5 Lessons Learned from Apple’s Campus in 1990

Sure, the new spaceship looks cool, but Apple has been leading the way in workplace thinking since the late 1980s, and the lessons learned still resonate. Robin Weckesser, a former senior project manager for Apple’s Infinite Loop Campus, reminisces.

Employees put their heads together in a small collaboration area in the first iteration of the Infinite Loop Campus. Image courtesy of the author.

In 1982, I was working in private architectural practice in what I thought was my dream job, until later that same year when I was offered a job at Apple. I jumped at the opportunity and I have never looked back. Apple was on a mission to change the world; to put an Apple in every classroom, office, and home. The momentum was palpable and the environment was energizing, challenging, and fun.

In the mid-1980s, Apple had a strong appetite for office space in Cupertino, Calif., and neighboring cities. Leases were negotiated quickly and interiors were built as fast as possible.

At the time, the workplace was a cubicle-dense environment with some private offices and conference rooms. Private offices were positioned in the corners of the buildings with conference rooms along perimeter walls. Workstation runs were long and paths of travel were linear. If we got creative and the end-user approved, workstations might be placed on the diagonal.

A project team meeting hub in the first iteration of the Infinite Loop Campus. Image courtesy of the author.

To meet the demand for space and provide flexibility, we standardized on 8×8 workstations with 8x10s for managers and administrators. The workstations were loaded with work surface, overhead storage, and filing. Paper was everywhere. Even though everyone had a computer on their desktop, email was still an idea. AppleLink would not roll out until 1985.

The workplace started to open up in the second half of the decade. By the late 1980s, we were installing as much glass as possible in private offices and conference rooms to increase visibility and foster interaction.

Before 1989, Apple was using architects for every project. A handful of firms from San Francisco brought more creative thought than in prior years. Throughout these changes in our workplace, the one department that had been neglected was engineering. The engineering workplace was treated the same way as any other group: standard 8x8s, 8x10s, a few private offices, the usual conference rooms, but minimal lab space.

A larger group meeting area to the left adjacent to break area to the right. Image courtesy of the author.
A larger group meeting area to the left adjacent to break area to the right in the first iteration of the Infinite Loop Campus. Image courtesy of the author.

The origin of the Infinite Loop Campus

In 1989, Apple concluded that since engineering was the life blood of the company, the people who worked to design the Apple products needed to be given in task-specific and contiguous space. The current standards in our office and the existing layout simply did not support the type of work that these people were doing. With that in mind, a real estate deal was negotiated with Sobrato Development Company to develop the 32 acre site at De Anza Blvd and Interstate 280 in Cupertino. The plan was to embark on ground-up development and build six buildings totaling 850,000 square feet, with the assumption that this space would be dedicated to Apple’s engineering team. This project would later be known as Apple’s Infinite Loop Campus.

I was assigned the leadership role for the development of the interior workplace for all six buildings. I was up for the challenge. However, I soon realized that while this was a career-changing assignment, the opportunity for success was as large as the risk of failure.

On a Friday afternoon in the late ‘80s, I made a recommendation to Apple’s VP of real estate and facilities that we approach the project differently than we had ever approached a project before. This was our one chance to directly impact the workforce, the company, and Apple’s success in the industry.

We embedded ourselves with engineering to learn first hand what they do, how they do it, and how they interact and communicate during the product development process.

My suggestion focused on the process. We needed to allocate time to collect data on the client prior to beginning the design and construction of the space. I proposed a process different from the traditional programming we had been implementing up to that point in time. My recommendation was to embed ourselves with engineering to learn first hand what they do, how they do it, and how they interact and communicate during the product development process. By aligning ourselves closely with the engineering organization we could interview staff from top to bottom and in turn be better prepared to develop a workplace solution that was appropriate for them: a workplace that supported their work process.

In addition, I suggested that we:

  • Look at our competition to understand their thinking on the workplace.
  • Collect data from the research arms of the prominent furniture manufacturers to better understand their vision of trends and apply those that make sense to our workplace.
  • Talk to individuals in academia who were studying and researching the workplace and organizational behavior. Several universities had facilities management programs – the most prominent at that time was the program at Cornell University, led by Frank Becker.
    A casual meeting area off of the secondary entry. Image courtesy of the author.
    A casual meeting area off of the secondary entry in the first iteration of the Infinite Loop Campus. Image courtesy of the author.

This was the pivotal moment for the workplace delivery process at Apple. The approval of new data gathering, discovery, and adjusted process paved the way for us to positively disrupt internal client involvement in the design process. It would elevate the role of the end-user from client to project partner and set the standard at Apple for a more detailed, complete approach to designing the workplace.

From all of that preparation and research, it became clear that the workplace played a much more critical role than simply the physical manifestation of people working in a common place toward a common goal. The workplace was a communication tool that facilitated the product development process. In addition, the workplace needed to reflect Apple’s corporate culture, the brand, and, if done thoughtfully, the workplace would impact the bottom line – playing a part in the success of the company in a very real, tangible way.

The workplace was a communication tool that facilitated the product development process.

In my mind this was true of any organization. If the workplace was developed with these core tenets in mind, the end product would be efficient, effective, appropriate for the task, and would deliver a positive impact to the bottom line through enhanced communication and organizational interaction.

And so we began. The engineering organization assigned two senior staff members to work with me every step of the way. With them serving as a sounding board and as true business partners, I developed a process map that focused on internal and external discovery, data collection, planning models, as well as marketing and implementation plans.

A project team meeting hub in the first iteration of the Infinite Loop Campus. Image courtesy of the author.

Lesson 1: Analyze and understand the client’s work and product development processes

The first step was to understand the workflow. This included the dependencies and communication patterns as well as the arrangement of project teams and their collaboration styles. These were all key components in learning the natural work flow of our client.

One of the key learning outcomes of this project was the realization that the more we learned about the client and the process used to develop products, the better equipped we would be to create an appropriate work environment. We worked to understand the product development process from start to finish. We got to know the product, what it is, how it works, how it was developed, the product market, and the competition.

Lesson 2: Understand the client’s organizational structure

We kicked off the process of understanding the client’s internal structure by interviewing key senior corporate staff along with the engineering organization senior leadership team. The interviews focused on identifying their workplace vision, current workplace design issues, previous workplace experience, and opinions on how the workplace can be improved to support their work.

Obtaining a clear picture of a group’s vision, challenges and functional components is critical. We worked to gain an understanding of what each department does, their role, with who and how they interact during the product development process. In addition we gained an understanding of departmental and cross-functional communication patterns.

Lesson 3: Look outward to complement what you learn by understanding the internal structure

Staying informed on what your competition is doing and how they are doing it is critical. As we progressed further in this project, it became apparent that we needed to broaden our perspective. We had to gain a deeper understanding of our competition and how they were situated in the competitive landscape. How were they designing their workplaces? We needed to look to academia for input on organizational theory, human behaviors, and learning styles. We also needed to understand what the research arms of the prominent furniture companies were developing. We had to reach out to these groups (resources?) and get their thoughts on the office of the future.

Looking internally to learn about the organization was a key step in our process; but looking externally was just as critical to complete the discovery phase. We believed that if we looked at the current workplace and space trends permeating the market and we challenged the current thinking, we would be in a better position to offer more effective solutions. Our internal and external “research” would serve as a foundation for making informed decisions that were aligned to support our work.

Lesson 4: Make sure there’s alignment throughout the organization

An important part of our approach was developing a feedback loop within the organization to keep key leaders involved as well as communicate our process and our findings. We felt that the more voices the better, which broadened our perspective, kept us connected, and in turn gave us greater opportunity for success.

All projects require participation of several disciplines across the organization, such as leadership, human resources, administrative, and project staff. It was critical that we involve all stakeholders along the way. We had to solicit input, build consensus and achieve approval in order to move forward with confidence.

Lesson 5: Market the process internally to get everyone on board

Organizational change is hard, no matter how small the change may be. We acknowledged that some of the changes we were considering would be new concepts to the engineering workforce so we had to champion the project internally. We needed to create a buzz within the engineering organization about the new campus, the amenities, and be strong advocates for the workplace solutions we were developing. We implemented a marketing plan designed to communicate formally and informally within the engineering organization as well as the company at large.

The marketing plan was constructed around informal and formal communication pathways designed to touch all levels of the Apple workforce. We scheduled informal lunches. We held open-house events at the site to talk about the project. We had formal review meetings with internal departments to update them on the project status. We held regular briefings with key leadership and c-suite.. We created a newsletter that was circulated throughout the company. We built mock-ups to provide emplyees with visual samples of workplace concepts. We continually solicited feedback and input. We held weekly project meetings with the end user representatives and the design and construction teams.

We used every opportunity to talk about the project and the process while communicating the tangible value of the workplace changes we were implementing.

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A casual meeting area off of the primary circulation spine in the first iteration of the Infinite Loop Campus. Image courtesy of the author.

The outcome

This project was a tremendous success on all levels. After occupancy of the first building, the head of engineering formally thanked my team at an all-hands meeting. His words about the new workplace and its specific design confirmed that we had accomplished our original goal of developing a process that would yield a successful outcome. The internal and external research we conducted paid off and resulted in an activity-based design that supported the work modes of the product engineers. Our assumptions about the workplace were accurate and proved to be functionally correct.

This process is as valid today as it was in 1990. The five core lessons we learned from the Apple Infinity Campus are as adaptable and scalable, no matter the size of your organization. With this project, we created an environment which would go on to have a positive impact on current and future product development cycle times, profitability, communication, interaction, brand support, attraction, retention, and the bottom line.

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