aerial view of Apple Park, Apple's headquarters, in California

Apple Proves That Hybrid Work Doesn’t Come Easy

August 13, 2021 Digital Workplace
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

Apple Park, the eponymously named headquarters for Apple, is a marvel. Its futuristic design, known as the spaceship, sits on a park-like space near Cupertino, Calif. Opened in 2017, the $5 billion campus sprawls across 175 acres and offers a 100,000 square-foot wellness center and seven cafés. 

Why bring this up? In short, there are very few workplaces like Apple Park in the world. Not only that, it was built specifically for Apple’s culture where being in-person at an office was paramount. And even with all of this, Apple is adjusting on the fly and dealing with hybrid work challenges.

In June, Apple’s executives and employee groups clashed over returning to work. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a company-wide email: 

"For all that we've been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, 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 ask was simple: Most teams would be asked to be in the office Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Teams that needed to work in person more could be there four to five days a week. It wasn’t what Facebook is doing with their workforce, allowing most employees to work remotely, but it also wasn’t the most restrictive policy. 

First September, Now October at the Earliest

So, is Apple plowing ahead with their push toward getting everyone back on campus, at least part of the week? Not quite.

As part of Cook’s initial email, he announced the plan was for everyone to be back at the office starting in early September. In late July, Bloomberg reported that the plan had been delayed by at least a month. They also announced internally that at least a month’s notice would be given to employees before they are asked to return. 

The stated reason for this change? A surge in highly transmissible COVID variants. While it’s fair to be safe, the Bay Area’s vaccination rates outpace both the country and the state. Santa Clara County, where Apple Park is located, had an 85% vaccination rate for instance. Surrounding counties are all better than 80% vaccinated as well.

In a country where some states are struggling to get even half their population vaccinated, it certainly seems like less of an issue for Apple and surrounding employers who want to gather employees. With both government and companies marching toward vaccine mandates, simply blaming hesitance to return on COVID becomes a thinner and thinner excuse.

Related Article: Is Your Company Ready for Hybrid Work?

Apple’s Struggles Are Familiar

It’s clear workers want more flexibility and that Pandora’s Box has opened even the most notorious office-only cultures up to at least a hybrid model. Whether you believe that nearly 40% of employees are willing to quit over it or not doesn’t really matter. 

Even a beautiful campus, with amenities that only one of the richest companies to ever exist could create, can’t get people in to the office for five days a week without a fight. A fridge full of snacks and drinks at a business park outside of Chicago or a ping pong table in a cramped office in Manhattan doesn’t stand a chance. Hard-charging Amazon was even forced to adjust.

Employees' feelings about returning to the office are nuanced. One of the key challenges seems to be with top-down mandates about the schedule. That was one of the sticking points in the letter from Apple's employees. Workers may be willing to come in for two or three days a week, but they want the flexibility to choose the days that are best for them. 

In talking with a few former colleagues who are arranging work-from-home schedules, the reasoning for these requests is varied. Some parents are trying to match their partner’s schedule so someone is home everyday to avoid paying for after-school care. Others are trying to reduce commute times, wanting to not only choose what days but also what times they are at the office to avoid lengthy commutes. 

For organizations, the logistics of operating this way are simply dizzying. How can you account for physical space requirements when everyone wants something a little different? Unlike Apple, most companies don’t want to spend resources to house every employee at their headquarters when the likelihood of being full again seems doubtful. 

Apple and other tech giant’s struggles show there’s not a simple answer for hybrid work. Whether that brings some semblance of relief or heightened anxiety to HR and other leaders is anyone’s guess.

About the Author

Lance Haun lives life at the intersection of people, work and technology. He's currently a practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy and a contributor for Reworked and ERE.net.

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