Is Apple really joining the WFH counter-revolution?

Apple seems to be doubling down on inflexibility in its approach to flexible working.

Apple, work, new workplace, future of work

When it comes to the future of work, it appears Apple is becoming more reactionary, leaning heavily into presenteeism rather than achievement-based management across its staff teams.

Its latest "innovation" is to track employees and use badge records to ensure they're in the office at least three times a week.

Get back to your desks!

The company has been reluctant to fully embrace the opportunities and efficiencies of hybrid working, but since the pandemic has allowed staff to work remotely two days per week, spending the other three in the office. The application of the policy has always been relatively autocratic, with workers required to be on site Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.

What’s new, according to Platformer’s Zoë Schiffer, is that Apple is now using badge records to monitor attendance — and has begun to enforce an escalating system of warnings against those who don’t make it in on those three days. It suggests some staff are being warned that failure to comply could cost them their job, though this policy doesn’t seem to be compan-wide.

This followed reports that the company has begun cracking down on workers, including insistence on presenteeism and the cessation of additional sick time for staff who catch COVID – even though the virus continues to infect people.

It's possible Apple is approaching all of these as cost-cutting measures to avoid any mass layoffs across its teams, particularly since that’s not a great look for a company that has continued to set new revenue records during the pandemic.

To me, the company’s insistence on a rigid approach to hybrid working seems to maintain some of the worst bits of old working practices while undermining some of the best impacts in the new workplace. It’s strange that a company that wants you to enjoy a mobile lifestyle doesn’t seem to want its own employees to enjoy a mobile workstyle.

Hybrid is already known to have enabled under-represented groups to re-join the work market, which boosts diversity within working culture and itself unlocks productivity gains.

There are reams of analysis to confirm benefits in productivity, staff retention, and morale. That’s even before considering the extent to which hybrid/remote working is so popular among the cohorts Apple most needs to hire when it does recruit. It’s always cheaper to make employees happier and more productive than to seek new hires — though it speaks volumes that the people who seem to have the toughest time adapting to the hybrid workplace are the middle managers apparently winning the argument at Apple on this.

Victory to the bosses

A recent Microsoft survey showed the divide between middle management and staff. More than half of managers surveyed said they thought staff worked less remotely, while 80% of staff said they are at least as productive as before. (A Dice survey showed 85% of US businesses think hybrid work is good for them.)

This disconnect between the real and perceived productivity gains in flexible workplaces even has a name,"‘productivity paranoia." But for the most part this paranoia is based on opinion, not evidence – and may reflect managers' own inability to clearly communicate with their teams.

In most cases, higher-echelon management is aware that flexible working must remain an important component of their approach to the future of work. Even the director general of UK business group CBI recently said: “Flexible Working is becoming Mainstream Practice — flex has always had deep merits. But given today’s shortages, and without immigration, it’s vital to growing supply because it’s likely the only way to get those who’ve left to return.”

It takes skill to make it work. A Corel survey showed 78% of employees think leaders should work harder to boost collaboration.

With this as an emerging space for innovation, you’d imagine enterprises would spend some cash on upskilling management to deal more effectively with remote teams. But a Boston Consulting Group report in 2022 showed that just 15% of CEOs prioritize reskilling managers for this new reality. That complacency is probably great news for those who have invested in office space, less good for anyone else, including the companies who through lack of action deny themselves the opportunities hybrid work unlocks.

Make it flexible!

I’m sure Apple’s HR departments have been led by the science, rather than personal opinion. Perhaps somewhere in the company there's evidence that somehow proves remote workers didn’t contribute to its eye-watering record revenues in recent years.

What’s open to question is how appropriate Apple’s core approach seems to be. After all, the company always said it might choose to change or tweak its efforts.

While Apple is known to work hard to foster a collaborative, in-person culture, does this really thrive without flexibility? It seems inevitable that some teams might work best on different schedules, and Apple’s approach doesn’t seem to give them that flexibility. That’s a component of the model that really should be reviewed. A Vanson Bourne survey showed three-quarters of employees are inclined to stay with companies that offer autonomy.

That’s not to say the decision around a two/three day remote/in person split is intrinsically bad. Michelin operates on a similar model, and it seems to work well – but within its approach it does give employees and teams more personal choice on how to split that time. That company’s chief digital and information officer, Yves Caseau, says: “There is no one-size-fits-all. The pattern is decided locally, but on average, people tend to pick the same three days. Remote work is efficient for part of the workload, and it improves employee satisfaction in general.”

To my mind, news of the crackdown on attendance hints at an autocratic lack of autonomy and agency in the model Apple seems to embrace. My fear is that this cultural lack of vision could extend itself elsewhere across the company.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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