Apple Park will have to change

Can a building designed for collaboration become a safe place in a pandemic?

Apple, COVID-19, Apple Park, collaboration, coronavirus, iPhone, Mac
Brooks Kraft/Apple

Apple’s billion-dollar headquarters is stunning, and ex-company designer Jony Ive didn’t just architect the building, but also the flow.

The end of open plan

When he did so, he based his ideas around those of Apple founder Steve Jobs, who believed that office spaces should promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” Pixar’s John Lasseter said.

“So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

The theory worked, Lasseter told Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson. He’d never seen a building that promoted creativity and collaboration as well as Pixar’s HQ, he said.

This was the kind of vision that must surely have informed Apple Park.

“Steve’s vision for Apple stretched far beyond his time with us. He intended Apple Park to be the home of innovation for generations to come,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2017.

“The workspaces and parklands are designed to inspire our team as well as benefit the environment.

Jobs believed collaboration is boosted by chance encounters in this way.

“Connecting extraordinarily advanced buildings with rolling parkland creates a wonderfully open environment for people to create, collaborate and work together,” said Ive as construction of the new HQ came to the end.

That was then.

What happens in the new normal?

These kinds of encounters in open plan office space designs really don’t seem so desirable now that enterprises and employees must learn to live with COVID-19. When almost anyone can carry the virus, spread it, and die as a result, encouraging teams to mingle and co-mingle no longer seems a good a plan.

This is going to demand major design transformations across most working spaces —and this must be part of the response to the disease. Even the most cynical business executive (and I’m sure there’s a few) will recognize that training staff costs money, so you want to protect the ones you’ve got.

Recruitment and training are investments. Less cynical people — and I’m one of them — will focus on the importance of protecting life and the need to do the right thing.

In this context, Apple Park now seems to have become a place that represents a different set of hopes. It’s all about proximity and connection when the new coronavirus reality is one in which remote collaboration, distance and strict controls against random association will inevitably become part of daily life.

[Also read: What next for Apple retail?]

That's going to be the case at least for a while.

Some may experiment with different means of managing the disaster, but the data suggests a second wave of infection might be mightier than the first. We’ll end up with more remote working, not less.

That’s posing different problems. A 2017 Spiceworks survey claimed organizations on average use 4.4 different services – including web, audio, video and chat – across three different providers.

What can Apple change at Apple Park?

There’s a limit to what can be achieved. Apple is already engaged in cleaning, social distancing and adjusting working environments in order to increase the amount of space between people.

It – like many companies – may also need to look at how it structures teams.

In some cases it may need to develop fallback plans: Where a project may once have been led by one team, it may need to split its teams into two and maintain strict quarantine between both in hope that if Team A gets sick, Team B can carry on the work. The company will need to think about streaming employee connections.

It will need to think about constant testing, contact tracing and more.

It will also need to find ways to support employees in the event that they or their loved ones become ill.

These changes aren’t just mandatory at Apple Park, of course. They will need to be put in place across any business.

At Apple, as elsewhere

Every enterprise will need to look at how it works, how it can maximize remote collaboration, protect employees and build in business resilience by streaming teams and preparing robust contingency plans. Open plan offices just aren’t a good idea when you’re attempting to prevent the creation of disease clusters.

Technology can help, of course.

It can provide some of the tools we need to empower business activity while keeping employees apart. Google and Apple’s contact tracing app and all the other work that’s taking place to find effective solutions also help.

There is also an opportunity to unlock new ways of working and organizing that make sense in the new normal.

In this, perhaps Apple can draw a little inspiration from when Ive told Dazed, that product design “begins and ends with the product and if your absolute and complete focus is sincerely to try and make the very best product, then all of the other issues tend to resolve themselves,”

Meanwhile, every enterprise that can find ways to work more remotely owes a growing debt to the cleaners, medical staff, shop assistants, and utility workers keeping our ecosystem afloat at great personal risk.

Sad as it seems, Apple Park may feel a little empty for a while.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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