Apple stood its ground last week in the face of employee protest against its new requirement that they work from home only two days a week. Both the policy--which came directly from CEO Tim Cook--and Apple's comments about it betray a striking lack of emotional intelligence. That's a bad idea in today's tight labor market. The approach is one no small company or startup can afford to take.
Our story began about a month ago, when Apple announced its new return-to-the-office policy in light of widespread vaccinations and falling Covid-19 infections. In an internal email, Cook announced that, beginning in early September, employees would be required to work in the office at least three days a week. Specifically, those days would be Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, with the option to work remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays.
At the time, my colleague Jason Aten praised Apple for making an early decision about its policy and putting the word out well in advance so employees knew what to expect. That's true as far as it goes. But a large number of employees have made their displeasure about the policy known.
Meanwhile, Apple has made no public statements about its remote work policy, so it's hard to know exactly what its leadership is thinking. But at least from the outside, the company has shown a striking lack of empathy, and perhaps even common sense. Here are a few reasons why.
1. People may quit. Lots of them.
In fact, according to 80 employees who collaborated on a letter to Cook and Apple's leadership published in the Verge, it's already happening. In the letter, the employees say they are concerned that "Apple's remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit."
Eighty employees at a company the size of Apple may not sound like that many. But they aren't the only ones. Apple employees posted a survey in Apple's Slack channel devoted to remote work and got 1,749 responses. Given the venue, it's no surprise that almost 90 percent checked "strongly agree" with the statement, "location-flexible working options are a very important issue to me." But 58 percent also said they were worried that some of their colleagues would quit because of Apple's lack of remote-work options, and 37 percent said they might have to leave themselves.
2. Employees won't be able to practice social distancing.
Apple's new policy might make more sense if the pandemic was over and done with. But it isn't. Millions of people remain unvaccinated, including children. That leaves them vulnerable to vaccinated adults who may be able to transmit the virus even if they don't get sick themselves. Meanwhile, the more contagious Delta variant is now the dominant strain of the disease in the U.S., and is already causing infections to climb in some places.
Given all of that, it's probably a good idea for employees of large companies to practice social distancing a while longer, and many companies are deliberately staggering the days different teams are in the workplace to make this possible. But it likely won't be possible at Apple, where the entire company will be required to show up on the same days of the week.
3. Apple seems like it's not listening.
If Apple were deliberately trying to convince its employees that it's paying no attention to their preferences and concerns, its new policy, and its messaging about it, would be a great way to achieve that goal. Let's begin with the choice of days for remote working.
A team of Stanford researchers has interviewed 30,000 working-age Americans about their remote work preferences since May 2020. Among other things, researchers asked which days of the week respondents would prefer to work at home. Not surprisingly, Friday topped the list, followed by Monday, and then Tuesday. Wednesday was dead last, with only 18 percent saying they wanted to stay home that day. Yet Wednesday--the day most employees want to be in the office--is one of the two days that Apple is allowing them to work from home.
Then there have been Apple's consistently upbeat communications about bringing people back to the office, which took no notice of any negative sentiments employees may have had about no longer working from home most days. For example, in Cook's email announcing that employees would be required to work in the office, he wrote: "I look forward to seeing your faces. I know I'm not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity, and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we've all built."
In their letter, employees who want to work remotely pointed to statements like these and said they felt like there was a "disconnect" between how Apple's top executives viewed remote work and how many employees experienced it. They said that they felt "not just unheard, but at times actively ignored."
Even for a company as large and powerful as Apple, having employees say they feel actively ignored can't be a good thing. A more empathetic approach might be to acknowledge that employees have done a great job working from home, and that some may not want to return to the office now, and then explain why it's necessary for them to do so anyway.
Apple reportedly provided the explanation in an internal video explaining the company's best innovations seem to come from on-site work. But it seems to have skipped the empathy, leaving some employees to wonder if the company even heard them. Having employees feel like you're not listening? That's a mistake no employer, not even Apple, can afford to make.