Apple's Executive-Employee Clash Over Hybrid Work: What's the Lesson?

Apple wants employees back into the office three days a week starting in September, according to an email from CEO Tim Cook sent earlier this month.

Some of those employees don’t want to come back, though. They feel “not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” according to a letter that started in an Apple Slack channel for “remote work advocates” and was signed by 80 employees, according to a report in The Verge.

The developments out of Cupertino — or Remote Apple Work Land, to be precise — come as companies grapple with return-to-the-office plans and roll out intentions for hybrid work strategies. It also comes at a time when U.S. employees are leaving jobs at the highest levels since 2000. In April, the share of US workers leaving jobs was 2.7%, according to the Labor Department. The Wall Street Journal cited a jump up from 1.6% a year earlier to the highest level since at least 2000.

Sending employees home last year may turn out to be a cakewalk compared to hybrid-work programs as COVID-19 restrictions ease and the global vaccination program rolls out. “Apple did not take into consideration the new degree of freedom that people now expect from their jobs,” said Tony Jamous, CEO and founder of Oyster an HR platform. “The pandemic has proved to people that they can live anywhere and be productive. This is especially true for top talent who know now that they can find a good job and be located anywhere. People want to stay in their communities, near their friends and where they choose to live, be it in a highly expensive and busy city or in the countryside. It is up to them to decide. In 2021, employers can no longer ignore people’s desire to work remotely, and this includes Apple.”

Not Quite a Widespread Employee Revolt

First, a little context about the employees’ letter: about only 80 employees were behind it, not exactly a great sample size for a company that as of September 2020 reported 147,000 full-time employees.

This isn’t a companywide revolt, for sure. “This is still a very small population to say that all employees of Apple want remote working,” said Debashis Sarkar, founder and managing partner for Proliferator Advisory & Consulting. “There are jobs which can be done remotely and there are jobs which need collaboration. A broad brush conclusion that all jobs can be successfully done remotely is not correct. Clearly, we cannot overlook the power of serendipitous collaboration that an office atmosphere provides.”

Still, no matter the sample size, the Apple-employee objections speak to a reality executives face when deciding how to operate work life post-pandemic. That reality? Employee feedback is paramount.

Related Article: Did Google Get Its Hybrid Work Plan Right?

How Apple Employees Feel

What’s on the mind of the Apple 80, as we'll call them?

The Apple employees seem most frustrated with communication from executives who built the hybrid work program and how they shared statements that misrepresent employees. The employee letter did not address reasons why coming into a physical location three days a week will hurt productivity, nor did they share data why fully remote is absolutely better than hybrid. There will likely not be an agreed-upon global best way of working supported by data any time soon, either.

However, there was the experience that was 2020, and Apple employees note they feel more connected than ever with colleagues and don’t feel the need to return to the office at all. “The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time, unconstrained by the challenges that daily commutes to offices and in-person co-located offices themselves inevitably impose; all while still being able to take better care of ourselves and the people around us,” Apple employees wrote.

Here’s the gist of how employees feel in the letter:

  • Forced into tough life decisions: They feel the policy forces them to choose between either a combination of families, well-being and being empowered to do their best work, or being a part of Apple.
  • You don't listen: They feel “not just unheard, but at times actively ignored.” Employees cited messages like, ‘We know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,” because it fails to acknowledge that there are directly contradictory feelings out there. It feels “dismissive and invalidating,” employees wrote.
  • You don't empathize with us: They feel “there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

What Apple Employees Want

So what actions of executives do the Apple 80 want?

According to the letter, employees are formally requesting:

  • Team empowerment: That Apple considers remote and location-flexible work decisions to be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions.
  • Employee surveys: A company-wide recurring short survey with a clearly structured and transparent communication/feedback process at the company-wide level, organization-wide level, and team-wide level (related to hybrid work).
  • Transparency in exit interviews: A question about employee churn due to remote work be added to exit interviews.
  • More attention to disabilities: A transparent, clear plan of action to accommodate disabilities via onsite, offsite, remote, hybrid, or otherwise location-flexible work.
  • Environmental data: Insight into the environmental impact of returning to onsite in-person work, and how permanent remote-and-location-flexibility could offset that impact.

Related Article: Why Employee Listening Matters So Much Right Now

Feels Like a Mandate

Apple’s still convinced face-to-face time will benefit the company. Cook in his email to employees said, “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.”

However, no employee, no matter the topic, likes a mandate, according to Stephanie H. Nelson, MBA, CHHR, CMC, managing consultant that oversees the BlueFire HR by FutureSense practice, a human capital consulting firm. Most likely at the executive level, she added, they have less handcuffs and can work how they like. Employees always see this.

“The key to all of this is to listen to employees and be open to alternative work schedules,” Nelson said. “With manufacturing and healthcare, it is easy because the work is operational and needs to be onsite. Knowing that most tech companies can be offsite and have been over the last 15 months is not easy to swallow for most employees (when asked to come back to the office). By Apple forcing the employees’ hands in coming back to the office doesn’t feel good and feels like a mandate.”

Company Mandate or Team-Level Decision?

The Apple 80 wants its company to consider remote and location-flexible work decisions to be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions. That means leaving remote work vs. hybrid options up to a team vs. a companywide mandate. So, what's the right move?

Teams Should Make the Call

Nelson agrees with the employees here, adding this is all about being open to employees and their approach to work. “If there is an issue, for example, and an employee is not getting work done,” Nelson added, “then repercussions of a flexible work arrangement will less likely work. It all comes down to trusting the employees.”

Companies Should Make the Call

Jamous, however, sees an issue with leaving these hybrid vs. remote plans up to teams: it may backfire when there needs to be collaboration across departments. “It should be a company-wide policy,” Jamou said. “Or else, you would not be able to foster intra-teams transfers, and you would endanger cross-functional collaboration.”

Jon Kramer, managing director at JMK Solutions, said employees should not “run the insane asylum.” Decisions on work environment should not be made at the team level.

Rhys Black, head of remote at Oyster, said hybrid vs fully remote is already a compromise that can prove problematic. “To further muddy the water with team-specific policies around hybrid work will definitely complicate this further,” he added, “and create barriers to collaboration across teams with different policies.”

What's on Employees' Minds?

Who makes decisions is a daily question for most businesses. What doesn’t seem negotiable is clear communication.

Judging by the letter, Apple failed to sense the mood of the employees over the last year, according to Sarkar. The company, he said, should have administered regular surveys to get a sense of employee emotions. “The letter (from the Apple 80) is an expression of pent-up emotions,” he added.

If in fact a lack of transparency was the case inside of Apple, as the employees claim throughout their letter, Apple’s executives should have realized that the pandemic has changed employee expectations and the definition of what composes well-being, Sarkar said.

“Before the CEO sent out an email, the senior leaders at Apple should have spent a few weeks talking to employees,” he added. “It would have provided a forum to hear out the employees and what are their concerns. Hearing out employees would have been a great disarming exercise. They should have communicated and clearly explained employees why coming back to office is important and what are the benefits. Getting employees back to office is asking them to change their behavior. Any change is hard. Apple leadership should have anticipated it and taken employees on board.”

Hybrid Rollouts Need More Work

According to Kramer, a good process here in terms of hybrid work rollouts should include from a development standpoint:

  • A cross-functional group to study the results of remote work over the past 18 months
  • Quantitative analysis, proactive internal communication
  • Reporting the results of the study internally and broadly
  • Sharing a perspective on how management is grappling with alternatives around a new work environment moving forward

Employees are not robots, Sarkar said, and when it comes to changing how people will work in a post-pandemic world, a plug-and-play approach will lead us nowhere. Going to the office three days a week after zero the last 15 months does seem like a jarring change, no?

“We can't just tell employees to move into a new work environment tomorrow. You have to prepare them for it,” Sarkar said. “Companies need to objectively evaluate what can be done remotely and what can't be. A broad brush approach may not work. Line managers should become human resource managers to constantly sense what’s going on in the minds of a remote worker.”

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