Apple's return-to-office plan savaged by staff

Why make us commute all the way into buildings where we're not allowed to talk to each other anyway, workers ask

Apple's directive requiring staff to return to the office after two years of pandemic-based working from home has elicited opposition from a group of employees.

In an open letter published last week, a group calling itself Apple Together said the iGiant's work-from-home (WFH) policy is motivated by fear.

"You have characterized the decision for the Hybrid Working Pilot as being about combining the 'need to commune in-person' and the value of flexible work," the letter says. "But in reality, it does not recognize flexible work and is only driven by fear. Fear of the future of work, fear of worker autonomy, fear of losing control."

It does not recognize flexible work and is only driven by fear. Fear of the future of work, fear of worker autonomy, fear of losing control

In March, CEO Tim Cook outlined a plan to have Apple employees who had been working from home return to the office, something the iPhone titan has been trying to do since June, 2021 but kept postponing due to persistent concern about COVID-19.

"In the United States, beginning on April 11, we’ll begin the phased approach to the hybrid pilot, with teams returning to the office initially one day a week, and then, beginning in the third week, two days a week," said Cook in an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg. "This transitional period will now be extended from four to six weeks."

From May 23, 2022, the plan is to move to three days in the office – Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday – and two days optionally remote, on Wednesday and Friday.

Apple spent about $5bn on the design and construction of its Apple Park corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, so the mega-corp has reason to want to utilize its five-year-old structure. What's more, many of its roles in software and hardware may require or benefit from workplace attendance.

Yet the company's Hybrid Working Pilot fails to satisfy Apple Together, a group that consists of about 250 people. The Register understands more than 8,000 people participate in Apple's internal remote work advocacy Slack channel. The company has about 165,000 employees.

Apple Together's objections aren't just about working from home. Some of the concerns raised also take issue with company culture. For example, the letter criticizes Apple's siloed structure, which undermines the supposed benefit of serendipitous workplace encounters that Apple has cited to justify its WFH policy.

"[Y]ou choose to keep us all in separate siloed Slack workspaces and try to prevent us from talking to each other, so software engineers don’t accidentally talk to AppleCare employees, and retail staff don’t accidentally meet hardware engineers," the letter says.

Other points raised are more practical, like the onerous nature of commuting in densely populated areas like Silicon Valley:

Many of us spend several hours every day commuting to and from the office, only to be in an environment where we can do our work less well or be on a video call anyway, because we need to work with a colleague in an office on the other side of the city, country, or planet.

The letter goes on to estimate that commuting workers spend about 20 percent of their work day just to get to the office then asks that Apple consider paying employees for the roughly two hours personal time they're forced to spend getting to and from the office.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

"I think the open letter represents that workers are definitely going to keep pushing back against the company and organizing," said Cher Scarlett, a former Apple principal software engineer, in an email to The Register.

"They should continue! Apple advertises how useful its products are for remote work, and the company is globally distributed. It seems hypocritical to not put those products to work for their workers, and puts another spotlight on the company’s mismatching branding to their treatment of their workers."

In fact, Apple released a video in March titled, "Escape from the Office," about how employees of a fictional firm called ARCA decide to quit and start their own packaging company using Apple products to facilitate remote work.

Differing views among managers and employees about returning to the office can be seen in a survey published in March, 2022, by employment firm Robert Half.

Robert Half surveyed over 2,300 senior managers at US companies and found two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) said they want workers on-site full time as COVID-19-related restrictions ease. That's down five percentage points from a similar survey a year ago, suggesting some managers have moderated their demands to accommodate employees who want more flexibility.

The firm also surveyed over 1,000 professionals and found half of those currently working from home would seek new employment with remote work options if their employer demands returning to the office full-time. That's up 16 percentage points from a year ago.

The Apple Together letter concludes with a Chef's Kiss, citing Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to argue that the company's less exalted executives listen to employees:

"[A]s Steve said: 'It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.' Here we are, the smart people that you hired, and we are telling you what to do: please get out of our way, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives." ®

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