Things were different a few years ago.
As I write this, one of the big news stories involves Jeff Bezos’ plans to go on a spaceship built by his company Blue Origin. Not many people can afford to go on a spaceship, but Bezos certainly can.
Back in 2017, when you referred to a tech CEO going to a spaceship, you thought of Apple CEO Tim Cook staying on this planet and going to Apple Park, Apple’s new building in Cupertino. One of Steve Jobs’ last great accomplishments, Apple Park was a $5 billion corporate headquarters that provided Apple employees with an insanely great place to work.
Of course, not everybody went to an office to work in 2017. In fact, Silicon Valley had discussed this in 2013 when Yahoo’s then-CEO Marissa Mayer saw all of the Yahoo employees working from home and deemed it, um, essential that Yahoo employees work in the office whenever possible to help build Yahoo’s culture.
In February 2019, remote culture advocate Sarah Dixon looked back at the Yahoo episode. Among other things, Dixon stated:
…there’s no doubt that Mayer’s announcement did some damage to the acceptance of remote working. If you’ve tried to persuade a reluctant boss to let you work from home, they may have even used Yahoo! as the reason they don’t think it’s a great idea.
Ah, way back in 2019. I remember those days.
A little over a year later, attitudes toward remote working changed in ways that even Sarah Dixon couldn’t have imagined. In March, Dixon’s coworker Gabriela Molina was providing a step-by-step guide to working remotely during COVID-19.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a lot of us were forced to work from home, whether our companies liked it or not. Security systems were updated. Videoconferencing systems installed on our computers were used much more frequently. Additional collaboration tools were adopted.
But now, at least in the United States, COVID-19 is receding. More and more people are theoretically able to go work. Yet many people continue to work from home today, including employees of some major tech companies.
Apple, however, would like its employees back in the spaceship three days a week (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday). After all, Apple spent $5 billion on the thing; might as well get some use from it.
But some Apple employees aren’t so eager to return to the practices of old.
…we would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues. That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple. This is a decision none of us take lightly, and a decision many would prefer not to have to make.
The letter from the Apple employees uses many terms such as “flexibility,” “empowered,” “unconstrained,” and “tearing down cross-functional communication barriers.” The employees claim that remote work allowed them to do their best work ever…and they don’t want to go back.
It’s hard to predict how all of this will play out for Apple and other companies. On the one hand, many companies are taking advantage of distributed working models. Ever since August, my consultancy Bredemarket has conducted ALL of its business without setting foot inside any of my clients’ offices. Actually, my clients themselves aren’t setting foot in their own offices; for one of my clients, I frequently deal with two employees who live several states away from their employer’s office.
On the other hand, out of sight, out of mind. Unless your corporate culture has a habit of firing up Zoom or Facetime at any moment to talk to someone, interactions with remote workers are going to be more limited than they were if you were down the hall from each other.
My perspective on this is admittedly unusual. From 2017 to 2020, my corporate supervisor was on the other end of the country from me. Over the nearly three years that I reported to him, I probably saw him in person less than a dozen times. So I sort of had an experience with remote work before COVID sent all of us home in March 2020, and things worked out well.
But how are you going to get a company with hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, who paid more to build their corporate headquarters than many companies make in a year, to change its way of doing things and “think different”?