On Friday, Bloomberg reported on an email from Apple CEO Tim Cook to company employees, setting an April 11 date for returning to the office. Cook says the company plans to phase in a sort of hybrid approach to working, with employees coming in one day a week. Over the following weeks, that will increase until most employees will be expected to work in the office three days each week.
The email has plenty of the types of things CEOs say about the importance of collaborating together in person. You can certainly debate whether you think it's necessary to return to in-person work. After two years of proving that much of the work we do can just as productively be done remotely, it's fair to be skeptical of the way any company presents its plans.
What isn't up for debate is that Apple clearly thinks there is value in having its employees back together, in the office. Working remotely is different than working together in-person-- there's really no arguing that fact. "For many of you, I know that returning to the office represents a long-awaited milestone and a positive sign that we can engage more fully with the colleagues who play such an important role in our lives," Cook wrote.
At the same time, the company also appears to recognize that not all of those employees share the same level of conviction:
"For others, it may also be an unsettling change," Cook's email said. "I want you to know that we are deeply committed to giving you the support and flexibility that you need in this next phase--a commitment that begins with this gradual introduction of our hybrid pilot and includes the option to work remotely for up to four weeks a year."
Balancing the needs of the business with the needs of your team is the responsibility of every manager. Figuring out the right version of hybrid work isn't going to be easy--for that matter, nothing about the past two years has been easy. It's been difficult and companies have had to adapt and make changes as circumstances changed. That's only going to continue to be a challenge as employees who have grown used to working remotely have to make another change.
As I read Cook's email, however, I was struck by something he said near the end:
As we begin this pilot, we are looking forward to learning as we go and adjusting where we need to, all in service of fostering a really collaborative and flexible approach to our work together.
Here's the important part of that quote. Cook says Apple's strategy is "learning as we go and adjusting where we need to." That's important because no one knows exactly what it will be like to bring everyone back to the office. Sure, some people are already working in the office, but if you think your office--and the people in it--will function the way they did before Covid-19, you're kidding yourself. You're also doing your team a huge disservice.
The truth is, we're all just "learning as we go." At least Cook was willing to acknowledge as much.
Not only that, Cook also says the company will be "adjusting where we need to." Those two things together--which took only nine words to communicate--are about as authentic a commitment as any CEO could make to his or her team right now. Anyone who pretends they have some kind of brilliant plan that will bring back the good old days off in-person office collaboration just isn't being honest with you.
Never mind that a lot of employees, whether at Apple or your company, don't want to come back to the office at all. The company has faced a lot of pressure from its employees over its previous plans to return to the office. In addition, retail employees have complained that Apple hasn't listened to their concerns over working conditions throughout the pandemic. As a result, has Apple pushed back its return date on at least two occasions.
That means the transition is likely to be messy. There are going to be people for whom the transition is going to be a challenge. The role of every leader is to quickly learn from those situations and adjust plans accordingly--keeping in mind that delicate balance between the business and the people. If Apple is able to do that well, it will be to its credit and will be a model for other businesses to follow. If it doesn't, it will have an even bigger problem on its hands.
"We have an opportunity to combine the best of what we have learned about working remotely with the irreplaceable benefits of in-person collaboration," Cook wrote. We're all about to find out how well Apple takes advantage of that opportunity.