Future Work

Apple Mandates a "Return to Office."​ Why, Why Now, and Is it Right?

This newsletter, I want to dive into the big news regarding Apple implementing its hybrid work model starting in September 2022.

In previous articles, I talked about the need for changes in what modern offices should look like and what companies should do to attract people to those reimagined workplaces.

This week, I want to dive into the big news regarding Apple implementing its hybrid work policy starting next month.

What is happening at Apple?

Apple has set a September 5 deadline for corporate employees to return to the Santa Clara office for at least three days a week: Tuesday, Thursday, and an extra day depending on individual teams.

Despite recent outbreaks of the Omicron variant in the United States, Apple's CEO Tim Cook shared in a company memo last week that there is a clear rationale behind the deadline. He shared that the return-to-office plans are to preserve "the in-person collaboration that is so essential to our culture," reiterating a point he made last year.

"The truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other. Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate."

The memo is the latest development in the company's hybrid work model, announced 14 months ago. It has since undergone various changes due to COVID-19 outbreaks and employees' backlash. In May, Ian Goodfellow, Apple's director of machine learning, departed the company after two years to rejoin Google, citing the main reason being the return-to-work policy.

Why now? The time has changed.

Apple's memo has prompted predictions of a further 5% attrition, according to Jason Calacanis in a recent episode of This week in Startups. Jason also offers some possible explanations for the timing of the announcement:

  • Leaving is less attractive. Compared to last year, when the economy was roaring, people had a choice of where they could work. Now, there's a hiring freeze at major tech companies and startups. Startups are also paying less.
  • Companies have also become more cost-conscious and want more out of their employees, expecting higher efficiency in the process to avoid further lay-offs.
  • Employees can no longer use the COVID excuse to not come into the office. Not because COVID is over, but because life has returned to normal for almost everyone. If people can go out, travel, and do other things they couldn't do during the height of the pandemic, they can't make a case for not coming into the office.

All of the above reasons make it compelling for Apple to execute its return-to-office plan now.

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Tesla and the 40-hour in-person work week.

Many consider Apple's stance hardline compared to other tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter, where employees can opt to work from anywhere permanently even after the pandemic. Others argue it is still lenient compared to Tesla and Elon Musk's "infamous" mandate.

In June, Elon Musk issued a mandate requiring Tesla employees to return to work at least 40 hours in the office or "pretend to work somewhere else." Besides the unnecessarily strong wording, the email stirred debates as most companies are moving toward hybrid, per McKinsey.  

I support Elon Musk's decision even as a staunch proponent of hybrid work. In this week's episode of "People People 2023", host Ruby Nguyen brought up the issue and asked if I would do the same if I were Musk. To her surprise, I answered yes.

I reason that every company is different, and the decision to go hybrid depends on the company's goals and hybrid culture. To me, company hybrid culture does not mean baristas in the office, game rooms, or napping zone, but rather what they stand for as a company.

Apple Return To the Office Elon Musk

For a PRODUCTION company like Tesla, it is an essential part of their culture to show up at the factories to design and assemble cars. Musk argues that being physically present at the factories can help the factory workers not to feel like they are 2nd class employees while the executives work at leisurely locations.

In comparison, for a KNOWLEDGE-based company like Airbnb, with a "belong anywhere" culture, they can happily adopt the "remote-first" work model. You can find more about this in an article I wrote back in June in response to Musk's email.

"At the end of the day, every company will have to reflect deeply on the work to be done, and the culture and community of employees that will make this happen."

Is Apple making a mistake with its return to office policy?

Apple employees have already launched a petition protesting the return to the office. The group, called "Apple Together", points out that Apple's valuation doubled during the pandemic when most corporate employees were working from home."

The new hybrid work policy with the demand for 3 days in the office is already a huge shift from previous full-time office policies. The company has found a great alternative to either working from anywhere policy or fully remote policy, and offers amazing facilities for those who come in. These facilities do come with long commutes and force people to live in expensive areas.

As I shared in "People People" last week, it will come down to a fundamentally simple question: are people lucky to work for me, or am I lucky to have these people?

With all the resistance within Apple, it seems Cook & co are thinking the former. And if alongside Goodfellow, many others choose to leave Apple, the company may need to revisit its stance and policy.

As Tim Cook wrote in the same memo:

"We also know that we still have a lot to learn. And we are committed to listening, adapting, and growing together in the weeks and months ahead."

Let's hope they do.

Have a great and employee-centric week,

Daan

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