Since June, the news media has been focused on two very different approaches to hybrid work. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s views on flexible work might best be summarized as “come back to the office at least 40 hours per week or GTFO” (I won’t spell out this internet acronym, but a polite translation might be, “we’d prefer that you take yourself elsewhere”). That’s not flexible.
Instead of focusing on Musk, who seems to get enough attention anyway, I’d like to focus this FoWW on Apple CEO Tim Cook, who’s unassuming and quiet leadership style is in stark contrast to Musk’s bombasticism. Cook is a business leader who actively seeks out dissenting views within his leadership team, prioritizes listening, admits when he gets things wrong, and makes adjustments to make things better.
In other words, Cook is someone who believes he can be wrong and is willing to take corrective action based on incoming data. “We at Apple need to have the honesty to admit when we make mistakes,” Cook said in an interview, “and the courage to make changes when we do.”
That’s what flexibility looks like. Maybe Musk is a genius, maybe he gets every decision right, but every decision is based on assumptions about the future that can and will change – meaning what you decide today needs to be revisited next month or next year.
Two Contrasting Approaches to Hybrid: Mandating vs. Experimenting
Musk has staked out a radical position on hybrid work and isn’t likely to back down because his world-historic ego is attached to the decision. Musk followed his “no hybrid work” announcement with another bombshell, laying off 10% of a Tesla workforce that earned him record-high profits in 2021.
Cook and Apple, for their part, have already gone through multiple hybrid work “iterations.”
The Apple culture is built on data and feedback from people working in multiple areas of expertise. “We collaborate horizontally and cross-pollinate our groups,” Cook said in an interview, “because it takes hardware, software, and services all working together to create a great Apple product.”
Cook’s early-June description of hybrid work as “the Mother of all experiments” didn’t get the widespread attention that Musk’s “RTO or GTFO” pronouncement did. But I firmly believe that Cook’s stated approach to hybrid work, and his track record of adjusting as he goes based on employee feedback, is the only “workable” way forward.
Change Doesn’t Mean You Were Wrong
Cook and Apple have gone from telling employees to “work from home whenever you want” to “we’re mandating that you return to the office at least three days per week” to its present iteration of “we’d like you to come in two days per week, but it’s not mandatory.”
Each time Cook has changed a policy, he has paid close attention to employee sentiment and other relevant data. Part of the reason Cook softened Apple’s “3X per week in-office” mandate was due to key defections of top talent and an open “pushback letter” signed by over 3000 Apple employees (discussed at length in a prior FoWW).
"We're doing the mother of all experiments” with hybrid work, Cook said in early June, “because we don't know" what the right answer might be. "We're running a pilot and striving to establish a balance that makes the best of both of these worlds."
Cook views himself as a lab scientist paying attention to the data/KPIs, which are employee retention, productivity, and employee experience. The Apple CEO doesn’t need to be right, and he knows he’s far from perfect – he just needs to follow the data where it leads.
“My Way or the Highway” Won’t Work for Hybrid
So much has changed in the last two years and nobody has had all the answers. People, leaders, and organizations who have shown an ability to adjust when needed have done better in today’s climate of rapid change. The Great Resignation has resulted in tens of millions of people changing jobs, many of them in pursuit of more workplace flexibility.
Tesla’s rivals in the car industry, for example, don’t share Musk’s inflexible views on hybrid work models. As General Motors exec Tamberlin Golden said, “Ignoring, or worse, dismissing these preferences [for hybrid work] means becoming a less desirable employer for people who are prioritizing remote or hybrid jobs and it means losing out on talent with unique, rare, or complex skills when they currently have the upper hand in today’s job market.”
Forcing employees back to the office full time, without consultation or consideration, creates a negative employee experience and diminishes organizational trust.
Nobody Knows, Because We’re All Learning
The main takeaway here isn’t that Tim Cook is right about hybrid work and Elon Musk is wrong. Only time (and more data) can answer that.
Nobody (including me) knows what policy is right or wrong for any particular organization. The decision-making process matters – and Cook, in my view, has a better, more data-informed process, assuming he resists the “Muskian” temptation to mandate/control.
The takeaway here for hybrid work? If your organization wants to retain its talent and cares about employee experience, taking employee feedback into consideration and being willing to adjust based on incoming data is a far better way forward than “it’s my way or the highway.”
Build a working environment your team members will love, and start by taking a page from Cook's book of leadership. Listen, learn, and don't be afraid to make mistakes as you build a hybrid workplace.