As far as its customers are concerned, Apple is one of the great remote-working companies. It has mastered virtual events, which are slicker and quicker than the old tedious applause-fests, and its online launch briefings offer journalists more flexibility and less commuting than in-person meetings. The company can do tech support via phone, online chat, or mail-in repairs, and runs a user-friendly web store. It would be easy to buy and run an entire household of Apple products without ever setting foot in an Apple Store.
So why doesn’t Apple extend the same flexibility to its own employees? Over the past several years, the company has shown it can work effectively at distance, so why does it keep telling staff to come into the office?
Apple employees have been expressing unhappiness about being pushed back into the office for almost as long as the company has been pushing them. Last summer, Tim Cook announced that staff would have to show up to work in person three days a week–and a specific three days: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for everyone–by the fall, and they responded with an open letter demanding more flexibility and better communication.
“Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit,” the letter warned. “Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, 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.”
Those plans were delayed, but the general direction of travel didn’t change: the three-days-per-week policy is now expected to come into effect on May 23, according to Ars Technica, and staff concerns are stronger than ever. On May 7, it was reported that Apple’s director of machine learning had departed the company, citing its return-to-work policy and arguing that “more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.” And another open letter has claimed Apple’s hybrid work policy “does not recognize flexible work and is only driven by fear. Fear of the future of work, fear of worker autonomy, fear of losing control.”
It’s hard to hold on to talent at the best of times, even when you’re Apple; and these are not the best of times. Ignoring consistent employee complaints for this long is a surefire way of pushing away some of your best employees.
Why is Apple’s management so obsessed with in-person working practices? It could be a question of trust: can we trust you to work properly when a supervisor isn’t peering over your shoulder? Can we trust that you won’t take a prototype home and then leak it to social media? But let’s charitably move past that and focus on “serendipity.” This is, roughly speaking, the idea that people from different departments will bump into each other in the canteen, get chatting, and invent something like the iPod.
As the more recent open letter points out, this is a romantic and old-fashioned way of looking at work with little relevance to a large modern workplace like Apple Park. “It doesn’t take luck to overcome the communication silos and make cross-functional connections that are vital for Apple to function, it takes intentionality,” the letter explains. Members of different departments will discuss their projects with each other if you ask them to do so and create a Slack channel for that purpose. It’s certainly a better bet than hoping they’ll use the same elevator, and best of all it can happen remotely.
I will concede that a virtual meeting still isn’t the same as an in-person one. There are social cues you don’t pick up on in text or even video chat, and some people–myself included–feel more relaxed and willing to contribute when speaking to someone in the same room. But this is only going to lessen in importance as employees grow more accustomed to virtual chat. As the technology continues to improve, the imposition of inflexible, compulsory company-wide office attendance three days a week is only going to be more burdensome.
Necessity has forced hundreds of businesses to learn how to operate remotely, and none of them are better equipped than Apple to make the system work. From the MacBook Pro to the iPad Pro, AirPods and Studio Display, Apple has the perfect range of hardware to suit employees’ needs depending on the portability and power they need; indeed its own marketing positions these as ideal tools for remote work. It has its own messaging and video chat apps, and the in-house security and software expertise to keep everyone working together. If Apple can put me and six other journalists in a video chat with a product demo team, get us to sign NDAs remotely and send out the review samples a day later, it should be able to handle a few internal meetings.
Apple might think it’s special for having a culture that thrives on serendipitous, in-person discussion, but as the company’s own employees point out, that wasn’t even true before the pandemic, and certainly doesn’t need to continue in the future. In fact, Apple is special for having an almost uniquely gifted and committed workforce and the technology resources for them to work effectively from anywhere. But if it doesn’t listen to their complaints, that workforce is going to take its talent elsewhere.