Dell, Cisco, and HP vs. Apple and the hybrid-work test

Apple's under fire from employees who don't like its hybrid return-to-the-office plans. Maybe it could learn something from some of its tech rivals.

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Disclosure: All of the companies mentioned here except Apple are clients of the author.

One of the people I admire in the tech world is Stella Low, who I initially met at Dell Technologies. She moved from Dell to Cisco to Apple, and then quickly jumped to HP.  Dell, Cisco ,and HP all prioritize employee and partner job satisfaction, while Apple is far more focused on margins and lowering costs.

Which approach is better?

Apple’s performance and market valuation show the financial benefits of its tactics, but issues with companies like Qualcomm, and its constant efforts to remove employees’ ability to leave can create serious problems with hiring and retention once those methods are discovered and become broadly known

Apple appears to be managing employees as if they are commodities — not an uncommon approach, but one that often has outcomes like unionization and high employee churn. Offsetting that churn are policies that restrict employee movement, which are also not uncommon. Dell, Cisco, and HP treat employees more like people, some might argue more like an ideal family. 

The theory is that the Dell, Cisco, and HP approach is less likely to result in employee unions, unsustainable employee churn, or behavioral issues tied to employee abuse. That’s theory, aa\t least, though the underlying perceptions could be driven more by the times than the process.

What’s going on right now marks one of the rare occasions when you see two conflicting employee management systems in the same industry being pursued at the same time at scale. 

The remote-work theory

Arguably, the company that supports remote employees the most aggressively is Dell. Ordered from the top-down, Dell has not only allowed any employee to work remotely, but it is also the most aggressive with programs that try to help employees do a better job with work/life balance, while placing a high priority on creating relationships inside the company.

Apple, in contrast, has demanded that employees return to the office — and appears unwilling (or unable) to successfully manage those who choose to work from home. Dell puts employees’ wants and needs first, while Apple sees command-and-control as the higher priority.  In addition, Apple appears to put office occupancy above employee satisfaction; Dell appears to be rethinking both the importance of its office structure and how those offices should work in the future. 

Tactical vs. strategic

You can also differentiate Apple’s approach from the others as tactical vs. strategic.  The Apple approach is tactical, because it addresses the problem of effectively managing remote workers by limiting them — which makes the problem easier to deal with.  But the number of employees at Apple now saying they may jump ship, especially since it’s so public, suggests Apple will pay a strategic cost for this move in terms of lost employees and the related hit to productivity.

The other tech firms seem to recognize that working from home is a critical perk, given the vast disparity in the cost of living in areas where these companies reside. And they’re taking the time to find new ways to mitigate any command-and-control, work/life balance, and relationship issues that the remote model is known to have. 

Companies like Dell should have less employee churn, which should result in fewer employees becoming disgruntled and acting out. But this also means managers will need to be retrained, and team-building and related programs will need to evolve. The benefits of this effort will likely accrue over time as opposed to being immediate.

It's about more than the bottom line

Apple’s high valuation would suggest that its approach to commoditizing employees, placing them, significantly below the firm’s margin focus and need for control will eventually backfire. Programs like those at Cisco, HP, and particularly Dell, should allow for better strategic execution over time — and more stability — but may not allow any of them to pass Apple in valuation. (The company’s smartphone success isn’t mirrored in any of the other firms, giving it a huge boost.)

The danger is that if companies simply look at the financials, they might conclude that treating employees like commodities is a best practice. That could be disastrous and would be a mistake. The difference in tactics is more likely tied to the unique nature of Apple’s success in a segment where the others don’t play. 

Apple does pay well, and it is not uncommon for employees to place pay ahead of other factors. But money doesn’t offset the pain of working in an uncaring environment, and it appears a lot of Apple employees are trying to vote with their feet. Whether that’s enough to stop this productivity-reducing practice is yet to be decided. But I know how I would like it to end, with an industry that realizes employees are its greatest asset and are treated accordingly. 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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