovered whilst trying to do their jobs. But Newport is missing the more fundamental problem; open offices require constant theatre.

What’s the result of two or more siblings sharing the same room for an extended period of time? Fighting, tears and tensions. Why is that? Why is restaurant and retail work so poisonous for the mood and wellbeing of people who don’t want to do it as a career? Why do introverts like me find it exhausting to be surrounded by people all day? The answer to all of these questions is that each requires you to always be on, to always be projecting a persona. 

Siblings forced to share a room have no private space where they can relax away from prying eyes. Staff in restaurants and retails stores are expected to assume a demeanour that satisfies customers, regardless of their actual feelings at the time. Introverts consume immense amounts of energy figuring out and donning the appropriate personality for whatever social occasion they’re blundering through. And employees working in open offices become stressed because they have to constantly play a role for the benefit of their colleagues and employers; the role of the happy and productive worker.

When I sit in a coffee shop and write in my notebook, I feel self-conscious. Luckily, there’s only five people on this planet who can read my writing, but still, I get worried that the person sat next to me or walking past might decode what I’m writing and think me weird. It’s worse if I’m on my laptop in a public space. What will people think when they look at what I’m doing? Perhaps they won’t understand why I’m looking up strange words and concepts? “No, I’m not crazy! Please don’t look at me like that! I have a really, really good reason for looking up the origins of white supremacy! Promise!” That’s just me in a coffee shop. I can only imagine what it’s like to have to do real work in a place where everyone can see exactly what you’re doing and for how long. I’ve only had a sample of the state of chronic tension and unease inflicted by such an arrangement, but I pray to Zeus, Allah and the Many-Faced God that I will never have to work in an open office, in an environment that requires constant theatre.