The future of work: Apple’s heroes-to-zeroes story

If the business contortions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have taught companies anything, it should be that workforce resilience is a good thing.

A man reads email on his laptop beside a dog. / digital nomad / remote worker / mobile computing
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You have to be deeply committed to multiple forms of denial to not recognize that the world is changing. And while not every change is positive, one that makes more sense than most is the chance to create distributed. remote workforces at scale that are more flexible, diverse, and resilient than what we had before.

Its time to seize the moment

For two years, technology has supported a new era of flexibility. Many employers now recognize that remote work can be just as — and sometimes more — productive than the in-person experience, while employees have enjoyed the flexibility of working when it's most productive to them, reducing risk of burning out.

Among other things, the upside of the dark cloud that is the pandemic has been seen in better family relationships, a much easier commute, and the opportunity to hire more diverse workforces as marginalized groups gain representation. Introverts have found it easier to make valuable asynchronous contributions to their company, while more garrulous folk occupy endless hours in Zoom team meetings. The data, the experience, and the results, speak for themselves. It is possible to do great work remotely.

Yet, for some reason, Apple has chosen to become one of the companies to place its throne in the sand at the edge of this rising ocean of change to try to push the waves back, arguing (among other reasons) that its collaborative internal culture is important to how it approaches product design.

The overloaded water cooler

I can almost buy that argument. Except, I dont.

Is everyone at Apple involved in product design? Of course not; the majority of Apples staff hold business roles just like at any other giant corporation. They are in sales teams, customer service, analyst roles, regional managers, accountants, and all the other jobs that make up any company. Only a relatively small number of these people are involved in product design. To argue that the entire Apple enterprise is the tech equivalent of Willy Wonkas Chocolate Factory is to ignore the fact that for every talented Oompah Woompah in product development, theres probably a couple of hundred people in support roles that can easily be handled remotely.

The argument that employees who arent happy can simply get another job is also deeply obtuse and somewhat unrealistic. Certainly, Apples people are smart. But surely it's time the company listened to its workers, rather than seek to oppose them. Its an opportunity to reinvent the future of work. And undoubtedly, building effective digital replacements for casual collaboration is a product design challenge worth solving. 

A recent Future Forum survey found that employee experience scores have declined across the board as workers are made to go back to the office, while a Topia study tells us an astonishing 94% of employees think they should be able to work from anywhere, as long as they get their work done.

Thats the point, isnt it? Using technology to augment human potential, as a "bicycle for the mind" rather than ignoring tech to enslave the body.

I know of at least one huge multinational telecom services company that used digital processes to enable 90,000 employees to work effectively together during the pandemic. It worked closely with staff to make sure the tools it provided were the ones employees required, and as a global systems integration services provider, its people in turn empowered businesses with tens of thousands of employees to stay productive.

It can be done.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky thinks so. He believes the age of the traditional office is over, urging the creation of local collaboration spaces where small groups can gather when they need to — office as a service, with a focus on employee experience design.

The inevitability of gradualness

The thing is, changing workplace practices are utterly in keeping with the wider digital change transforming every enterprise. Automation is part of this, but by no means all of it. Industry 5.0 will be all about digital processes that augment human capabilities. That means humans and machines working together to accomplish more; automating and digitizing those "water cooler moments" is inevitably going to be part of that change. And are water cooler moments actually so valuable? Did Jony Ive, the man of the $530 Hermes measuring tape, really get ideas for a new Mac when queuing at that cooler with Sally from accounts?

I dont think so.

Even my favorite-ever iMac design, the iMac G4, was visualized when then-CEO Steve Jobs and Ive were effectively working remotely, in this case when walking around Laurene Powell Jobs flower garden.

There are numerous studies that show simply going for a walk with others is one of the best ways to boost creative thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration. (Recognition that water cooler moments are overrated is presumably why Apple built a park in the middle of its HQ.)

I just hope it lets its workers walk there, rather than forcing them to stand by water coolers desperately trying to have s great idea.

All through the pandemic I came across reports refuting arguments emanating from authoritarian managers that people working from home were in some way being lazy."

This is nonsense

Employees worked their hearts out to keep businesses going, people put in more hours, became incredibly motivated, and the only widely reported problems were that not everyone had a comfortable place to work from, lacked bandwidth, and that many managers didnt respect the work that was being done.

Some began to show a massive disrespect for peoples work/home life balance. Working from home should not mean taking a management call at 7 p.m., or being required to have a camera on you at all times. Working should be about clearly defined goals, targets, achievements and recognition. Presence, darling, is history.

But for many workers, including those at Apple, the reward for heroically holding businesses together during a global disaster is to be told they are lazy and must get back to the office.

What kind of reward is that?

What kind of motivation do you think that edict will provide? When the undercurrent seems to be that employees must conform or "get another job," no company should be terribly surprised to see loyalty shrink, respect for authority atrophy, and productivity fall.

Why do your best work for a company that sees you as easily replaceable?

At Apple, around 76% of employees arent happy at with the companys remote work plans. No wonder they want to unionize.

And these arguments extend beyond technology and its capacity to bolster what we can do. They go beyond the need to design employee experiences people want to spend eight hours a day in. They connect directly to an approach to help solve some of the really big problems we face.

Think about diversity

Apple knows how difficult it is to recruit from among under-represented groups. Every HR report on this matter I read (and I read lots of these things) tells me the perception that tech is some form of boys club is part of what stops people from joining the industry.

Remote work boosts diversity by helping to break that cycle of toxic masculinity, and enables less well-represented groups who cant necessarily work in a 9-to-5 culture (such as new parents or people of disability) to join workforces. In other words, remote working should be seen as a tool to enable enterprises to deliver more diversity in recruitment. Its all about creating flexibility and breaking down the power of negative perception by disempowering negative workplace culture and replacing it with more inclusive models. I know Apple recognizes the challenges of accessibility, so why this blind spot around the future of work?

Collaboration, imagination, technology driven innovation, and thinking different about all of them should be easy oceans for Apple to swim in, particularly if it remains dedicated to its mission of helping the crazy ones to change the world.

Though perhaps the abject failure of FaceTime to define video collaboration reflects a lack of vision at the company, a company that could now help build a new future of work, one which embraces both the square pegs and the round holes. Perhaps someone else will make solutions for the crazy ones in future?

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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