Off-Loading the “New Normal” – Returning to the Office for Work

Both news and editorial (my personal thoughts) on this subject can be found below.

News

Early in the month of June, in a note to Apple employees, CEO Tim Cook said that Apple would begin welcoming back the missing ingredient to its corporate campus – its employees – in September of 2021.  Apple wants everyone to return to the mother ship beginning in September 2021 every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  Wednesday and Friday would remain as optional Work-from-Home days for the company, at least until further notice.  Cook went on to encourage Apple employees by saying, 

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.

For now, let me simply say that I look forward to seeing your faces. I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built.

A few days later – June 6th to be exact – Apple employees penned a letter via an internal Slack channel asking for more flexibility on the proposed schedule. In the letter, Apple employees made their position on Cook’s Return to the Mother Ship policy very clear:

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.

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…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.

The complete ask from Apple employees includes the following items:

  • 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.

It took a bit, but Apple followed up by publishing an internal video response that was shared with limited outside resources, like The Verge, where Senior Vice President of Retail and People, Deirdre O’Brien, gave the following response:

We believe that in-person collaboration is essential to our culture and our future.  If we take a moment to reflect on our unbelievable product launches this past year, the products and the launch execution were built upon the base of years of work that we did when we were all together in-person.

Full text of the letter penned by employees to Apple’s Executive Team can be found at the end of this article.

Editorial

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way America – and the rest of the world – works.  Many employers who previously had prohibitions on allowing their FTE’s and contractors to work from home, suddenly found themselves sending those resources home to work, in order to keep their businesses functioning and open.  In the pandemic’s aftermath, companies like Twitter and Square, for example, are letting employees work from home permanently.  Both the consulting company I currently work for, and the long term client-project I am working for a prominent, travel-destination company, have no immediate plans for any of their teams to return to the office – though in all honesty, that MAY change depending on how COVID numbers rise and fall in states that both organizations currently have a permanent presence in.  In other words – I could be called into the office permanently if infection numbers fall to an “acceptable level,” or I could find myself continuing on in my home office for a long time to come – again, depending on how both vaccination and infection rates track over the coming months.  Apple isn’t the only company targeting September 2021 as a tentative “back to work date.”

There are a lot of variables here – vaccination rates, new virus variants, infection rates, personal health concerns, etc. – that will continue to drive how companies hire, where they hire (in/out of market, time zone, etc.), and the type of resources they hire (C2H, Perm/Direct, contract, etc.). To be honest, I think the COVID-19 Pandemic will continue to effect employment and employment practices for the rest of this decade, at least.  In fact, we could see yet another dramatic change to hiring practices (for the second or third time in my lifetime) as a result – since most people work from home right now AND many companies (IT companies, especially) hire off-shore, companies venturing outside their local market to fill roles in OTHER markets will become more common.  For example, my current role is with a company physically in San Francisco, CA, while I reside near Chicago, IL.

However, this introduces an interesting productivity hurdle.  Working from home, or simply off-site, prevents team mates from engaging in the natural collaboration opportunities that present themselves when they are physically located in the same space.  Workers can’t informally chat about issues, problems and solutions as they normally would in the hallway, in the kitchen, or “around the water cooler.”  In my experience, a lot of problem solving, negotiation and horse trading can be taken care of outside of a formal meeting or gathering. Side-bar conversations at the coffee pot – or coming in or out of a restroom – can be very productive (without getting too weird).

Many companies are currently missing these productivity options when most or all of their workforce is remote.  It’s difficult to make up for that when you specifically and purposefully have to either chat with someone via Teams, Slack or other tool or schedule a call or have an ad-hoc audio or video call with a person. It’s more difficult when you have to specifically seek someone out, instead of casually bumping into someone while getting coffee, or simply stopping by someone’s office or desk on your way back from <pick a place>.

That interaction – that productivity (re)gain – is what Apple and other employers are looking to regain by getting everyone back in the office.  Theoretically, this shouldn’t be an issue if your workforce is vaccinated.  While vaccination rates are on the rise, not everyone has gotten, or plans to get, The Shot.

Which – as a brief aside – bothers me.  No one had a choice when it came to vaccines like Small Pox, Rubella or Polio. In some cases, kids were marched into a gymnasium and vaccinated on the spot back between 1950 to 1970-blah-blah-blah.  It saved the country and the planet. I’m not certain why – if COVID-19 is so deadly – people aren’t being mandated to take the shot and/ or show proof of receipt in order to return to and/ or stay at work.  But those are rhetorical questions and not meant to generate discussion at this time.  

What bothers me most about the note from the thousand or so Apple employees is that they seem to be issuing an ultimatum – Allow us to work from home or we quit.

Ok…. Quit. Please! I’m certain there are other potential in/ out of market “A” Player candidates that would love to have your job.

With Apple being Apple, and able to recruit almost anywhere, I think what they – and other employers – may find in the end is that their teams are simply a bit more distributed than they thought or may have initially desired.  There are “A” players all over the country; but perhaps not where they have traditionally looked.  The thought that Silicone Valley is the only place where good quality recruits can be found in the United States is silly.  

Here are my thoughts on the complete ask, as noted above:

  • 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.
    This likely isn’t in the cards, as Apple is looking to recreate the “hum” at the billion dollar facility they have recently completed in Cupertino.  I wouldn’t hold my breath…
  • 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.
    Communication is always a good idea. This couldn’t hurt, is likely a GREAT idea; but if the intent behind it is to alter corporate direction, I wouldn’t count on it.  Apple, like every company in America – and around the world – is not run by the rank and file. It’s run by its leadership team, and they have a set, specific agenda from their Board of Directors.
  • We are formally requesting a question about employee churn due to remote work be added to exit interviews.
    This is a great idea.  If there is more traction here than I’m seeing, this is a great way to send that message to the leadership team and Board of Directors.
  • We are formally requesting a transparent, clear plan of action to accommodate disabilities via onsite, offsite, remote, hybrid, or otherwise location-flexible work.
    This may sound harsh.  This raised an eyebrow with me.  I’m somewhat physically disabled and have been for decades.  Every time I read this, it strikes me as superfluous and only meant to sound politically correct.  ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations have been in place since 1990 (or 31 years). 

    All companies are required to have their facilities compliant with ADA regs and Apple Park would have been constructed with that in mind.  It’s not Apple’s responsibility to make certain YOUR home is compliant with ADA regs so you can work there.  That’s on YOU.  In like manner, if you’re going to go somewhere else other than YOUR home to complete work it’s the responsibility of the owner of the destination facility to make it ADA compliant.  If Apple is the owner of the remote, hybrid or otherwise location flexible location, then that’s on them. Otherwise, it’s on the facility owner.  Everything that Apple would need to do to enable remote work is already in place. It’s unlikely that they need to do anything else.
  • 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.
    Yeah… again, this may sound harsh; but this is also bullshit.  This is nothing more than the rank and file trying to misdirect management into a position of irrelevant defense. It’s misdirection; and it’s tactically unfair.  This also would have been addressed by local regulatory officials and inspections when the facility was built, completed and its occupancy approved.  It’s meant to make management scramble to address a tactically sensitive subject while bringing media attention to the primary issue; and it’s meant to make management look bad and nothing more than that.

What do YOU think? Is it time to get back to the office?  Should COVID vaccines be mandatory to return to work?  Are Apple’s employees who wrote and sent this message to Tim Cook at the rest of the Leadership Team there off target or even spoiled?  I’d love to hear your opinion(s) on this! Make YOUR voice heard!

 

 

 

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