This is the Awful Voice Inside My Head

On employee intimidation.

Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. If you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version. If you’ve been on the fence, I’m offering a mid-summer subscription sale — 25% off for the whole year. This week only!

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Earlier this month, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent out an email to employees telling them they must return to the office, starting this September, for Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. They may work from wherever they please the other two days of the week. If their manager approves, they are also free to take two extra weeks of remote work during the year.

Two days later, a mid-sized group of Apple employees responded with an email of their own to management. The letter, first reported by Zoe Schiffer at The Verge, listed five formal requests for executives but the top line argument is that remote work decisions should be less rigid. Instead of company-wide mandates, decisions ought to be made on a team-by-team and employee-by-employee basis.

“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” the letter reads. “Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating.”

The letter is strongly worded but civil. “This is not a petition, though it may resemble one. This is a plea,” it states near the end. The 80 or so employees who drafted it, based on conversations in the company’s 2,800 “remote work advocates” Slack channel, mention that they respect management and are proud to work for the company. But they also express concern that there is “a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

I am admittedly biased, but all of that sounds quite reasonable. Not everyone agreed. John Gruber, the long-time Apple blogger, excoriated the piece on his site, Daring Fireball. “It’s hard to get through the whole letter,” he wrote of the nearly 1,400 word employee post. “And if you do make it through, it reeks of self indulgence. Some serious ✊🍆 vibes.”

Apparently, formal requests to management are now akin to cranking one’s (intellectual) hog. Good to know!

“Companies are not democracies,” he continues. “But the employees writing these letters sure seem to think Apple is one. It’s not, and if it were, the company would sink in a snap.”

I’ve seen a lot of bad takes on the work from home culture wars — most of them written by managers — but this one is special. At just under 300 words it is as concise as it is obtuse, each sentence containing the maximum allowable dosage of wrongness.

I don’t particularly enjoy giving such an uncharitable take extra oxygen, but in this case, I think talking about it is instructive. It is a near perfect representation of an antique, paternalistic mindset toward employee/employer relationships and work culture. Reading it, I immediately recognized the tone because it is the very voice that has been drilled inside my head since my first job as a teenager. It is a voice and an argument that I’ve heard repeated by my bosses, family members, teachers, and even some friends throughout my life. It has taken me years to stop listening to this voice. Even now, in odd moments, I find myself feeling guilty for trying to resist it.

The voice says: You are free to choose your job. But once you’ve done that, it’s time to fall in line. It argues that you should be extra grateful for what your company provides you — a salary, purpose, any auxiliary benefits — and not to think as much about what you provide to your company. After all, you agreed to take this job. You signed the contract. And, most importantly, you have options. If you don’t like it, leave.

These are the words of a bully. This line of argument is designed to make those speaking up feel as if they’re being ungrateful, unreasonable and hysterical. The point is to intimidate employees into silence. Listen to Gruber’s tone, here, which quite literally asks: Who do these people think they are?

“And who are these people who took jobs at Apple not knowing the company’s on-site culture? Do they think Apple built a new $4 billion campus on a lark? Three days a week on site and two days remote is a huge change for Apple.

I don’t think you have to be a burn-it-all-down raging anti-capitalist to find this corporate sycophantic reasoning a bit off-putting. Would somebody please think of the $4 billion campus?!? Tellingly, he disguises this disdain for employee autonomy with a classic tactic: the ‘culture fit’ argument:

Given that these letters keep leaking to Zoe Schiffer at The Verge, I can’t help but think that the problem for Apple is that they’ve grown so large that they’ve wound up hiring a lot of people who aren’t a good fit for Apple, and that it was a mistake for Apple to ever hook up a company-wide Slack.

The culture fit argument might sound intuitive at first. It’s meant to suggest that ‘if you don’t believe in our mission, you probably shouldn’t work here.’ But that’s not what it’s actually saying. Culture fit is really a way that power reproduces and sustains itself in an organization and silences any dissent.

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Gruber is an Apple enthusiast, which is understandable — they make great, innovative products! He’s an expert who has likely forgotten more about the company than I’ll ever know. I think it’s fair to assume that he believes Apple’s innovation is a byproduct of its corporate culture, which I’m guessing he believes is painstakingly set by a handful of leaders at the very top of the organization with the intent of making Apple excellent in all that it does.

Where do employees fit into this scenario, then? Following this logic, it would seem that an Apple employee is most valuable if they accept the rigid assignations of the mandated culture, no questions asked. No matter that creativity, non-traditional thinking, and rule-breaking are hallmarks of highly innovative personalities.

“Culture fit is really a way that power reproduces and sustains itself in an organization and silences any dissent.”

Gruber is right that Apple has a very specific culture set by executives. But he misses (or simply doesn’t give a shit) that there’s also a second culture: the one set by the rank-and-file employees and their lived experiences. Gruber seems to suggest the group dictating employee culture is coddled, entitled, and manipulative. He suggests that the “‘formal requests’ at the end [of the letter] about employees with disabilities and the “environmental impact of returning to onsite [sic] in-person work” are such transparent pandering.”

I find Gruber’s argument pretty dark, intensely cynical, and, ultimately, the wrong way to look at worker requests. As Forbes’ Steven Aquino, who writes frequently about accessibility and disability issues in tech, argued recently, the remote work debate, whether at Apple or across industries, is very much about accessibility and equality. Aquino cites the Daring Fireball post, noting that Gruber “was right when he said ‘companies are not democracies,’ but they’re not dictatorships either…the concerns raised in the letter are valid in many respects.”

Too many people, many of them in positions of leadership and power in the business world, do see companies as dictatorships. Benevolent ones. Gruber hints at as much in his post. “I have never once heard of Apple not doing whatever it takes not only to accommodate employees with any disability, but to make them feel welcome,” he writes. Apple executives, in other words, can be trusted to look after their employees’ best interests. Employees, however, cannot be trusted. Remember, according to Gruber, if Apple were a democracy, it “would sink in a snap.”

There’s a semantic element of truth to this — if a company with hundreds of thousands of employees never made a decision without a full worker vote, very little would get done. But the semantic argument obscures the truth. Apple’s employees aren’t asking for voting control of the board of directors. They’re asking for some flexibility. In truth, they’re asking for management to listen to their concerns.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record in these posts, but every manager/executive we interviewed for our book who is good at their job and works at a company with employees who aren’t broadly miserable employs a similar strategy: they listen to their employees. They listen and they do it regularly. I don’t mean sending out end of year feedback forms and having HR compile long reports nobody reads — I mean they actively seek their employees out and, humbly, listen. They listen not to confirm their priors, but to gain some new understanding. They do this, in part, because they give a shit about their employees, but also because it’s good business. It turns out that your employees — the ones doing the day to day labor of making the business run — are quite good at sending signals about the real status of the company’s culture. You just have to be willing to listen.

With that in mind, read a few of the passages from the Apple employee letter:

“Many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”

“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored.”

“It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

“The pandemic forcing us to work from home has given us a unique opportunity.”

“At Apple, our most important resource, our soul, is our people, and we believe that ensuring we are all heard, represented, and validated is how we continue to defend and protect that precious sentiment.”

“This is a plea: let’s work together to truly welcome everyone forward.”

These employees are, in some sense, doing their managers’ jobs for them. They’re not waiting for somebody to come over and listen. They’re being proactive and raising the issues now — while there is time to fix them. Gruber has it exactly wrong. The letter isn’t an example of a work force that’s gotten so big that its culture has grown toxic; it’s a manifestation of a work culture that cares about its direction and its fellow workers and feels empowered, even responsible, to speak up. It is a testament to the culture its employees have built, not a mark against it.

But companies still have to listen. Listening doesn’t mean blindly complying with every request. It means actually engaging with worker requests and being vigilant to the notion that management’s lived experience might differ greatly from workers’. Apple might very well be listening and learning. I hope they do.

But I care less about one company than I do about this larger moment of opportunity for knowledge workers. I hope that the voice from Gruber’s blog post — the one that’s been rattling in my head and the head of so many workers for years — doesn’t win out. Because that voice represents everything that’s wrong and backwards in workplace relationships across the country. The voice is a threat to creativity and innovation and healthy companies. If it wins out, it won’t just be workers who lose.

More from me…

I wrote a column for the Washington Post today on the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and the specter of climate dread/anxiety. I spoke to Britt Wray, who has an an excellent Substack on climate anxiety called Gen Dread. You should subscribe!

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