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Why Tech Companies Can't Figure Out When to Bring People Back to the Office

Why Tech Companies Can't Figure Out When to Bring People Back to the Office
By Undigital.tech Newsletter • Issue #39 • View online
A version of this newsletter appeared in my column at Inc.com on Thursday, December 16.
On Wednesday, Apple announced that it would once again postpone its plan to bring employees back to the office. It isn’t the first time, and Apple isn’t the first company to put plans on hold as Covid-19 cases surge in many areas across the world. Apple had said it planned to implement a hybrid work arrangement starting in February, with most employees coming to the office three days a week.

Apple Park, Cupertino, CA. Image Credit: Shutterstock
Apple Park, Cupertino, CA. Image Credit: Shutterstock
Now, however, Apple says it’s taking a different approach, and it might be the first return to the office plan that makes sense. That’s according to a report from Bloomberg, which cited a memo from Tim Cook to employees.
“We are delaying the start of our hybrid work pilot to a date yet to be determined,” Cook wrote. “Our offices remain open and many of our colleagues are coming in regularly, including our teams in Greater China and elsewhere.” 
The idea is that employees who feel comfortable returning to the office can do so. For everyone else, the company is keeping everything the same. Well, with the exception of the fact that Apple is now giving employees $1,000 to use for their work-from-home needs, as a part of the company’s “commitment to a more flexible environment.” According to Bloomberg, that includes retail employees. 
“These funds are intended to help you with your home workspace and can be used as you see fit,” Cook said in the memo.
There are two things that stand out. The first is that the company seems to finally have recognized that the best thing you can do for your employees is to give them flexibility and control over their work environment. That’s why those three words stand out–Apple wants to create a “more flexible environment.” That isn’t something Apple has been historically good at. 
Of all the tech companies, Apple had seemed the most committed to bringing its employees back to the office. As a result, the company has faced public pushback from employees who wanted the company to provide more flexibility and not require them to return to a hybrid work arrangement. 
The other thing that I can’t help but notice is that this isn’t complicated at all. In fact, it’s hard to really imagine it has taken tech companies this long to figure it out. Apple is simply waiting to announce a date to bring people back to the office until it can be sure it’s safe to do so. 
That seems like common sense, but it’s taken a while to come around from the idea that the best place to get work done is in an office. If anything, the past two years have shown that not to be true in many cases. 
Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have all taken a similar approach–waiting until conditions have improved enough that it makes sense to bring larger numbers of employees back to the office before setting a date for that to happen. Even Facebook announced last week that it was introducing an “office deferral program,” for those employees who planned to return. 
Certainly, Apple is motivated to bring as many employees as it can back to the office as soon as it is safely possible. It spent a lot of money to create a campus in Cupertino, California, where employees can collaborate on the iconic products the company is known for. Having all of those employees working from home is definitely not what Apple considers an ideal situation.
At the same time, the company seems to have finally realized that setting an arbitrary date in the future just doesn’t make sense. The pandemic isn’t going away, and conditions continue to change rapidly. That makes it difficult–if not impossible–to come up with a plan a few months out. So, Apple isn’t going to try.
It might seem like that would introduce a lot of uncertainty. Except, the greatest source of uncertainty right now is the pandemic. The greatest source of uncertainty is not knowing when the next variant might arrive, or whether your children will suddenly have to attend school virtually when a wave of cases hits their classrooms. What Apple is telling employees is that it’s prioritizing their need to have certainty over the company’s desire to have everyone back in the office.
Giving employees the flexibility to design a work arrangement and environment that fits their lives is the best way to eliminate uncertainty. After all, if you can’t predict the future, you shouldn’t try. Instead, you should focus on giving your employees the flexibility to make the best decision they can amid changing circumstances. That appears to be exactly what Apple is doing. Finally.
Other Articles You Might Like:
Facebook's 3-Word Plan to Bring Everyone Back to the Office Misses the Most Important Point | Inc.com
The CEO Who Fired 900 Employees on a Zoom Call Is Out. It's a Tragic Example of How Not to Manage People | Inc.com
Elon Musk Says 'CEO Is a Made-Up Title.' He Kind of Has a Point | Inc.com
Jack Dorsey's Resignation Letter to Twitter Reveals a Harsh Truth About Leadership Most People Never Learn | Inc.com
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