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The iPhone X was the focus of Apple’s launch event on Tuesday, but the venue was equally alluring. Tim Cook, chief executive, unveiled the device in the Steve Jobs theatre, a sleek auditorium at Apple Park, its new head office in Cupertino.

Apple Park, a $5bn campus for 12,000 staff with a vast circular building surrounding a park planted with oaks and fruit trees, is an emblem of the US technology industry’s latest craze. An industry of start-ups founded in garages wants to redesign employee activity, prodding engineers to get up from their desks and exchange ideas.

Apple Park is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”, says Stefan Behling of Foster + Partners, its architects, in an official video. Apple is not alone: Amazon plans a $5bn second head office and Nvidia, a chipmaker, has built a two-storey office with spaces at its heart to “spark collisions”.

The vision is as ambitious as that of Louis Sullivan, the architect of early US skyscrapers, whose 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” declared loftiness to be “on a high road to a natural and satisfying art”. The contrast is that, instead of skyscrapers that split staff across floors, they are building utopias in wide, flat campuses.

But utopias are tricky: people do not always enjoy collisions, nor having their social behaviour pushed. As John O’Brien, senior director of real estate at Nvidia, says: “Human beings do not like change, and engineers like it the least.” There is reason to be reluctant about being made to mingle: people often get most done when left in peace.

The guilty secret of many corporate transitions to open plan offices and “hot desking” is the desire to save money. As work patterns become more flexible and technology makes remote working easier, one study found that the average desk is only occupied about half the time. Allocating everyone a locker and telling them to find a free desk when they arrive costs less.

The tech industry is innocent of that. Its main motivation for reconfiguring these campuses is not cost but revenue, the belief that innovation springs out of collaboration and that is inhibited by walls and floors. Everyone has his or her own workstation at both Apple and Nvidia and these buildings also allow them to gather and huddle when working together on projects.

The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach to office design pioneered in the mid-1990s in the Netherlands by the consulting firm Veldhoen at companies including the insurer Interpolis. Rather than staying in one place, staff should move among zones during the working day, depending on whether they are working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating.

This can create uncertainty for employees, who have a human tendency to gravitate to one spot. (When told that the Financial Times is considering activity based working on its return to its former London head office, I was among them.) Some Apple engineers were reported to be dismayed at having to work in newly designed open plan “pods” at Apple Park.

As a result, activity based working often does not operate as planned. A study by Leesman, a workplace research group, found that while it often boosts productivity, many employees stuck to familiar habits. About 70 per cent of those in activity based workplaces still anchored themselves to a single desk, which the study concluded “seems a catastrophic failure”.

It is also a waste, given the amount of ambition and money that goes into configuring these offices. There must be something in it for employees or they will not change their ways, no matter how much companies abolish walls to create space or alter furniture.

Companies should start by recognising what their employees fear losing. Gensler, the architecture firm that designed Nvidia’s new building, pointed out in one study that workers face “less space, less privacy . . . more distractions” in offices, as well as spending more hours working. Collaboration had to be balanced with “extended periods of uninterrupted focus”.

They also need to accept that not every kind of professional works in a similar way. Some jobs require the kind of constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus that activity based working is designed to facilitate. In other cases, employees work most efficiently in one place every day and prodding them to migrate around the office is a pointless distraction.

Sullivan wrote influentially that “form ever follows function” and concluded that in skyscrapers, “tiers of typical offices, having the same unchanging function, shall continue in the same unchanging form”. This was the early 20th century template: floor upon floor of small offices, “similar to a cell in honeycomb, merely a compartment”.

A century later, the need for uniformity has been eroded by changes in technology and working patterns. The 21st-century office performs a variety of functions and has to take on various forms. Silicon Valley’s campuses will work if they are flexible enough to allow diversity, not if they are technology utopias that try to re-engineer the behaviour of the people inside.


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Letters in response to this article:

A worker needs a piece of office real estate / From Matt Nelko, New York, NY, US

Creating a quiet space for the office extrovert / From Philip Tidd, Principal, Gensler, London E1, UK

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