Apple fails to innovate the new future workplace

Insisting on an in-office presence for employees means Apple is not working hard enough to reinvent the future of work.

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Apple has put forward its latest attempt to get employees back to the office, though there’s little that’s new and less that’s innovative in its approach.

Return to the office

This isn’t the first time Apple has pushed a return-to-the-office plan. A previous attempt was delayed and altered earlier in the year, and the company has tried to make it happen in previous years during the pandemic. (Apple had demanded staff be in the office on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at that time.

The latest work order begins Sept. 5 in the US and will be replicated globally, depending on local circumstances.

Apple says this is to foster the in-person collaboration management seems to think is essential to company culture. Who knows, perhaps it is? Perhaps all those surveys that show insistence on presenteeism eats into the work life balance, actually makes for less productivity and upsets staff are wrong.

How it will work

  • Under the company’s new scheme, employees will be required to return to in-person, office-based work for at least three days a week.
  • They will be expected to come in on Tuesday, Thursday and, in a small nod to team autonomy, one more day as agreed with managers.
  • Depending on role, staff will also have the option to work remotely for up to four weeks a year.

Apple, which has enjoyed a series of record-breaking quarters throughout the pandemic and whose teams have been tasked with managing an ongoing series of major supply chain, economic and personal challenges, clearly seems to think it can generate even more productivity from among its staff by forcing them to return to the office.

Who knows, perhaps it can?

The company still insists the back to work plan is some form of “pilot."

Will the pilot project fly?

It will be interesting to see how successful that pilot turns out to be once breakout infections take place across its teams; the last thing the company likely needs is the loss (temporary, or otherwise) of key personnel in the run up to critical product launches, for example. What adjustments will be put in place, or is the plan to engage in the collective fantasy that everything has returned to normal?

The two most significant changes in Apple’s approach this time are that the company is placing a little more trust in employees not to simply take long weekend breaks when they should be working by introducing a little more autonomy into the work week.

Some employers (including Apple, at first) have shown their faith in workers by insisting they show up on Mondays, Fridays and Wednesdays, putting a brake on employees who have been exploiting remote work to base themselves globally.

Apple has also listened a little to its teams, who had complained at the lack of flexibility in the previous arrangement, which insisted on mandatory attendance days. The decision to give project leaders control of that third day may help teams organize schedules to suit them and/or the work that they do.

But it doesn't feel like enough

Those two changes, slight as they are, may not be enough in the face of global pressure from knowledge workers for more choice, control, and autonomy in how they balance their working lives. Even so, Cook wrote in a memo, "We believe this revised framework will enhance our flexibility while preserving the in-person collaboration that is so essential to our culture." 

In truth, few seem particularly confident in their return-to-the-office plans. Those invested in real estate seem more reluctant than those leasing property space and there's a disparity in the approaches coming out of tech, which reflects the lack of any consensus approach.

Airbnb tells staff they can work from anywhere in the US and lets them work anywhere in the world for 90 days a year; Amazon has no mandatory requirements, but says employees must be able to get to the office on one day’s notice. Meta encourages remote working while Google is getting people back.

Which model works? Only time, disease outbreaks and employee retention will tell.

After all, staff such as Apple’s director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, who quit over Apple’s remote work plans, are not productive at all if they resign. Meanwhile, 65% of workers now have, and expect, more flexibility to decide when they work.

This is a lost opportunity 

I continue to believe there’s a lost opportunity here. Given Apple’s international presence, it surely has an opportunity to design a return-to-work environment that delights its internal customers just as much as its products please its external ones.

Speaking during his Stanford University commencement speech, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs advised people to keep searching until they find what they love to do. (He also loved to walk, which is why Apple has its own park.)

It’s arguable that his approach should logically extend also to loving how you do the work that you do. In that context, it seems Apple’s blind spot around reinventing the world of work remains highly visible.

In truth, there are colossal prizes to be won by the firm that successfully figures out how to digitize collaboration and personal connection. That company will become an integral part of every modern business.

It’s less clear what prize will exist for companies that celebrate workplace anachronism, particularly if those companies also create the tech that drives the future era. There’s something disconnected in Apple’s strategy, I fear. It's as if the first iPhone shipped with a physical keyboard and a stylus.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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