Apple’s new workplace transition isn’t going well

Like many companies, Apple faces challenges as it seeks to evolve for the post-pandemic workplace.

Apple, HR, remote working, world of work, new workplace
Daniel L. Lu

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, employees have developed new expectations of what they want from their workplace. Many large organizations are facing problems meeting these new needs — and Apple is one of them.

You gotta go down and join the union

Apple employees have tended to be loyal, but this seems to be changing as retail workers seek to set up unions and reports claim an insurrection is taking place over remote working practices. While we don’t know the extent of this movement, Apple’s retail store employees are apparently using Android devices as they strive to unionize in their workplace.

They appear to want Apple to boost wages. They see the company experiencing stratospheric profits even as prices climb and wages remain relatively static. Workers at a growing number of US retail stores are quietly working to set up unions.

The decision to use Android devices to organize these efforts reflects fears among some employees following statements from fired Apple employee, Ashley Gjøvik, who claimed the company suffers from “an internal culture of surveillance.” We’ve also seen current and former Apple employees claiming they experienced a toxic workplace culture at the company.

It's unclear whether the claims are true, but the fact they are made at all hints at some failure to meet the needs of post-pandemic employees who seek working relationships built on autonomy and trust. Complaints at this volume don’t emerge in a vacuum, and resolution will demand compromise.

Apple has begun trying to respond to the workplace restlessness. It recently announced plans to give retail store workers twice as many sick days, more annual paid time off, and paid parental leave. Part-time workers are also getting paid vacation time and parental leave, which is a big deal in the US where such benefits don’t usually reach them.

Apple has also said that sick days can be used for mental health and/or to take family members to medical facilities. These kinds of tweaks make a big difference, and realistically only legitimize the kind of thing workers and employers know have been happening anyway — so why not make them acceptable?

Asynchronous presence

Apple also appears to have a problem adapting to the world of remote work.

Employees join Apple because they want to do their best work. Company execs seem fixated on the need for employees to spontaneously meet to identify and resolve challenges and find solutions as they go about their day. Apple is most certainly one of those firms that believes the best ideas happen as workers chat in line at the water cooler.

But employees can read a balance sheet. They can see for themselves that Apple generated record profit throughout the pandemic and introduced new products at breakneck speed.

Why, they ask, can’t Apple find a more relaxed approach to the new asynchronous world of work? After all, they reason, they’ve demonstrated what they are capable of. Apple’s business grew. Why can’t its workplace culture develop, too?

The company has attempted to identify a remote workplace compromise. At first, it offered a structure in which employees would work from the office three days a week and work remotely two more. Following complaints, Apple made a concession in which it will also permit staff to work fully remotely for four weeks per year.

This new arrangement still seems to fail to meet employees where they are.

A Terminal survey found 75% of software engineers want to work remotely on a permanent basis, with consensus around a hybrid work model built around three days of remote work, rather than the two Apple is insisting on. Developers say they are more productive at home, in part because they can avoid workplace interruption and in part because they get a better work/life balance. Most workers want to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their working lives. And they’ll keep working with companies that let them do so – and leave those that don’t.

Myopia and disharmony

It's possible that Apple’s reluctance to fully embrace the new workplace its technologies arguably helped nurture reflects a dogmatic approach to management. That’s not unique to Apple, of course. Many in the transitioning world of work have noted a reluctance on the part of management across multiple industries to accept these new practices.

We see this reluctance articulated each time a senior executive or politician belittles the effort people have made while working at home. Many decision-makers appear to have convinced themselves that people who are working at home aren’t working.

They're wrong. And their assertion seems particularly flawed when you consider the record profits some companies  have experienced as remote workers showed their appreciation during the pandemic by working harder.

Recognition needs harmony

Recognition is another matter. Many surveys have shown that employees worry that working remotely makes it harder to develop their careers because managers and supervisors can’t see them. But the truth here is that the limitation is in management, which has not yet evolved.

Instead, managers seem insistent on staying in thrall to workplace management routines that evolved as offices emerged in the mid-20th century. Times have changed — and technologies now exist to support these new models.

Perhaps one of the worst illustrations of a myopic approach to team management emerged when Apple began offering stock bonuses to some of its key staff in late 2021. These were generous, up to $180,000, but they weren’t fixed or universal. Some staff got nothing at all, others got much less.

The effect, according to Inc., was to show how some employees are more valued than others — and it fostered employee dissatisfaction. After all, no one working hard to deliver their best work wants to be told that work is worth less than their colleague across the same virtual floor. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s $99 million bonus also set tongues wagging and has launched a shareholder rebellion.

For a company that cares so much about values, workplace culture and presenteeism, Apple’s approach to giving bonuses to "valued" employees may have ignored some of the transient elements that create a good workplace.

To take a hypothetical illustration of a typical office, the person at Desk B may be slower and less efficient than the others, but may also be blessed with empathy, compassion and humor that helps hold the team together. Surely, they also deserve recognition for what they bring? Technologically, new Robotic Process Automation (RPA) systems that can identify such unsung heroes within workplaces may make this easier to achieve.

Where we are going?

As we continue to discover, the new world of work is complicated. Remote, hybrid, or even metaversical (is that a word?), the rights, responsibilities and expectations of these new workspaces are changing fast. In that context, it’s no surprise that a company as vast as Apple will encounter challenges trying to meet these new needs; nor should it surprise other companies attempting to strike the right balance.

Yes, the pandemic accelerated changes that were already taking place. But change always takes time to tweak, and those first attempts at handling transformation aren’t necessarily going to be the final resolution.

It seems to me that at Apple, and anywhere else, the best way to look at your workplace culture is as an operating system. We already know that the best operating systems put the user — in this case, the employee — at the center of the exchange.

With that as my guide, I’ll stretch my neck out to say that I believe the most productive implementations in the future of work will be hyper-personalized, employee-focused experiences marked by autonomy within hybrid work environments characterized by trust, empathy, and communication.

Apple’s struggle to lay the bricks on the road toward that inevitable promised land shows that nothing less than that will do. 

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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