Apple is the latest example of how the remote work fight has gone lunatic

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The emerging corporate pushback against working from remote locations (otherwise known, unfortunately, as work from home) is nothing shy of self-destructive and bizarre. I say this because it comes at the same time enterprises struggle to attract and retain the talent they need during a major talent shortage.

It’s as though C-level execs argued to their boards: “This worker shortage is hurting us badly and it must be fixed. But as long as we’re here, let’s make the shortage much worse by undermining our remote worker policy.”

Apple is a terrific example because the nature of its operations are perfectly suited to a distributed workforce and it has seen firsthand all of the benefits — and virtually none of the downsides — during the past two years. And yet, down the “let’s bring our workers back into corporate buildings” rabbit hole it plunged. 

Talented workers throughout Apple have protested this reversal and its highly-sought director of machine learning resigned, citing the remote-site reversal as a key reason.

Had Apple — or any other enterprise — argued that material failings within remote sites forced this change, that might be different. Had it argued that efficiency had fallen (it hasn’t), that work quality suffered (it didn’t), that managers struggled with getting their teams to follow instructions (they didn’t), then maybe this wouldn’t be so one-sided. 

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The truth, however, is that remote sites have generally worked out admirably. There was an anticipated IT cost to getting everyone setup securely, but that money has now been spent and it’s not coming back. That means there’s not even a, “We had to stomach these new costs during the earlier stages of Covid, but those expenses are no longer justifiable now” argument to make.

These programs have also delivered all of the promised benefits: happier employees; less wasted time (and once we sharply cut back on unnecessary video conferences, wasted time will drop more); and employees who could  translate those commute hours into doing more work, getting more sleep and improving their work/life balance. 

Maintaining (as opposed to creating) such a program has minimal costs, no disruptions, and helps make for a happier workplace. Hence, Apple and others clearly have to try and stop it.

To address and eliminate a minor argument, it’s obvious that a few positions do require on-site presence, such as some assembly-line workers, building security, cafeteria workers, building maintenance, and exterminators. But for enterprises today, the overwhelming majority of workers — especially professionals — can function most of the time perfectly well working remote.

Apple started by mandating one day a week at a headquarters building, then made it two, and on May 23 will make it three days a week. That makes no sense for most positions. There is a better way to deal with it. Here’s how the policy should go: “If there is a critical reason for any particular employee to be at headquarters, that employee’s manager will discuss it individually. Managers will be instructed that it must be an important reason that has to be done, can only be done at HQ and can only be done by that employee. Even then, we are limiting it to a maximum of once a week.”

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In other words, there needs to be a concrete reason for an employee to travel to a corporate building. “It’s Thursday” doesn’t come close. Once/twice/thrice-a-week is arbitrary. It should be closer to, “however much time is necessary for you to do your job, based on your supervisor’s written opinion. You can appeal that decision up the chain of command, of course. The last thing we want is for someone to come in when it’s not necessary.”

Many enterprise executives are simply more comfortable with in-person interactions, as that was most likely much of what they did throughout their career. In their mind, that’s just how business is done. 

COVID-19 is part of the confusion. The virus is very much still with us and will likely stay with us for years, if not forever. Did the flu run its course and disappear?

Here’s the confusion: COVID was what forced enterprises to move to remote work right away. It’s not the reason for remote. In fact, it should have been offered years ago, but at least it’s being done now. 

Once execs internalize that the pandemic was the impetus and not the sole reason for remote, they will see a temporary lull in COVID-19 cases as a reason to dilute remote. 

And still there’s that talent recruitment/retention issue. Why undermine efficiency, better work/life balance, happier employees at a time when staffing is a problem? If execs want more personnel in their buildings, start slow. Begin with this: “As of now, all employees and contractors who want to come back into corporate buildings are welcome to do so. Please do so safely, but by all means, come back if that’s what you want.”

That shouldn’t undermine morale and it won’t push anyone to leave the company. And yet it gets more people in the office.

What is likely behind this movement away from remote is a vague belief among some executives that creativity and idea-sharing has fallen. Can they prove it? And if so, are there ways to address that problem shy of gutting a successful remote program? 

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