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Apple delays office return, but is it still too optimistic?

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Apple has once again delayed its return to the workplace (this time to Feb. 1), but I think it will be forced to delay the return schedule yet another time.

What has Apple done?

Apple CEO Tim Cook told employees he expects them to begin a phased return to the office as of Feb. 1, 2022. Apple eventually wants its staff to be in the office three days a week on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. It sees this as an ongoing experiment in the adoption of the hybrid working practices which have bought the company such huge benefit this year.

I’m pleased to see Apple is also increasing the amount of additional time staff can work remotely up from two weeks to four weeks per year. There are exceptions: some personnel are always required on site, and some pushback against the proposals exists.

The company had previously pencilled in a return to work for June 2021, then September 2021 and most recently, January 2022.

And while Apple hasn’t yet insisted that vaccines be mandatory, it is encouraging its people to get vaccinated.

We will ‘adjust our approach’ — Apple

“We recognize the situation with the pandemic is dynamic and are prepared to adjust our timing, approach, and protocols — such as masking, distancing, vaccination requirements, and other measures — as necessary based on local conditions,” a memo from Cook said.

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In another HR-focused change, Apple recently reminded employees that they can speak freely about wages and working conditions. This reminder comes as we learn high-profile employee activists may be being forced out of the company.

Both the reminder and the seemingly autocratic reaction likely reflect a wider sense of disquiet as workers consider what they want from their lives following two years working remotely. This has become known as the “Great Resignation.”

These strains are being felt across every company.

Apple is not unique

We’ve written ad infinitum concerning the fault lines between anachronistic presence-based management practices and the “work where, when and how you like” culture that will dominate much post-pandemic conversation between employers and employees.

Recent history around BYOD shows us employees have a lot of clout in such discussions, and the pandemic itself has proved that in many cases remote working boosts productivity, accessibility, employee well-being, and can contribute to staff retention.

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The challenge is simply to find new ways to build bonds and foster company culture.

[Also read: Jamf survey: Employees will quit for platform choice]

Given those most able to work remotely are also likely to be among the most highly trained and hard-to-recruit employees, Apple’s move to boost the amount of time it will let workers do so reflects the power its teams have. And like component supply, environmental stewardship and so much else, if Apple is finding it necessary to bend to meet these needs, other companies will feel the same set of pressures.

But is the return to work too early? I fear that it might be.

More shocks to come

While the fantasy that things can return to how they once were is tempting, the normality we eventually reach will not be the same as the one we left behind.

Two years into the pandemic, we surely recognize that with vaccine protection fading and most people on the planet not yet in receipt of even that protection, the global supply chain will inevitably suffer more shocks this winter.

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Apple knows this; in its memo to employees, it tells us it will adjust its response to local conditions. But to take control of events, rather than simply following them, it’s important to make good decisions today in order to build that better tomorrow.

What you decide today matters

Think forward to June 2022’s WWDC and consider your own feelings about what will happen then. Will it take place online or in person?

What’s your gut feeling?

If it helps, Salesforce’s president and chief people officer, Brent Hyder,  told the Wall Street Journal recently: “The pandemic is not over. It’s moving into an endemic. The ‘return-to-office’ dates, for me, are irrelevant. I don’t understand them. We need to find ways to meet safely.”

(Personal post-script: Perhaps affecting my outlook, I’m currently battling many COVID-19-like symptoms for a ninth day, though tests so far have been (I am glad to say) negative.)

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.



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