Apple's Anti-Remote Stance Is New, And All Part of Steve Jobs' Abusive, Vague and Cruel Management Culture

Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, once said that “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions…you run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” What he didn’t say was that the usual result of him spontaneously meeting someone was to terrify and abuse them, and employees would create plans to deal with his capricious egoism:

“When we did the iPod we had to make sure it would be loud enough for Steve to hear the music,” says Dhuey. “We had to balance his need for volume with a French law against things that were too loud. He tends to get early prototypes and these were built with Steve’s needs in mind.”

People would actively avoid Jobs, or prepare questions to placate him so that he wouldn’t decide to end their careers based on a few minutes of meetings. The spontaneity of meetings with Steve Jobs mostly seemed to be around whether he’d scream at you or fire you rather than any great creative force. Nevertheless, he was the boss, and you did what he said for fear that he’d end your career. From what I’ve read over the years, it didn’t seem to be about your actual contribution to Apple, but what Jobs could ascertain you’d contributed in the few minutes he’d give you.

While Apple doesn’t appear to have kept the tradition of screaming at and firing people at random, it seems that they’ve inherited Jobs’ anti-remote work approach. Zoë Schiffer at The Verge reported yesterday that Apple has now done exactly what Professional Worm John Gruber said he’d “never heard them do” - not accommodate employees with a disability. Apple is apparently making it “harder than ever” to get remote work requests approved, with one specifically vile case where someone with an ADA accommodation was told to come back to the office:

One employee said they were currently on an Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation that allowed them to work from home, but were told that accommodation would be denied when the company went back to the office. “I will be out of a job in September,” they wrote in Slack.

Apple also has also started requesting people’s medical records to approve permanent remote work, and as Schiffer reports, while Apple gives people 30 days to find a new job within the company if their team denies a medical accommodation, there aren’t any remote positions. Apple claims that they’re committed to their company and the world being more just and inclusive, it seems as if that only stretches as far as those who are willing to come into the office arbitrarily.

Further details: I spoke with Schiffer further to firm up some details, and it’s actually somewhat worse than I thought. Pre-pandemic, Apple was willing to grant a lot of one-off people and teams remote work for various reasons. Now, Apple is trying to eliminate a lot of those cases, except for serious medical reasons - and even some of those are being denied. There’s also an exception - hardware teams mostly need to be in five days a week, even if they’re not working on a physical product.

The fact that policies are changing from what they were pre-pandemic suggests (to me) that this is more than simply “trying to get back to normal,” but to use the return to the office to drive those out who want to work remotely. Where it’s clear that there were a lot of exceptions before the pandemic, Apple’s reaction to seeing their company thrive while working remotely was to create less remote work - an exercise in control and, I’d say, abuse. The fact that there are fewer allowances for remote work is likely justified as “oh, well, you’re allowed a few days out of the office now based on policy,” despite the fact that this isn’t evenly distributed or remotely logical.

I’d love to hear how often Deidre O’Brien, the SVP of Retail and People, spends in the office, and how nice her office is. The same goes for Tim Cook, or Eddy Cue, or any of the other C-suite people that have signed off on this massive, arbitrarily-wielded policy.

Apple, a company at the forefront of technology, a pioneer of mobile devices and experiences, the company that fundamentally changed our abilities to operate outside of the office…wants to keep people in the office. It’s the classic managerial lack of object permanence - despite work coming out the other end, they need to see the person so that they can think that they’re collaborating. As I wrote yesterday, management is making judgments and decisions that won’t actually affect them based off of anecdotes and an attachment to the feeling of control - the feeling that they have summoned the underlings to the mothership.

These are the actions you’d expect from an aged, stodgy company like Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan, rather than the company that defined our mobile futures. While they were vastly profiting off of enabling people to work from anywhere, Apple has chosen to abuse their workers with arbitrary, unnecessary policy shifts likely borne from the ideals of Jobs and Wozniak, who said that the important part of building a company is “building an environment that makes people feel they are surrounded by equally talented people, and their work is bigger than they are.”

This is likely where Apple has dragged this rotten idea from - that they must continue to institute their “culture,” by which I mean treating the company as a higher power, a God of sorts, and their work as a religion. “The feeling that the work will have tremendous influence and is part of a strong, clear vision,” as Wozniak said, is meaningless dogma - you are making phones, you are making software, you are making computers, and no matter how good they are, this is still a job.

It would be one thing if this was a consistently-held policy from the C-suite down, but it’s transparent that not having people in the office has made Apple anxious about their ability to wield their culture and power over their workers. Without regular forced office trips, their employees might forget that they are “part of a strong, clear vision,” and begin to question whether, in fact, they have any “tremendous influence” at all.

As a company, Apple controls its users - and I’m one of them, and I’ll keep drinkin’ that garbage - through locking them into a strict ecosystem of rules that it justifies loosely as “part of the greater experience.” This logic crumbles at the slightest touch, but Apple has done such a good job of making things good in the experience, people like me are still going to stick around and tolerate the arbitrary guardrails.

They’re now taking the same approach to their employees, and I think it is colossally stupid in a way that will harm the company long-term. Jobs himself regretfully said that he “hired the wrong guy and [the guy] destroyed everything [Jobs] spent 10 years working for,” and I’d absolutely argue that this is history somewhat repeating itself. Jobs and Apple have hired an executive team and managers that cannot see past their own noses, lacking empathy and the willingness to adapt to what their workers need. While I doubt this destroys everything Jobs built, there is absolutely a question here as to what sort of legacy Tim Cook and the Apple C-suite think they’re building. Apple still, even as a trillion-dollar company, has to compete to get the best minds in technology, and they are, based on anecdotes and flawed intuition, choosing to be uncompetitive with a vast swath of new companies.

It is at its core an issue of “company culture,” and the mechanisms companies use to control people. Companies that institute mandatory in-person attendance aren’t interested in doing things well, they’re interested in doing things their way, specifically in a way that doesn’t affect them but feels good to do. They want to keep people in the office so that they can continue surrounding them with Apple propaganda - that Apple is the best, saying shit that Loki would say about working for something “bigger than they are,” that they must be in the office around people because of some theoretical spontaneous interaction that will create the next iPhone, or whatever.

It’s appropriate, though. Steve Jobs was absolutely the beginning of the kind of inefficient, cult of personality capitalism that has created management cultures more focused on optics than profits. Jobs was exactly the kind of person to make grand, sweeping judgments that would affect thousands of people based on his own arrogance and experiences rather than a consideration of theirs. While Cook may be different to Jobs, he is still following the same dark, selfish, usurious management playbook of Jobs, the same one that’s inspired equally monstrous CEOs and management cultures around the world.