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Future of Work Wednesday: Apple’s Long and Winding Road to Hybrid Work

Future of Work Wednesday
Britta Schellenberg
Published on

Apple has moved from a hybrid work policy of “come in when you want” to a plan of “3 days per week required in the office” to its most recent iteration of asking people to come in twice a week, but it’s optional. Just as FoWW highlighted Google as an RTO case study back in April, we’ll focus now on Apple’s approach to hybrid work, which might best be described as “a long and winding road” (apologies to Paul McCartney).

Apple is a dream destination for top global talent. It’s also the most valuable (by market cap) company in the world and also one renowned for a culture of innovation, much of it driven by co-founder Steve Jobs. 

Jobs actually helped design the company’s Cupertino (CA) global HQ with innovation in mind, viewing it as a spatial facilitator of innovation through a circular shape that enables cross-functional collaboration, serendipitous meetings, and a strong connection to the outdoors.

Leadership Pronouncements and Employee Pushback

Apple has faced an ongoing RTO struggle that’s similar to many other companies: its leadership has been pushing to get people back into the office as much as possible, while their people have been pushing for flexibility and choice.

Apple’s leadership has gotten blowback from Apple employees who believe the C-suite has not been listening enough to their wishes. When Apple announced its plans to require people to return to the office 3 days a week, Apple employees wrote an open letter to CEO Tim Cook and the Apple leadership team (signed by over 3,000 people) denouncing the plan as “driven by fear of losing control” and “fear of worker autonomy.” 

As Apple employees say in the open letter: “We are asking to decide for ourselves, together with our teams and direct manager, what kind of [workplace] arrangement works best for each one of us, be that in an office, work from home, or a hybrid approach. Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”

The employee letter actually ends by quoting Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: 

As Steve said: “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Here we are, the smart people that you hired, and we are telling you [leadership] what to do: Please get out of our way, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives. 

The Real Drivers of Apple’s Hybrid Work Plan

Leadership in every company gets uncomfortable when they can’t see people working in the office. As several surveys have shown, leaders want the flexibility to work from home, but giving it to their people makes them nervous about losing control. They also worry about maintaining a corporate culture when teams are widely distributed. While those concerns were the “stated” reasons for Apple’s “3 days per week in the office” hybrid work plan, the real reason became apparent only after the plan was announced.

Apple only changed its hybrid plan after a spate of high-level resignations and a lot of employee pushback, evidenced by the open letter quoted above. What drove Apple to change its plans and move to an “optional 2 days per week in the office plan” was fear of people leaving. No matter what Apple leadership might say in press releases or elsewhere, Apple employees and their desire for flexibility are what’s driving hybrid work plans at Apple (and elsewhere).

The pandemic has proven that people can remain productive working from anywhere, as record profits at companies like Apple and Google have shown. People are demanding flexibility and choice around hybrid work, while pushing back against inflexible formulas and mandates. Many people have resigned in the face of RTO mandates and moved to more flexible firms that offer choice. Apple is well aware of “the Great Resignation,” as is every organization.

The Simple Answer to Solve the Complexities of Hybrid Work

The office is no longer the default workplace. People can be productive at home, if given the enabling technologies and tools. A one-size-only approach to hybrid work will never suit everyone. Leaders, managers, and every single employee already know this. 

If your organization starts mandating or “strongly recommending” that people return to the office “because we as leadership say so,” you’re going to have people pushing back and leaving. Apple experienced exactly that scenario and even felt compelled to offer bonuses to retain top talent.

What matters most here is not leadership control or leadership comfort, but employee experience. Give your people great options for working at home as well as great options for coming into the office: that’s real hybrid work. 

Build an office that has purpose and intention, and better serves your teams.. Then empower people to decide for themselves how they work best on any given day. The answer here is trust.

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