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Company Culture Leadership

Lessons From Apple’s 3 Day A Week Return To The Office Situation

Apple recently wrote to their employees and suggested they were going to be rolling out a three day work from the office rule to start in September.

With the ever-evolving Covid landscape, Apple is now moving September to October’s plan to hybrid work, something to keep in mind Apple is certain locations have seen staff come to work 3:2.

Tim Cook (the Apple CEO) suggested in an internal memo that most employees will be asked to come into the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.

Many tech firms have landed at three days per week back in the office. This shows how important to the business is that internal collaboration, proximity and secrecy plays vital roles to the business.

Apple’s Past Leading The Future?

Apple is a product company and is notorious for secrecy, keeping their tech projects top secret and reducing any leaks is their primary objective.

Apple is known for enforcing a strict work-from-the-office policy and has been known to limit working from home pre-pandemic to preserve secrecy and fears of any security.

Apple is also well known for its top down (command and control) leadership approach.
In the past companies such as Apple have relied upon the power of their brand and their brand standing to attract the best talent, often retaining talent based on very high salaries and lucrative packages.

Apple Is A Career-Defining Brand

Something that many have not covered but is important to call out, Apple defines many careers, the high wages and lucrative packages will encourage many to go back to the office with a fear of potentially losing their career or denting their potential promotion track.

It is important to note that many people move to Apple to work (and become “lifers”) to invest in their careers. Those who decide that a lifestyle career is more suited for them, Apple will likely not struggle to replace talent and this will be likely understood from middle to most senior management teams.

This is not to say Apple is right in being strict with return to the office days, however, comparing Apple vs other brands is an unfair comparison.

Like every firm, there will be exceptions made for the top performers and stand out leaders.

The Role Of Slack & Internal Comms

Over 2800 Apple employees joined and communicated via a dedicated slack channel (“remote work advocates”) to create a letter (80 members were said to have helped create the letter) to be sent to the exec team at Apple offering Apple employees respond to be asking to return 3 days per week.
The full letter is at the bottom of the post, to read click here.

Read about how slack’s digital first identity-first approach varies from so many other tech giants.

The Key Learnings

To help businesses understand the broader context, here a number of key learnings and how to win moving forward.

Two Ears One Mouth

Excerpt: “Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,”

The Apple employees have felt unheard and not listened to, many are experiencing this from small businesses to tech giants like Apple.


How To Win?

  • As a business leader or management team consider how you actively ask for feedback, take on board the feedback and show staff they have been listened to.
  • Create open documents and show how decisions are made, like a decision document to ensure you can discuss and communicate the teams have been heard however these are the steps we will be following.

Negative Consequences

Excerpt: “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.”

There will be growing concerns about how returning to the office will have negative impacts on teams and their family. Remote and hybrid work improves and offers more inclusivity for neurodivergent and disabled staff. As a business leadership team, you should understand the different requirements and offer the best work environment for all of your team members.

Many have been wrestling with having to work from an office or have had to commute for years and it has impacted many relationships, work-life balance and in some cases placed a strain on disabilities.

How To Win:

  • Offer flexible work especially to those who have dependencies. Set days does not encourage collaboration, it can actively create fear and dread a return to the office.
  • Be mindful of how you can offer flexible work conditions and consider investment into better software and set better more deliberate operational excellence.

Lack Of Flexibility Losses Talent

Excerpt: “That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”

Facebook, Google & Twitter have already shown more flexibility. Although as already mentioned Apple will know they are a pull, for many other businesses not in the same brand tier as Apple your opportunity is to help build a flexible remote workforce that embraces flexibility and hybrid work environments.
Important Read: The Hybrid Office Guide

How To Win:

  • The key for many smaller firms will be to trust their teams and allow the hybrid workforce, following the same suit as larger firms will not enable you to have any competitive advantage.
  • For larger firms, the opportunity to win is to enable better remote location work and be more flexible with set three days per week.
  • Spare a thought for line managers and HR execs at Apple as until the close of 2021 it will be a challenge to follow the company guidance and not offer leeway to team members.

Language And Sentiment Matters

Excerpt: “Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating…It feels like 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.”

Broader statements will be analysed and highlighted by individuals, teams and departments.

Over the last five years, it is important to note that committees form, open communication is much easier on internal forums (such as slack (in this example with Apple), internal message boards (example with Basecamp) and open documents (many examples with Google docs & at Microsoft) challenge leadership decisions that are unclear or dismiss flagged concerns.


How To Win:

  • Be deliberate with the mediums you deliver your messages across, it is essential in the age of too many channels to deliver a message that translates to everyone and explains the decisions.
  • Reduce the fear with regular updates and show you have listened and heard the fears and concerns
  • Offer open communication channels – you will not stop the internal conversation and you should not limit this however it is important to offer methods to communicate directly with Human Resources and leadership teams. If the leadership feels out of touch or uncontactable this is when the disconnect happens.

The Apple Employee Requests:

We are formally requesting 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, covering topics listed below.

Learning for others: Offer this within your business, you can offer this for free with many Microsoft Office (MS forms link) or Google suite (Google Forms link) tools.

Important FYI: There has always been a distrust of surveying tools and being truly anonymous so ensure you are prepared for questions.

We are formally requesting a question about employee churn due to remote work be added to exit interviews.

Learning for others: If this can be shared internally and reported on this is a good option to follow and include in your business. It is important to share the findings and act accordingly.

We are formally requesting a transparent, clear plan of action to accommodate disabilities via onsite, offsite, remote, hybrid, or otherwise location-flexible work. 

Learning for others: This is going to be a must for all businesses, especially with the move to hybrid, ensure you work with your teams to get the best facilities possible and help those working from home to have a safe and secure set up.

We are formally requesting insight into the environmental impact of returning to onsite in-person work, and how permanent remote-and-location-flexibility could offset that impact.

Learning for others: This is an important step, especially with purpose-driven firms and those who are actively looking to improve their footprint and environmental impact. For this, you are likely going to have to bring in external consultants to support you.

There are many lessons you could take from this situation, this is likely to change but not be as public. Other brands have been in regular contact and have had to publically adapt due to continuing Covid changes.

Google has had numerous changes to their policy and not without similar concerns and public first comms with the HR and leadership team at Google (here is a link to Google’s hybrid approach) and recently Facebook have suggested hybrid is their future but there will be more office time.

With any of these situations, the bigger you are the harder it can seem and the more top down you have to be with communications especially with hiring thousands of staff.

Smaller businesses have more opportunity to offer flexible work, however, trust becomes a huge factor alongside great managers and feedback loops. A hybrid company culture wins by better asynchronous conversations and more open feedback.

If you are a business that has struggled with managing employees remotely, there are many training courses and companies that have managed this for years including gitlab, WordPress.

Read about how Dropbox studios have rethought work, from their office space, to new work schedules and how they think about deepwork.

This podcast will help you understand the challenge but also the benefits of getting remote work right.

Episode 29: Dylan Field, Figma Co-founder, Talks Design, Digital Economy, and Remote Culture with Host Connie Yang Distributed, with Matt Mullenweg

The latest episode of the Distributed podcast pairs Dylan Field, Figma’s CEO and Co-founder, and guest host Connie Yang, Head of Payments Design at Stripe. Join a discussion on design, instilling remote culture, and the digital economy, including Field's perspective on the role of design in technology. “We’ve gone from a physical economy to a digital economy. I don’t think these are new trends or new things that happen but now, all of a sudden it happened all at once, and accelerated massively,” he says.More Subscribe to Distributed at Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen.

The Full Apple Letter To Apple Exec Team


(via TheVerge):

Dear Tim and Executive Leadership,

Thank you for your thoughtful considerations on a hybrid approach to returning to office work, and for sharing it with all of us early this week. We appreciate your efforts in navigating what has been undeniably an incredibly difficult time for everyone around the world, and doing so for over one hundred thousand people. We are certain you have more plans than were shared on Wednesday, but are following Apple’s time-honored tradition of only announcing things when they are ready. However, we feel like the current policy is not sufficient in addressing many of our needs, so we want to take some time to explain ourselves.

This past year has been an unprecedented challenge for our company; we had to learn how to deliver the same quality of products and services that Apple is known for, all while working almost completely remotely. We did so, achieving another record-setting year. We found a way for everyone to support each other and succeed in a completely new way of working together — from locations we were able to choose at our own discretion (often at home).

However, we would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues. That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple. This is a decision none of us take lightly, and a decision many would prefer not to have to make. These concerns are largely what prompted us to advocate for changes to these policies, and data collected will reflect those concerns.

Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored. Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating. Not only do many of us already feel well-connected with our colleagues worldwide, but better-connected now than ever. We’ve come to look forward to working as we are now, without the daily need to return to the office. It feels like 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.

For many of us at Apple, we have succeeded not despite working from home, but in large part because of being able to work outside the office. 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.

Looking around the corner, we believe the future of work will be significantly more location and timezone flexible. In fact, we are already a distributed company with offices all over the world and across many different timezones. Apple’s organizational hierarchy lends itself towards offices that often follow the same structure, wherein people in the same organization are more likely to be co-located in an office. At the same time, we strongly encourage cross-functional, cross-organization collaboration, and our organization’s many horizontal teams reflect this. Such collaboration is widely celebrated across our organization, and arguably leads us to our best results — it’s one of the things that makes Apple, Apple. However, orgs are rarely co-located within walking distance, let alone in the same building, meaning our best collaboration has always required remote communication with teams in other offices and across timezones, since long before the pandemic. We encourage distributed work from our business partners, and we’ve been a remote-communication necessary company for some time, a vision of the future that Steve Jobs himself predicated in an interview from 1990. This may explain how mandatory out-of-office work enabled tearing down cross-functional communication barriers to deliver even better results.

Almost all of us have worked fully remote for over a year now, though the experience arguably would have been better less one pandemic. We have developed two major versions of all our operating systems, organized two full WWDCs, introduced numerous new products, transitioned to our own chipsets, and supported our customers with the same level of care as before. We have already piloted location-flexible work the last 15 months under much more extreme conditions and we were very successful in doing so, finding the following benefits of remote and location-flexible work for a large number of our colleagues:

  • Diversity and Inclusion in Retention and Hiring
  • Tearing Down Previously Existing Communication Barriers
  • Better Work Life Balance
  • Better Integration of Existing Remote / Location-Flexible Workers
  • Reduced Spread of Pathogens

We ask for your support in enabling those who want to work remotely / in location-flexible ways to continue to do so, letting everyone figure out which work setup works best for them, their team, and their role — be it in one of our offices, from home, or a hybrid solution. We are living proof that there is no one-size-fits-all policy for people. For Inclusion and Diversity to work, we have to recognize how different we all are, and with those differences, come different needs and different ways to thrive. We feel that Apple has both the responsibility to recognize these differences, as well as the capability to fully embrace them. Officially enabling individual management chains and individual teams to make decisions that work best for their teams roles, individuals, and needs — and having that be the official stated policy rather than the rare individual exceptions — would alleviate the concerns and reservations many of us currently have.

We understand that inertia is real and that change is difficult to achieve. The pandemic forcing us to work from home has given us a unique opportunity. Most of the change has already happened, remote/location-flexible work is currently the “new normal,” we just need to make sure we make the best of it now. We believe that Apple has the ability to be a leader in this realm, not by declaring ‘everyone just work from home for forever,’ as some other companies have done, but by declaring an official broad paradigm policy, that allows individual leaders to make decisions that will enable their teams to do the best work of their lives. We strongly believe this is the ideal moment to “burn the boats” — to boldly declare ‘yes this can be done, and done successfully, because there is no other choice for the future.’

We have gathered some of our requests and action items to help continue the conversation and make sure everyone is heard.

  • We are formally requesting that Apple considers remote and location-flexible work decisions to be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions.
  • We are formally requesting 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, covering topics listed below.
  • We are formally requesting a question about employee churn due to remote work be added to exit interviews.
  • We are formally requesting a transparent, clear plan of action to accommodate disabilities via onsite, offsite, remote, hybrid, or otherwise location-flexible work.
  • We are formally requesting insight into the environmental impact of returning to onsite in-person work, and how permanent remote-and-location-flexibility could offset that impact.

We have great respect for Apple and its leadership; we strongly believe in the Innovation and Thinking Differently (from “the way things have always been done” and “industry standards”) that are part of Apple’s DNA. We all wish to continue to “bleed six colors” at Apple itself and not elsewhere. At Apple, our most important resource, our soul, is our people, and we believe that ensuring we are all heard, represented, and validated is how we continue to defend and protect that precious sentiment. 

This is not a petition, though it may resemble one. This is a plea: let’s work together to truly welcome everyone forward.

Important Leadership Related Read:
How Andy Jassy’s first memo was an internal communications masterpiece

Important Hybrid Work Resources:

The Free Hybrid Work Guide

The New Hybrid Office

The Future Of Work & The Workplace

Hybrid Perks