Of all the challenges companies have been faced with over the past year, few have been bigger than figuring out how to continue to do remotely what they were used to doing together. That's true for almost every type of business that had to suddenly send everyone home from the office 15 months ago while continuing to serve customers.
Remarkably, people figured it out. That's mostly because--as it turns out--a lot of what we used to do in an office can be done from pretty much anywhere. Not everything, but a lot of it.
Of course, as more people are vaccinated, the world is beginning to emerge from a pandemic that has forced us all to change how we do, well, everything. Now, the next challenge is to figure out when and how to bring people back to the office.
This week, Bloomberg reported that Apple CEO Tim Cook sent an email telling employees that they should expect to be back in the office at least three days a week by September. Specifically, it's telling employees to work in the office Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
That's similar to the plan laid out by Google, which also said it expects most employees to be back in the office three days each week, but with an important difference. Google says it expects as many as 20 percent of its employees to continue working remotely on a permanent basis. Also, Google appears to be flexible about when its employees will be in the office.
It's worth mentioning that Apple had famously not allowed its employees to work remotely at all. Instead, the company has preferred having its team members in the office, for a variety of reasons that include collaboration as well as security.
The fact that the company has made a shift shows that it understands that--as much as it wants people back in the office--there is value in giving people a degree of flexibility. At the same time, Cook highlights an important aspect of hybrid work that can be easy to overlook--it matters when people come to the office. "We are setting consistent days in the office to help us optimize our time for in-person collaboration," Cook wrote.
If Apple simply said, like Google did, that it wants employees to be in the office three days a week, that might look different for every employee. Apple's solution is to create expectations--it expects employees to be in the office on specific days.
Cook goes further, explaining the purpose behind the expectations--to "optimize our time for in-person collaboration." If the value of being in the office together is collaboration, then it really helps if people are actually in the office together at the same time.
"For all that we've been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other," Cook wrote. "Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate."
You can dispute whether or not a hybrid workforce is the best arrangement, or whether employees should be allowed to work entirely remotely. That isn't the point. Apple's leadership believes there is value in having its teams together in person, at least part of the time. As a result, the company is creating expectations that reflect that value.
If that's what Apple thinks is best, good for it for setting those expectations for its people. The worst thing a company could do after a year of uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion is to be unclear about what it expects of employees as they return to work, at least work in an office.