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How Slack changed Apple’s employee culture, with Zoë Schiffer

Apple has had a lot going on lately: we did a whole episode about the controversial child protection photo-scanning features, which have now been delayed. A law in South Korea might force the company to change how App Store payments work; the company settled a Japanese case about the App Store recently, as well as a class-action lawsuit in this country. The verdict in the Epic trial will arrive and there are renewed questions about Apple’s relationship with the Chinese government. And, of course, it is September — the month when new iPhones usually come out.

But in the background, Verge senior reporter Zoë Schiffer has spent the past few months publishing story after story about unhappy Apple employees, who are starting to talk to the press more and more about what working at Apple is like, and how they’d like it to change.

Apple employees are demanding more transparency and input than ever, and they’re doing it in public, in a way that challenges Apple’s secretive, top-down corporate culture. The pushback is real, and it starts with the introduction of one software tool to Apple’s workplace: Slack. So I wanted to talk to Zoë about everything she’s covered, and what she’s expecting to happen in the future.

Now, we’re obviously going to talk about Slack a lot, and I just want to offer one note: we use Slack at The Verge and Vox Media, and we spend a lot of time thinking about it. We’re a pretty small team and we still have to be thoughtful about how we use Slack to make sure it is a useful tool and not a distraction. To use any tool you have to be thoughtful about it. But don’t just take it from me — last year I interviewed Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, and I asked him how he manages Slack for his team. Here is what he said:

I think it’s a really interesting thought for everyone: how much does your company invest in internal communication, in training people to be more effective communicators? Probably zero. And then people spend 100 percent of their time doing it, which is totally nuts.

There is a lot to think about in this one. Keep that in mind.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Zoë Schiffer, you are a senior reporter here at The Verge. Welcome to Decoder.

Thank you so much for having me.

It’s weird because we work together and I talk to you just about every day, but welcome to the show. This is going to be fun. You have done a lot of reporting on Apple over the past month. Apple had a very complicated August — and I want to unpack all of the things that happened for Apple in August and what happens next — but the arc of the story starts well before that.

Apple employees are talking to each other more than ever and they are talking about their problems in the workplace more than ever. How did all that begin?

The story that we all have been focused on this summer really started in May when Apple’s ads team hired a man named Antonio Garcia Martinez, who had previously worked at Facebook as a product manager. He left Facebook and wrote a book called Chaos Monkeys. This book had some descriptions of women which people found pretty offensive. He said it was satire, but people read them and thought, regardless of the context, it is not a good way to talk about women. He also talked about former colleagues, etc.

Women at Apple started talking about his hiring, specifically in this Slack channel called Women in Software Engineering. They decided to write a letter asking Apple to investigate the hire, basically saying, “Did you read the book and decide it doesn’t matter? Or did you just not read the book? We want an answer.”

The letter wasn’t supposed to become public and this is a key difference between Apple and Google. Apple really organizes internally, as they always have, but a few people started talking about it on Twitter. They’re saying they’re “disappointed that Apple made this hire. And if people want to sign the letter we wrote, you can DM me and I’ll send you the Slack link.”

Antonio is a character. He is a known character with a high profile. We know him, our colleagues know him. He wrote a book and went on a press tour, so it’s not as if this book was a secret at any point.

That’s why we started paying attention to it, because one key thing, at this point, is that none of the Apple employees who are talking about it have very large followings. It’s random people who are like, “I’m disappointed that my office hired this man. We’re going to write a little letter about it. If you want to sign it, DM me.” And so reporters, like me, start looking for the letter. We recognize his name and we’re curious what it said, but it’s also significant that Apple employees are writing a letter at all. We get the letter, we publish it, and within a few hours, he’s fired.

To be clear, this is unlike anything we’ve seen from Apple in the past — Apple usually is very secretive, very slow. And they very quickly arrived at this decision. Antonio then did a lot of press about being fired from Apple.

How much of that whole sequence of events was focused on the fact that Apple was hiring a Facebook ads guy to come run ads at Apple? Because there is a big culture clash between those two companies, specifically around advertising. And I could never really unpack whether it was, “Why are you hiring this person who wrote this book we didn’t like, with these very problematic descriptions of women. Also, you’re hiring a Facebook executive to come do Facebook ad stuff at Apple.” That always seemed a little tied up to me.

I think the first layer was indisputably about the book. It really was, “These descriptions of women are super offensive, why did you hire this guy?” Importantly, they weren’t asking for him to be fired. They just wanted to know, “How did the hiring process work? We just want an answer. Because if you read the book and you decided it doesn’t matter, we might be upset about that. If you didn’t, we’re just curious why that gap was there in the first place.”

A second layer, though, was that a bunch of people voiced, “Why is he the person? Why is this the hill you want to die on?” There are allegations, and I won’t say whether I think this is true, but there are allegations that “He doesn’t care about privacy in the same way that we, at Apple, do. He doesn’t run ads in the same way that we do.” Why is this person so important that you’re willing to upset a ton of women at the company in order to have him come to Apple?

So that’s the first thing that happens. And I will say, the role wasn’t very high up in the org chart. I think at some point somebody asked Antonio, it was either Kara Swisher or Casey Newton on a Twitter space, “Did Eddy Cue, the guy who runs services, fire you?” And he replied, “I didn’t even know if my hire got up to him.” So he wasn’t at the top of the list.

It seems obvious that Apple thought, “This is bad press. Who cares? Find someone new.” And that part of it seemed very Apple. But then other things kept happening. So what was the next thing that happened?

So one thing that happens in the interim that hasn’t been made public yet is that Apple announces internally that they have had these Slack rules that they’ve been working on, and they’re going to start enforcing them at some point soon. And basically, the rules say, you can’t create channels for things that aren’t related to Apple’s business or that aren’t specifically about clubs or diversity groups at the company. It’s going to become important later. I’m just going to put a pin in that for now.

The next thing that happened is that in early June, Tim Cook makes a big announcement internally that they’re going to require employees to return to the office three days a week. So he rolls this out as a hybrid work model, and they’re going to test it out. It’s a pilot program. They’re going to ask people to come in Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I believe. And they can work from home twice a week, which is a huge change for Apple, as you know. Previously, working from home was okay in one-off instances, but largely people were required to come in all the time.

A Slack group starts about this too. It’s a channel that’s called Remote Work Advocacy. And people immediately start pushing back against the return to office. They say, “The world has changed. We’ve moved on. A lot of tech companies are pushing models where anyone who wants to work from home can all the time. We’ve had a really successful year working from home. We don’t want to be forced to come back.”

It’s September now, so I just want to put this in context. In early June, a lot of people thought the pandemic was over. It’s hard to put your mind back in that head space. But in early June, the vaccines are rolling out, we aren’t quite in the drama of vaccine denial and all that stuff. But every company had to ask, “Okay, what’s the future like now that we are done with this crap?”

And so Apple decided, “We value the office. We built this spaceship. We want people in it.” But the employees are like, “Whoa. No, the world actually changed. Look at all of our competitors, Netflix, Google, whoever, they’re not going to require this. We want it to be different.” The moment for Apple, just contextually, was people thought the pandemic was over and that there would be a new normal, and this was Apple’s version of the new normal.

Exactly. It’s a little cute to look back on how naive we all were. There was this big deadline at the time. Because we really did think, “Oh, September, there’s going to be a hard rule you’re going to have to be back in the office,” so all of the organizing that was going on around remote work had a lot of urgency to it. A ton of people had moved out of state. They were like, “I don’t want to move back to, either California, or specifically not Cupertino. I now live in a cheaper place.” “I don’t want to disrupt my family again.” Whatever the reasons are. And so all of this stuff became a real sticking point for employees who were feeling like they either had to choose to leave Apple completely or return to the office in just a few months.

And to be clear, Apple has delayed its return to work. As has virtually every other company, ours included, because of the Delta variant and rising cases of COVID everywhere. I just want to call it out, that urgency was very real. And it led to a lot of, I would say, heated rhetoric. But that hasn’t panned out into anything yet because nothing has changed.

No. I’m sure we’ll talk about this later. But once they said that the return to office wasn’t going to happen until January 2022, all of the advocacy around this basically went away. Apple employees are now focused on a whole bunch of other things that are not related to returning to work. So it’s not like this problem won’t exist in a few months, but Apple’s just essentially punted it down the road and been like, “We’re not even going to touch this because of Delta, so there’s no reason for us to fight about this right now.”

So you have these two moments where employees learned that they can organize and get results from Apple in a way that maybe wasn’t happening before, in a way that was maybe catalyzed by Slack. That brings us right to a whole bunch of stuff that happened in August. So let’s start at the start. What was the next big thing that happened?

So the next big thing is that in early August, Apple places Ashley Gjøvik, a senior engineering program manager, on administrative leave. Now, Ashley’s issues at Apple had started in March. She had been saying that the office was unsafe. She realized that her specific site was on a Superfund site, a geographic area that needs special oversight because of historical waste contamination, a whole other story that we don’t need to get into.

Ashley raising those contamination concerns brought up all of these other concerns that she had while working in the hardware organization, which was very male-dominant. She says she’d faced a lot of harassment and intimidation. And she starts airing all this stuff publicly. Apple investigates the harassment and they close the investigation and say they didn’t find anything wrong.

She starts tweeting about it more — she’s now extremely angry about it. So she goes to Apple. They tell her she can essentially take advantage of their EAP [Employee Assisted Program] therapy program. And she says, “That’s not enough. I really want you to fix the problems in this org. I don’t want to have to go work at a Superfund site. I want to make sure that the levels of toxicity in the office are low and safe for me to be there.”

Wait, which kind of toxicity?

Sorry. She’s talking about the hazardous waste at this point. She also wants them to fix all of the harassment stuff, but she’s just like, “I’m not going to be in that environment unless these two things are in a better place by the time I have to return.” As a last resort, she says, “You can place me on administrative leave.” And I think in her mind, this was not going to actually happen. Apple was going to say, “Okay, we’ll go fix the problems. We’ll investigate your claims. And we’ll really take time and see if there’s an issue here.” Instead, they were like, “Great. Your leave starts immediately. Goodbye.” We wrote an article about this and brought in her public tweeting about all of the issues, linking it to the administrative leave. And this ends up blowing up a little bit on Twitter.

So I just want to draw an important parallel here with the administrative leave. While this is all happening, in the background, Google is facing calamity over its ethical AI division. And importantly, there was a senior researcher there named Timnit Gebru, who also raised a bunch of concerns, said, “Well, if you can’t fix them, put me on leave,” and Google put her on leave. And she interpreted that as being kicked out and then she was let go.

Rightfully, Google has faced a firestorm of controversy over their decision. This is exactly parallel to that situation. The threat is, “Well, I’ll just stop working. Pay me to do nothing if you can’t fix this.” And Apple was like, “Cool.” There’s a misalignment between what you think the ultimatum will do and what actually happens. And it seems parallel to the Google case and what happened at Apple here.

Just to clarify, Timnit actually said that she was going to resign if Google didn’t fix the problems that she had raised. And they said, “Okay, we accept your resignation starting today.” So a similar thing played out here. I think Ashley raised concerns and then said, “Okay, if you can’t fix them, put me on leave.” Apple replied, “Great, your leave starts now.” And she says, they implied, “We don’t really want you on Slack. We don’t really want you talking about the investigation publicly.” So she really interpreted it as, “You’re not going to be in the office anymore, and we want you to essentially shut up.”

And this will come up over and over again, when you say “You’re not in the office anymore,” what you mean is Slack.

Yes.

Because it’s a fully remote company at this point. And that identity between Slack and the office, and Slack as a place where you mingle with your coworkers, and Slack where you suddenly have visibility to lots and lots of people that you would not see in a physical office, seems to be a huge undercurrent of the change here at Apple.

Yeah, no doubt. So Apple rolled out Slack in 2019, a decision, I have to imagine, executives truly regret at this point. But before Slack, essentially each team had its own way of communicating and a lot of teams had used iMessage to communicate. It was pretty clunky and pretty siloed. When they roll out Slack to the entire company, each org has its own Slack instance, but, crucially, employees can create channels for the entire company as well. So Slack becomes a really important way for employees to suddenly create channels to talk about things like, “I don’t want to go back to the office,” and find 7,000 other people who also don’t want to return to the office. That’s never happened before in Apple history.

That seems remarkable to me. We have a much smaller company, and we police Slack pretty intensely to make sure that it’s useful and constructive. I can’t even imagine doing it with 150,000 people that work for Apple. Does Apple change the rules around Slack? You mentioned the rules they had at the beginning. Have they changed them again, as all of this has gone on?

I’m curious what you think about this, because this seems very Apple-y to me, although I don’t know the entire historical context of how they roll out and enforce rules. But they say they started talking about the Slack rules starting in January or February. They announced them internally sometime in May, and they started enforcing them in June. So by June, when we have the hybrid work model rolling out, we have the Slack channel Remote Work Advocacy starting, and then there are a ton of channels that aren’t related to Apple’s business or specific employee clubs that have already been created. And when Apple says it’s going to start enforcing their rules, they’re not enforcing them for those existing channels. In fact, they don’t start enforcing them to our knowledge until very, very recently when employees try to create a cross-company channel to talk about pay equity, which is an issue we will get into later.

I think mostly when we talk about Apple, mostly when anyone talks about Apple, we talk about the products, we talk about how big the business is, we talk about their TV shows. We do not talk about the messy collision of HR and IT inside of Apple, and this is very much the messy collision of HR and IT inside of Apple.

One thing that employees talk about all the time when I’m chatting with them for stories is that Apple’s [customer-facing] processes and operations department are the envy of the entire world, but their internal processes are pretty broken. The company hasn’t invested a ton in internal tools to communicate or manage projects, so a lot of these things work because the company is so top-down hierarchical. But that, in and of itself, is becoming an issue for employees at this point.

Yeah. And if you’re curious, that internal group is called IS & T. People have been complaining about that group at Apple for 20 years. So that is the first thing that happens in August, and then Apple employees start asking questions about pay equity. And on August 9th, a bunch of things happen. What happens then?

So this really goes back to 2016. In 2016, Tim Cook told shareholders that women and underrepresented minorities made a little bit less than their white male counterparts. Six months later, Apple comes out and says, “We fixed the problem.” Not a lot of detail there, but they identified the problem and fixed it. Ever since then, they’ve been releasing statements about how they have pay equity in the United States.

In 2021 employees have started to become skeptical. They’re chatting amongst themselves, realizing that, “Hey, I, as a woman on this team, make a little bit less than the men I know around me.” But it’s all anecdotal, so a bunch of employees want to verify that the company actually has pay equity. They start putting out employee-run surveys asking how much people at the company make, how they identify in terms of race and gender, where they are located, etc. Apple shuts the first one down in the spring saying that the survey contains personal identifiable information (PII). Employees start another survey on the corporate Box account. Apple shuts it down, saying you can’t run it on the corporate Box account. They start another one and this time, it’s run completely externally. This engineer, Cher Scarlett, starts it and 2,000 people participate. That’s a really small number compared to the 147,000 employees that Apple has, but it’s significant internally because this is all circulating through Slack channels kind of ad hoc. What they find when they start analyzing the survey data is that there’s a 6 percent wage gap in the salaries of men and women who participated, which, to be clear, is not an enormous wage gap.

I think it’s about the wage gap in San Francisco generally, but it matters because Apple has been saying this entire time, “We have pay equity in the United States. This is not an issue for us.” But suddenly employees are saying, “Well, if it’s not an issue, why are you shutting down the surveys? And if it’s not an issue, why are we seeing that there might be an issue in the survey data?”

We are talking about the pay equity surveys, and the results found a 6 percent pay gap, but it is true that it’s a very small number of people and it was self-reported. I think what’s important to note is that Apple publishes transparency reports. You can go to the Apple website, you can look at the transparency report and you can see that they’ve given themselves an A for pay equity. If you click through there’s like a third-party consulting firm that has graded Apple, and grades a variety of different companies. But there is no data. You can just see a PDF that some consulting company has generated for Apple where it gets an A. You cannot verify it or validate it or see the data.

While there are a lot of problems with a 2,000-person, self-selected pay equity survey, I don’t think the employees are ignoring them. They are pretty upfront about the problems that they found and that their data might have. Instead they are saying, “Just show us the data that proves the problem isn’t here.” And as far as we know, there’s no response from Apple yet.

Deirdre O’Brien [senior vice president of retail and people at Apple] actually did release a response this morning. She released a video internally saying that she heard that “a few employees had raised concerns and if they wanted to speak one-on-one to their manager, their HR VP, they absolutely should. But she just wanted to reaffirm that Apple absolutely has pay equity and that they work with a third party.” Essentially, “Don’t worry about it. We have it handled.”

As you mentioned, this “data” is “public.” Apple releases a report and says that there is pay equity, but as you said, employees can’t see the data, and I think they’re becoming increasingly suspicious. Every time they try to verify that Apple actually has the pay equity that it claims, they get shut down.

Cher Scarlett presented the survey to senior leadership, right?

Yes. As you mentioned, they recognized the problems with the survey. Cher and a few members of the data science team came together and they said they wanted to present the data to Apple’s people team. Not to say, “Look, we caught you. You don’t have pay equity.” But instead to say, “Hey, this data is an indicator to us and we want you to run an external audit run by a third party. And we want to be able to actually see the data and have the data science team interpret it and let us know if there are any issues.”

The response this morning from Deirde O’Brien, I think, indicates that they do not plan to do this.

That’s just an ongoing layer of frustration in the background of a lot of things here. Is there any mechanism by which Apple employees can get the data — besides tweeting about it or running their own surveys? Is there a legal enforcement mechanism here at all?

We talked to several labor lawyers who said that employees obviously have the right to organize and ask each other about pay. I think that the implication is that Apple shutting down all these avenues for them to talk about pay might be something that could go to court at some point. Apple is walking a fine line because it’s saying, “We’re not taking down the survey because we don’t want you to talk about pay, we’re taking it down for these other reasons. And look, here, we have these rules about how you can run surveys and you didn’t follow the rules.”

Similarly, employees recently have tried to start a Slack channel across the company to talk about pay equity but Apple shut it down too. Their reasoning was that it doesn’t meet the Slack rules that they’ve recently started to enforce.

So whether or not they would win in court is unclear. I think the perspective from labor lawyers we’ve talked to is that they are getting increasingly close to stopping worker organizing in a way that could be problematic.

That was August 9th. On August 20th, Apple basically caves to both employee pressure and the Delta variant and says they’re not opening the office until January.

Yes. And, crucially for them, the discussion around remote work advocacy almost instantly dies down and employees start worrying about other issues. It will probably come back in January if they try and bring people back but for now, they’ve essentially thrown the problem down the road. People aren’t talking about it very much.

Then on August 23rd, you published two stories. One of which was about the pay equity survey results. We just talked about that. The other one seems like it could become a very big story, over time — the Apple Too movement.

This is an interesting one. Right now, it is small. Cher Scarlett and about 15 employees decided to put up a website that collects stories from their colleagues about people who faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace. All of us think this is an interesting first step towards real organizing within Apple. I saw several people wondering if this was Apple employees beginning to form a union — employees aren’t talking about that yet. They are organizing specifically outside the workplace, and retail and AppleCare employees are coming together with corporate employees to talk about the issues they’re having with discrimination, with harassment, with retaliation. These stories are beginning to be shared on a Medium account associated with Apple Too.

Has anything come of this yet or they just started it and launched it?

They’ve released a letter and they’ve started to release the stories. Has anything come of it? No. It’s not a formal movement yet. I think at this point, they really are just trying to start a conversation with each other and begin to publish some of it externally. They are really, really tired of the secrecy, but I don’t think they know, internally in the Apple Too movement, what they want to come of it yet.

They really want to just get more people together and say, “What should this movement be? What should our demands be?” And I think at some point they are going to have a list of demands for Apple corporate and they’re going to send it to executives.

Why do that in public?

I think they feel like Apple’s culture of secrecy has been very beneficial to Apple, but it hasn’t been very beneficial to Apple workers. We’re not seeing a massive increase in product leaks right now. There’s this understanding internally that the surprise element to Apple’s big reveals on products has benefits for the world. They like that element of the culture. What they don’t like is being told that they’re not allowed to speak internally about problems that they’re facing. If they have an issue, they should bring it to their manager. They’re like, “We’ve tried that for years, it hasn’t worked and now we want to air this out so that we can get support externally and make it so that Apple can’t just ignore this problem anymore.” Right now Apple is continuing to ignore this problem.

That’s not surprising. Put that in context of Google and other companies. And I say Google specifically because they do have the Alphabet Workers Union, which is a very different kind of union. It can’t fight for a contract, it’s just a collection of employees who’ve come together, but they’re very loud and they advocate for things.

Other tech companies handle things differently. At Facebook, employees are leaking left and right all the time to try to pressure the company to change. Apple doesn’t do this. So just on a scale of the other companies and how we normally cover them, where does all this stuff kind of rate?

It’s a good question. I would say that Apple’s still not at the level of Google. Google employees have extensive media contacts and they organize in public, as a general rule, which they found to be enormously successful. The 2018 walkouts are a great example of strength in numbers — 20,000 employees walked out, they made demands and they actually got some of their demands met. It was pretty effective and there’s a direct line from that walkout to the Alphabet Workers Union that we see today.

Apple employees, I would say, are not there yet. This is still a relatively small group of people who are either involved in the organizing activities or are leaking information. If I had to guess, the vast majority of Apple employees are pretty happy with the status quo. They do not like that this stuff is leaking and they want to keep things kind of the same.

I think we have to wait and see if this continues and the movement grows the way it did at Google around 2017 / 2018. Or if the employees who are organizing get so frustrated that they leave and things kind of go back to normal. We still have to see how this plays out. My guess is that this isn’t going to stop anytime soon, but it’s still a small enough group that we just don’t know where it’s going to lead.

Some of that small group talked to you for a piece you published on the 30th of August about the internal privacy of Apple employees. Some of what you reported in that story is very near and dear to my heart because it relates to the mechanics of how iOS devices work. But tell me about that story and why employees were so upset.

This is another example of Apple kind of setting itself up for criticism internally because they say that one of their core values is caring about privacy. What we’ve heard from employees is that their privacy doesn’t matter as much as consumer privacy. There are two core takeaways. Apple employees cannot use their work email addresses to sign up for a work iCloud account. That leads to many of them using their personal email addresses, or they just use their personal iCloud accounts. If they need to collaborate extensively with colleagues, they’re offered a 2-terabyte iCloud storage upgrade for free. And if they sign up for that upgrade, they’re asked specifically to use their personal Apple ID to do so.

So what happens is employees’ personal documents become intermingled with their work devices, obviously. And when they leave the company, they can sign out of iCloud, but what happens, because people stay at Apple for like six to 10 years, is that they don’t have the confidence that all of their personal files will be removed. They are also told specifically that they cannot wipe their computers when they leave. So essentially, they’re having to hand over this device — a phone, a computer — that they’re nervous might have personal documents on it.

Apple also has a pretty robust dogfooding program — they ask employees to test out new software, new products before they launch. On some teams, it’s pretty difficult to use a work phone and a personal phone because you’re asked to be filing bugs just absolutely constantly to improve the software before it becomes consumer-ready. So people just use a single device.

Again, obviously your personal messages are going to be on that device; oftentimes, your photos will be. And there are still teams that are communicating through iMessage. So there’s just this intense intermingling of personal and work data that makes some people uncomfortable.

I find one aspect of this story just hilarious. Dieter Bohn and I review Apple products like five times a year and every time we review an iPad, in particular, Dieter will write, “It is ridiculous that this device does not support multiple iCloud accounts.” And we say it because people want to share iPads.

And it’s so funny that Apple has this particular problem with its employees because of the way iOS works. That problem is so deeply connected to how we think it should work and they haven’t changed iOS because it would solve a problem for their employees.

The flip side of this problem to me is, Google, just to compare, supports all kinds of accounts but multiple account management with Google services is horrible. And every Google employee will tell you that they have this problem where they have a work Gmail account and a personal Gmail account and switching back and forth, it’s clunky. It doesn’t seem like there’s a great solution, but it does seem like Apple has picked the worst one.

I would say so. I would say that this makes employees pretty uncomfortable. At Google, I think it’s more of a convenience thing. It is annoying to be switching back and forth between all of these accounts. At Apple, it’s like, I am extremely nervous that my messages with my loved ones, my friends, are on a device that I also use to message my boss and I don’t really have a good way to separate those things.

And when I file a bug report, they can see everything.

Right. They ask employees to include these system diagnosis files when they report bugs. Some of those files can expose your personal messages if you’re filing a bug about iMessage.

I think that process is kind of a slap in the face to people, because employees who leave and go on to work for other companies are immediately offered a corporate-managed iCloud account. So this is kind of a lazy choice Apple has made to not make a better corporate iCloud product internally. Clearly other companies are doing it, even if their method isn’t perfect.

It’s only been a couple of days, but has anything come of the privacy story?

It upset a lot of people. I heard from many employees who did not agree with the privacy concerns. I think this was actually a really interesting take that I heard from a bunch of people internally — most of the things that employees are asked to do that erode their privacy are things they consent to. They sign the employment agreement, they sign a disclosure that says they’re going to be testing out new products. They ask to get the storage upgrade. So I think there are a fair amount of people who say, “Look, we knew what we were getting into. It’s not a huge deal.” But, crucially, there are also a ton of people who say, you don’t really have a choice when your boss is helping you set up your laptop and says, “Hey, just use your Apple ID,” and the way to work with that is written in the rules. You could say, “Okay, I’m going to go buy a new phone right now or create an entirely new Apple ID.” But most people don’t because it’s just not the norm there.

Something I think about all the time, especially in the work-from-home era, is that your work computer is not safe. It belongs to your employer and when everyone’s at home, you often forget that using that computer means you’re at work and your employer has a lot of access to you.

But when you work for a company like Apple and you’re asked to intermingle everything, the pressure to do that and not take stock of the fact that you’ve turned your personal device into a work device must seem very high.

Yeah. It’s high. It’s not to say no one does it, but people who do it say the technical hurdles are immense. They have to really work to keep everything separate. So the vast majority of people just say, “I don’t care, it’s fine, let everything intermingle.” And it’s not until they leave and they get this checklist from their manager that says “Return your laptop, DO NOT WIPE IT,” in all caps, that they’re like, “Oh, maybe this is an issue.”

So that’s August 30th. August 31st, you published a story that the pay equity Slack channel is getting shut down. What did Apple communicate about that? We discussed the Slack rules earlier, but there’s also this underlying concern that pay equity is not as equal as Apple has said that it is.

Now employees have the survey data and they’re still concerned. They had the meeting with the people team, but they didn’t feel like they were going to get what they wanted from that. So they try and start this cross-company Slack channel to discuss pay equity. Apple denies them. They say, “You can’t actually start this channel because it’s not related to Apple business, and it’s not related to an Apple employee club or diversity group.” They specifically said, “Slack channels are provided to conduct Apple business, and must advance the work deliverables or mission of Apple departments and teams.”

So employees are pretty upset about this, as you can imagine. They also feel like pay equity does advance the mission of their teams. That it is an important topic. Meanwhile they have all of these channels, Fun Cats, Fun Dogs, Remote Work Advocacy, Dad Jokes, that have been allowed to stay and thrive with literally thousands of employees in them, that are still up. Apple says those were already created and these rules only apply to channels that you’re creating as of now.” But I think to employees, this is pretty overt anti-organizing.

You said “Apple says.” They’re saying it to employees, they’re not commenting on any of this stuff publicly, right?

Yeah. They do not comment about these stories. Everything that we’re hearing, we’re hearing directly from employees. Apple is emailing employees, they’re sending out videos like the one that I mentioned earlier from Deirdre O’Brien, but there hasn’t been a public statement about any of this.

So that’s the timeline. It is a lot to happen in one month. And we’ve talked about why Slack is part of this recent run of stories. We talked about working from home, and why returning to the office has led to a lot of issues, but one thing that I haven’t really seen is the culture at Apple really changing and I haven’t seen people leaving.

You mentioned earlier that people could just quit. But they don’t seem interested in quitting, they seem interested in staying and having the company change. That’s very new. It’s very 2021, that you demand that your company change around you instead of just bailing out. What is the dynamic there?

So this, to me, is really related to a larger change we are seeing in the tech industry, that kind of seems to be like a change towards more worker power. I really date this back to June of 2020 when Ifeoma [Ozoma] and Aerica [Shimizu Banks], two prominent Black employees at Pinterest who had already left the company, started speaking out really publicly about racism. And they specifically said that the company’s statements about Black Lives Matter were hypocritical because they had been treated very, very poorly at the company. And this set off kind of a wave of employee organizing, where people were specifically calling out their tech companies for hypocrisy. They were saying, “The public statements you’re making in support of George Floyd are BS, because we were treated very poorly. We were underpaid.” And we’re seeing this take place at Apple too, where employees care enough about Apple that they want to stay and fight for the company.

I mean, it helps that Apple is kind of unique in the tech industry. If you care about hardware, if you care about design, it’s kind of the pinnacle. There aren’t that many other places these employees could go. But also, they feel like this might not be a big deal at Google or another company, but because Apple has talked about privacy, we really want you to make that true for us internally as well. Because Apple has talked about pay equity, we really want to make sure that we achieve pay equity. And we want to have more of a conversation with executives. We don’t want the company to be so top-down anymore. So I think employees are pretty invested in seeing the culture change, but they’re not sure if Apple can actually make that shift from the top-down hierarchical structure that it’s always had.

A lot of these employees are paid in stock. They all have RSUs, restricted stock units. Apple makes a lot of money every quarter. Apple’s business is the business it is because it has been top-down for so long. Is there a connection that people have between, “Hey, if we change the fundamental organizing principle of this company, we might be less effective at being a great business?”

The people that I’ve spoken to just aren’t worried about that. And luckily, they’ve got almost two years now of proving that that’s not the case. Apple still had record numbers in the years that it’s been remote because of the pandemic. And so I think employees are saying, “Look, we’ve been really successful. Let’s try it out for a little longer.” We don’t see the hardware orgs talking about this as much because they’ve already had to be back in the office. They’re not fighting for remote work. I think it’s the people who are software engineers who truly could work from anywhere who are like, “Why am I being asked to come in, when my peers at every other tech company are essentially going to be able to work remotely for the rest of their lives if they want to?”

But that’s remote work. I’m talking about the top-down decision-making, the secrecy. When you publish stories, a lot of what I hear is, “Don’t mess with Apple. It’s great. It makes great products, and it is the most valuable company in the world.” Is there a connection between the idea that if executives start listening to employees and this place gets a little flatter and a little more bottom-up, it might impact the products and the business success in that way?

I mean, you’re asking me, I’m a labor reporter. I’m talking to people who are making the product. So do the people I talk to think that? Absolutely not. Apple always says internally, “Our soul is our people. Our people are our soul,” and I think that’s what people believe: “We, the employees, are what make Apple great. And so we can continue doing that if we are more collaborative.” I think they feel like the internal structures have been a little broken for a long time, and Apple has succeeded despite those broken processes, not because of them. And what they want is more collaboration, more communication, more transparency.

You know what’s really interesting is, this is so deeply tied to work-from-home. And I think every company that went to work-from-home learned this in different ways — ours included — that when everyone is remote, you stress test your structure and your process and your communication in a way that an office does not require you to stress test that stuff. And it really feels like, “Oh, it was bad before, but we were all in the office. Now we’re all distributed, we want to stay distributed, and it’s not good enough to support that, and it’s all kind of happening at once.”

Yeah, absolutely. And people were very siloed before. If they had a problem, oftentimes they would think, “Oh, this is a problem that I need to resolve with my manager. This is a personal problem.” Now, they can talk to thousands of other people who’ve had similar problems, and all of a sudden they can all come together and write a letter and advocate for change. So we’ve seen an enormous shift just in the collaboration and organizing that can happen because everyone is remote, and because Slack now exists.

I’ve also heard a lot about how Apple has a younger workforce, and there’s a lot to unpack with cultural and generational attitudes towards a younger workforce. But one thing that’s true is that there are not a lot of young senior managers at Apple. This is a company that famously retains executives for years and years and years. You don’t have a lot of people who are, for lack of a better term, Slack-native management at Apple. Managers who’ve come up with it, who understand its dynamics.

Just for comparison, Samsung, which is a huge competitor to Apple, rotates their executives every couple of years. “You were running the processor division at Samsung. Your two years are up. You’re on to moving cameras.” They’re always trying to build the executives up in their ranks in that way. Sony does the same thing. Other companies turn their CEOs over all the time. Car companies famously always seem to have new CEOs.

Apple has a pretty solid set of senior executives, and they have a pretty solid set of deputies for well over a decade. Does that come up? Do the employees recognize that they’re kind of fighting a generational tide that isn’t going to turn?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And this, I think, has been going on for years. This actually has product implications. In the gaming division, the thought is that “We’re a little old-school and things could be better, but the people running this division are not gamers themselves, and so we’re fighting kind of an uphill battle.”

Gamers rise up.

I think that this is a real thing. I think there’s this feeling internally now that the executives are a little out of touch. The executives are saying, “Oh, come back to the office,” and the lower-level employees are like, “Well yeah, because you live five minutes from the office in this absolute mansion, and you’ve had this commute for 20 years, and you love it. We’re not in the same boat. We live an hour and a half outside of Cupertino. We’re not trying to go back to that life.” They feel like executives want things to go back to the way things always were, but the world has changed, and Apple can’t get back.

You said Apple holds itself to a really high standard. We’ve seen some activism in other companies, but we haven’t seen stuff like this from Facebook or Amazon. Do you think it would be different if it was happening at those companies?

Yes, absolutely, and also different at Amazon versus Facebook. I think we’ve seen companies like Google who will fire some people and make concessions to others. We’ve seen companies like Amazon who will try and just stamp it out completely, in kind of ruthless ways. I think Apple is taking an Apple approach to this. They’re waiting to see if it dies down. They’re being very measured in their responses, and along the way, they’re trying to say, “We don’t really want you to start a Slack channel or start talking about this even more publicly. We don’t really want you shouting about this on Twitter.” So I think in minor ways, they’re trying to tamp it down, but they’re waiting to see how big of a deal this becomes.

Do you think they’ll just shut down Slack? I’ve heard a lot of people say that they should just shut down Slack.

I feel like they can’t now, but I’m not sure. I think at this point, employees would find another way to organize, so I don’t actually know if that would solve all of their problems. The Apple Too movement has already been organizing on a Discord channel that existed already, but now has added thousands more people. Yeah, it’s an interesting thought experiment. I think that it would be national news overnight, and employees would flip out. So would that solve Apple’s problems? I’m not sure.

Well, the interesting dynamic here is you start the company Slack, and you say it’s only for work, but people find each other, and then they can just go somewhere else. And you could shut down Slack, but you can’t shut down some employee’s Discord server, so the damage is already done. Shutting down Slack doesn’t accomplish anything at this point.

Exactly. The issue is that they can’t go back. Previously, people were siloed, and so they didn’t know who else was having similar problems to them or who else had similar things they wanted to advocate for. Now, those employees have largely met each other. At least they’ve identified kind of the loud, outspoken people who know a ton of people, and are the key organizers at the company. They’re in a world now where employees know who to talk to if they have a problem and want to find out if anyone else has the same issue.

I heard a funny anecdote recently about when Slack was rolled out. Someone created a bot to try and randomly pair employees up to do in-person or virtual lunch, and executives kind of started making jokes like, “Oh, we really don’t want that. It would not be great if you just started talking about work stuff with one another. As long as we keep Slack really work-related, that’s fine.” But it really shows Apple’s deep discomfort with the idea that random employees are just going to meet and start talking about who knows what.

It’s so funny, because their architecture is theoretically designed to make you do that. That’s why it’s a circle. The spaceship is the last great Steve Jobs building, he also designed the Pixar building, and he had talked endlessly about how all those buildings were designed to make people mingle and talk to each other and collaborate. And then as soon as it becomes digital, Apple’s like, “Wait, actually, too much.”

Yeah. I mean, they just had more control over the collaboration and conversation that was happening in the office. I think the big fear now is that they don’t know what those conversations are going to look like, or what they’re going to collaborate on. Collaborating on the next iPhone, love it, fantastic. Collaborating on the next employee advocacy letter, deeply uncomfortable. Executives do not want that.

Is there an element where they just let it go? Just let them have the pay equity room.

I have to imagine that some executives are like, “Why are we making this a bigger and bigger issue by trying to stop it?” Because if you let employees do a couple of surveys and they find that, as Apple claims, that there’s pay equity, I don’t think this would be an enormous issue. But Apple’s always operated in this top-down way, and there is this tendency to say, “No, we make the rules, and you as an employee have to listen to them.”

Is this the kind of problem that time fixes? Looking ahead, Apple has to keep hiring people with different experiences. They have to keep hiring engineers. They have to expand into new businesses. To do that they have to hire people from other companies. Other companies are getting there a lot faster than Apple.

At some point, you’re just going to have hired a huge set of people who have lots of experience working in Slack, who have lots of experience with digital collaboration, who do not have a lot of experience in these very top-down companies, because most new companies are not nearly as top-down as Apple. Does that just come to a head? Do you get a sense that people who’ve been at Apple for a long time feel differently than people who are new?

I think previously when people would come into Apple, they would know they were signing on to the Apple way of doing things. What we’ve seen now is the possibility of an alternate path, that people could change the way that things have always been done and it could actually make things better for employees. Previously, I don’t think everyone who worked at Apple wanted to go into the office every single day and work extremely long hours and get paid a little bit less than their peers at Facebook. I think they did those things because it was what you had to do to work there.

And now there’s this possibility that you could both work at Apple and have the working conditions be a little bit better. And I don’t think it’s going to go away even if they get a bunch of new executives who are a little bit friendlier in terms of worker organizing, or who know how to handle Slack a little better. I think that we’re at a point now where people feel like they could maybe have the best of both worlds and they want to at least try and make that happen.

You said “paid a little bit less” than Facebook. Does Apple pay less than its peers?

There is a feeling internally that Apple doesn’t have to pay as well in terms of base or stock as some of its peers, because it’s Apple. People work there because they want to work at Apple, not because it’s going to be the highest salary in Silicon Valley. We’re talking about pretty high salaries here, so it’s not to say that we need to feel deeply sorry for a corporate Apple employee, but I don’t think people work there for the pay, typically.

And that line on the resume’s golden when you leave, right?

Yeah. When you leave after 15 years. Yes.

Fair enough. Actually, you mentioned corporate employees. That’s the other thing I just wanted to poke at a little bit. Most of the stories you’ve done have been in the engineering group. They’ve been with Apple’s corporate employees. Apple is somewhat unique among the big tech companies, Amazon excluded, in that they have a gigantic number of retail employees — everyday people in their stores.

Are they feeling it too? I mean, retail employees are never happy, just generally in our culture, retail employees often have the toughest jobs. Are they beginning to organize and talk as well?

So interestingly, the organizing that we had seen prior to the past few months had almost all taken place in retail. Employees had already tried to unionize. There had already been a big lawsuit about bag searches that Apple was conducting with retail employees. They have had more acute issues that they’ve been organizing around for years. Has any of it resulted in big changes? No. But I think retail employees have been doing this for a lot longer.

Interestingly, they were on the corporate Slack in spring. And then for reasons that we’re not totally clear on, that kind of was rolled back in certain ways. So retail employees only had access to Slack when they were on the Apple VPN, when they’re on an Apple computer in the retail stores. So it’s not like they had access in the sense that corporate employees do, but they did have a little insight into the corporate organizing that was happening. But they no longer do at this point — at least on Apple corporate tools.

So before, when you were an Apple retail employee, you could get on Slack and be like, “I’m going to send a message to Tim Cook.” And that was a thing you could do?

I don’t actually know. This is a great question. Is Tim Cook in Slack? I’m not sure, but I would love to know.

Zoë’s email is [email protected] if you have this answer.

That flattening of an org chart is like a big piece of the Slack puzzle here. And it seems like that split between the three groups — corporate employees, the AppleCare employees and the retail employees — if the organization gets flatter, the discrepancies in how they are treated and compensated will be highlighted. And in some cases exacerbated because I doubt the corporate employees are like, “We’ll take less stock in our annual compensation to make sure the retail employees are compensated.” Those are very difficult conversations that happen as an organization gets more transparent and flatter, but it doesn’t seem to be happening yet.

Not yet, but I don’t think we can say it won’t happen. One thing that we’ve noticed with Apple Too, is that the vast majority of the stories that have come out of that movement have been from Apple retail employees and AppleCare employees. So we’re seeing corporate employees create a group, ask for stories, and then share the stories of the hourly workers. I think that Google is a really interesting model to look at here. The solidarity union that they created specifically was not going to be a union that went before the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] and tried to get a vote and vie for a contract because they wanted contractors to be part of the same union as full-time corporate staff.

You have to explain what a solidarity union is and what the NLRB is.

A solidarity union is what we think of when we think of workers coming together to advocate for change. So pre-National Labor Relations Act, this is how all the unions looked. It was just a few people coming together, asking for change, maybe a few more joined them. And that is, by definition, a union. What we’ve seen since the NLRA is that unions could go before the National Labor Relations Board and hold an election. And if they want, if the majority of employees wanted to unionize, they could then force the corporate company to come to the table and negotiate a contract for employees. This negotiation process could take years. It wasn’t always seamless, but it was a way to essentially force the company to engage with the union.

A solidarity union doesn’t have that same mechanism. They’re essentially just a union in name and employees have come together, there’s worker power there, but the company can essentially ignore them. And at Google we’ve seen mixed results. They’ve made concessions; a contractor was put on leave for a while. And the union advocated for this contractor and they were reinstated, but they haven’t advocated for large-scale policy change in the same way an NLRB-certified union could.

I feel like I over-disclose everything on this show. So I feel like I have to disclose this, Vox Media is a unionized company. There are three unions at our company. Zoë is in the union that represents Verge reporters and I’m management. I feel like we have to fight now. Just saying that out loud means we’re in conflict.

So we have some familiarity with it because we work at a unionized company. That said, our union looks nothing like the Alphabet Workers Union or a union that would start at a tech company. But the Alphabet Workers Union, in terms of the big tech companies, is kind of the first one to exist. It had to take this other form. And the other thing that we’ve seen at the big tech companies is what is happening in the Amazon warehouses. But there hasn’t been an overall NLRB formal union structure at any of the big tech companies. There are at some smaller ones, right?

Yeah. There are smaller tech companies with unions. I believe Google workers in Pittsburgh tried to, they’ve been trying to unionize for years before that Alphabet Workers Union. But the Alphabet Workers Union is the first time corporate employees have tried to unionize and definitely the first time that corporate employees along with contractors have tried to unionize. So it’s pretty unprecedented among the big tech companies.

Do you think there’s any sense that people at Apple want either the Alphabet-style solidarity union, or even the more formal union?

We’ve seen very, very, very early discussions in this area. And they definitely are not at the point where they’re discussing what type of union they would want. We’ve seen internally — although I hope to wait to write about this in case it coalesces into anything — that people have been discussing “What would it look like to unionize?” “Should we reach out to one of the big national unions?” but these talks are so early stage that I think it’s really difficult to say whether they’ll go anywhere.

It’s September now, which is the start of event season for Apple. This is when we expect an iPhone and other hardware — we do Apple rumors on The Vergecast so I won’t get into it here — but we expect a lot of consumer-facing, hardware and software announcements in September. Do you think all this stuff is going to come to a halt as Apple’s busy season begins? You’re shaking your head.

I don’t. Sorry. No. I think that employees are going to use some of the attention Apple gets around the events to be a little bit louder about the problems that they’re seeing, actually. I think that people are really committed to the events, it’s not like they’re going to stop working, but I think they’re also extremely committed to the organizing that they’ve been doing for months. And they’re pretty annoyed that Apple hasn’t made the changes that they’ve been requesting. So, no, I don’t think this is going to go away.

I don’t want you to give too much away, but what’s the next turn? What’s the next thing you’re working on?

A lot of the reporting that I’ve been doing has focused on the hardware group, software engineering, and there are entire departments at Apple that we haven’t really heard from yet. And I guess the little sneak preview I can give you is that I think that we’re going to start hearing from some of those other departments soon.

All right, Zoë, you’ve been doing amazing work the whole time you’ve been at The Verge, but in particular with Apple. It’s great to have you on. We’re looking forward to the next story.

Thank you so much for having me.



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