Thoughts on Office-bound Work

Dear Executive Team,

We have a long relationship with Apple. In fact, even before spending years, sometimes decades, working at Apple, many of us were devoted Apple customers. We grew up with Apple, we told our friends and families about Apple, we dreamt of one day joining Apple. Then, one day, we did. Apple grew through us. Like you, many of us were there through Apple’s near-death experience. We are still here, now that Apple is the most valuable company in the world. Today, with your leadership and our ideas we still serve all of our customers and still try to surprise and delight people with our products. But our vision of the future of work is growing further and further apart from that of the executive team.

We wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on the return to office so that you may better understand why we do not believe in the Hybrid Working pilot. You have characterized the decision for the Hybrid Working Pilot as being about combining the “need to commune in-person” and the value of flexible work. But in reality, it does not recognize flexible work and is only driven by fear. Fear of the future of work, fear of worker autonomy, fear of losing control. Let us explain.

First, there’s “Serendipity”.

In your first email titled “Returning to our Offices”, you talk about “the serendipity that comes from bumping into colleagues” when everyone is in the same place. Except we are not all in one place. We don’t have just one office, we have many. And often, our functional organizations have their own office buildings, in which employees from other orgs cannot work. This siloed structure is part of our culture. It doesn’t take luck to overcome the communication silos and make cross-functional connections that are vital for Apple to function, it takes intentionality. We need to be able to reach out to each other intentionally, and have the chance to do so.

Slack has made this much easier over the last two years. Yet, you choose to keep us all in separate siloed Slack workspaces and try to prevent us from talking to each other, so software engineers don’t accidentally talk to AppleCare employees, and retail staff don’t accidentally meet hardware engineers. Over the last year, you have even made it impossible to create shared community spaces where serendipity could have happened, online and remotely. Be this in employee clubs for which there is a “temporary hold on approving any new clubs” or shared public Slack channels, which now need director support and can only be about work in a very strict sense.

Second, there’s “in-person collaboration”.

We definitely see the benefits of in-person collaboration; the kind of creative process that high bandwidth communication of being in the same room, not limited by technology, enables. But for many of us, this is not something we need every week, often not even every month, definitely not every day. The Hybrid Working Pilot is one of the most inefficient ways to enable everyone to be in one room, should the need arise every now and then.

What is also required for creativity and excellent work for many of us is time for deep thought. But being in an office often does not enable this, especially not many of our newer offices, with their open floor plans, which make it hard to concentrate on anything for an extended amount of time.

And with everyone working “remotely” it was much easier to reach out to colleagues in other offices. For example, a US team member could easily have a meeting with someone from the UK in the morning and meet with someone from Japan a couple hours later in the afternoon. This enabled a kind of international collaboration that we didn’t see before, where especially colleagues from “far away” locations could finally contribute as well as people in our major offices and no longer felt like second-class participants in meetings.

Third, there’s flexibility.

Three fixed days in the office and the two WFH days broken apart by an office day, is almost no flexibility at all. Even less so for the orgs who have to be in the office four or five days. Or take our colleagues in Retail, where we also have several roles that can easily be done remotely, but who get lumped in with people, who need to be on the store floor. Our friends at AppleCare have dedicated teams working from home 100% and others, who work 100% from an office. Both types of teams are doing the same kind of work, yet no individual employee on the teams has the flexibility to change whether they would like to work from home or in an office depending on their personal circumstances.

We are not asking for everyone to be forced to work from home. We are asking to decide for ourselves, together with our teams and direct manager, what kind of arrangement works best for each one of us, be that in an office, work from home, or a hybrid approach. Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.

And stop claiming that exceptions are approved on a “case-by-case basis”, when in fact there are several departments, where not a single exception was approved during the last year despite several people having been approved for remote work in the years before the pandemic. The Hybrid Working Pilot is not an increase in flexibility, it is a smokescreen and often a step back in flexibility for many of our teams.

Fourth, there is the commute.

We can’t believe we need to spell this out, but commuting to the office, without an actual need to be there, is a huge waste of time as well as both mental and physical resources. Many of us spend several hours every day commuting to and from the office, only to be in an environment where we can do our work less well or be on a video call anyway, because we need to work with a colleague in an office on the other side of the city, country, or planet.

During the last two years, many of us discovered how much more time we suddenly had in a day. The difference is striking: Someone who spends 8 hours a day working for Apple from home, for example, but who has a one hour one-way commute to the office only gets 6 productive hours a day, without investing more of their private time.

We estimate that the average time getting to work is about 20% of a work day. Is everyone being in the office all the time really worth it? If so, how about you pay us for that additional time investment?

Fifth, there’s diversity.

Apple will likely always find people willing to work here, but our current policies requiring everyone to relocate to the office their team happens to be based in, and being in the office at least 3 fixed days of the week, will change the makeup of our workforce. It will make Apple younger, whiter, more male-dominated, more neuro-normative, more able-bodied, in short, it will lead to privileges deciding who can work for Apple, not who’d be the best fit.

Privileges like “being born in the the right place so you don’t have to relocate”, or “being young enough to start a new life in a new city/country” or “having a stay-at-home spouse who will move with you”. And privileges like being born into a gender that society doesn’t expect the majority of care-work from, so it’s easy to disappear into an office all day, without doing your fair share of unpaid work in society. Or being rich enough to pay others to do your care-work for you.

Instead of throwing money at the problem and just increasing referral bonuses to replace those of our colleagues, who left over the executive team’s inflexibility, how about we create a work environment where everyone, who wants to work at Apple, is able to do so?

Sixth, the most important reason.

Besides the fact that serendipity is a weak argument for office-bound work, in-person collaboration can be achieved in much better ways, the current policy being very inflexible, wasting a lot of time, and having a negative impact on diversity, there is an even more important reason for us to oppose the Hybrid Working Pilot and the general push to return to office-bound work: It’s bad for Apple, both the employees and our products, and ultimately our customers.

We tell all of our customers how great our products are for remote work, yet, we ourselves, cannot use them to work remotely? How can we expect our customers to take that seriously? How can we understand what problems of remote work need solving in our products, if we don’t live it?

How can we expect to convince the best people to come work with us, if we reject anyone who needs the smallest bit of flexibility? How can we expect them to do their best work, but don’t trust them to know how to do so?

Conclusions.

Office-bound work is a technology from the last century, from the era before ubiquitous video-call-capable internet and everyone being on the same internal chat application. But the future is about connecting when it makes sense, with people who have relevant input, no matter where they are based.

In the original “Returning to our offices” email, Tim said “we’d make sure Apple delivered on its promises to its customers regardless of the circumstances”. It’s true, we delivered on our promises and continue to do so. We were incredibly flexible and resilient and found new ways to do our work, despite not being able to go to an office in many cases.

Now we ask you, the executive team, to show some flexibility as well and let go of the rigid policies of the Hybrid Working Pilot. Stop trying to control how often you can see us in the office. Trust us, we know how each of our small contributions helps Apple succeed and what’s required to do so. Our direct managers trust us and in many cases would happily let us work in a more flexible setup. And why wouldn’t they, we’ve successfully done so for the last two years. Why don’t you?

Or as Steve said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Here we are, the smart people that you hired, and we are telling you what to do: Please get out of our way, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives.

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