Apple (almost) says, ‘If you want to collaborate, stay apart’

What is to be gained in mythical ‘water cooler conversations’ if everyone gets too sick to put those ideas into motion?

Apple, COVID-19, remote working, collaboration
Wacomka / Getty Images

Apple has made a decision that should show most enterprises that, when it comes to COVID-19, it’s not over till it’s over. The company has reportedly deferred plans to get staff back in the office three days a week because of increasing infection rates.

Living with COVID means taking it seriously

A weekend Bloomberg report tells us the full implementation of Apple’s originally mandated three-days-a-week-in-person plan is probably “not imminent.” The report suggests the company is experiencing rising infection rates across its workforce. If Apple is experiencing this, then it is not alone.

Way back at the beginning of the pandemic, Apple’s retail stores became seen as guides to local infection rates. The company’s planetary network of stores gave Apple’s HR teams global insight into disease outbreaks. Reporters followed Apple store closures as a guide to the disease clusters.

Apple still has access to those insights today, which means its decision to suspend its return-to-the-office diktat should be seen for what it is: a signal that the sickness has not abated.

Of course, we must identify some way to live with COVID, but doing so also means taking it seriously. Magical thinking will not make the disease go away, but smart working practices, staggered commuting patterns, and investment in air filtration systems might help blunt its impact.

Apple’s decision to suspend progress on the return to the office shows the company is coming to terms with that reality. At least, I think it does.

A warning you should heed

Apple had chosen to adopt a hybrid work pattern in which employees attend the office three days a week and work remotely for two. It began requesting workers return to the office for one day a week on April 11, two days from May 4, and had intended attendance to rise to three days by May 23. Employees are currently expected to be present for two days a week, but the move to three has been delayed.

In common with everyone else, not every Apple employee has been able to work remotely during the pandemic. Some of its teams have continued working in person across most of the last couple of years.

But the decision to delay the company-wide return must surely be taken seriously by businesses hoping to get employees back to the office, as it suggests Apple’s data shows the risk of doing so remains high. As colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols points out, that’s broadly in line with what health professionals are telling us, from epidemiologist Michael Osterholm’s warning to the Washington Post to this observation from Independent SAGE, a group of scientists in the UK: “Closing our eyes and pretending it’s not there, that’s the most dangerous strategy of all.”

If you value collaboration, stay apart

Given that the risks of COVID-19 can include months of mental and physical debilitation that leave sufferers unable to work effectively for months, a company that values collaboration and creative intelligence cannot logically insist its teams expose themselves to such risk.

The last thing Apple, or anyone else, needs is for key personnel to be out of action for months — particularly when the consequences of a forced return are so evident and any company with commitment to corporate social responsibility also has a duty to protect staff’s psychological and physical health.

Think about it. What is to be gained in mythical ‘water cooler conversations’ if there’s no one around to put those ideas into motion? Just ask the Society of Academic Emergency Medicine. It means that if your workplace values collaboration, it’s way past time to figure out how to collaborate effectively when apart.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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