Why Apple is wrong to dictate which days employees come to the office

Tim Cook’s hybrid plan isn’t so flexible.
Tim Cook’s hybrid plan isn’t so flexible.
Image: Reuters/Apple/Brooks Kraft
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Apple says its hybrid work policy is meant to be “both collaborative and flexible.” But the recent controversy over the company’s return-to-office plan is a reminder that some employers are still having trouble grasping what flexibility really looks like.

The plan requires employees to come to its global offices three days a week, on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, starting May 23.

Apple employees have been raising concerns about the fairness and logic of that plan since at least last summer, when Apple was first preparing to call workers back to the office. (The company wound up pushing back mandatory office days several times in the wake of delta and other covid variants.)

As the return to office date approaches, employee pushback has taken on new urgency. In an open letter to Apple’s executive team last week, workers accused the company of creating a hybrid plan that’s “driven by fear”—”Fear of the future of work, fear of worker autonomy, fear of losing control.” Apple’s director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, also reportedly resigned in protest of the return-to-work policy last week, writing in an internal note, “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team,” The Verge reporter Zoë Schiffer said on Twitter.

Among the concerns raised in the open letter, penned by employees from across Apple’s retail, corporate, and AppleCare divisions, is the fact that Apple’s one-size-fits-all schedule dictates which particular days employees have to come into the office. “Three fixed days in the office and the two WFH days, broken apart by an office day, is almost no flexibility at all,” the letter claims.

When hybrid work isn’t actually flexible

Researchers investigating the best practices for hybrid work policies tend to side with Apple employees on the matter.

“I would call this a rigid hybrid model,” says Raj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who studies the future of work. He thinks that companies that attempt to impose strict schedules on workers will ultimately lose out, “because the best employees will leave for competitors offering more flexible hybrid policies.”

There are several issues with Apple’s hybrid plan, according to Choudhury.

First, rigid hybrid policies like Apple’s are “not cognizant that people’s lives have different priorities,” Choudhury says. Everything from child care to hobbies, appointments, and a particular team’s workflow may figure into which days of the week make the most sense to work from home.

Second, one of the most appealing parts of a remote-work option is that it gives employees the ability to work from anywhere at least part of the time. But “if you have to go to the office every week, there’s no way you can live 200 miles away,” Choudhury notes. More flexible policies, like the one that Airbnb announced last week, may still require employees to get together regularly for in-person meetups, but not with such frequency that workers have to live in commuting distance of an office location.

For companies looking for a better model of hybrid work, Choudhury points to the more flexible approach offered by companies like the tech consultancy firm Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS. TCS now requires employees to be in the office just 25% of the time. Whether that works out to one day a week, one week per month, or certain periods of the year is up to each team to decide. “Every team has to decide on the schedule at the beginning of the cycle, so there’s no ambiguity,” he says.

What’s wrong with three office days per week?

Another issue with Apple requiring workers to come into the office three days per week is that norms around hybrid work are shifting. “Apple has fallen behind the times,” says Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who studies remote work.

Apple first announced its Monday, Tuesday, Thursday schedule in June 2021, when US employers were promising an average of about 1.8 days of remote work per week, according to Bloom’s research with Jose Maria Barrero and Steven J. Davis. So at the time, Apple’s policy seemed more or less in line with what other companies were doing.

“In May 2022, the average is now 2.4 days and the Apple plan seems mean, particularly when you note some other tech firms like Airbnb and Quora have gone fully remote,” Bloom says. Moreover, a recent Harvard Business School working paper (pdf) by Choudhury and several coauthors suggests that employees produce the most original work when they’re in the office just 23-40% of the time, or just one or two days per week.

Hybrid plans shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all

The Apple workers’ open letter also expresses dismay at the company’s decision to designate Wednesday and Friday as remote days, rather than having a string of consecutive in-office days followed by consecutive remote days. Most surveys and research find that Mondays and Fridays are the most popular days to work remotely. “It’s not that everybody gets a four-day weekend, but rather it gives them flexibility to travel on Fridays and Mondays, while continuing to work,” Bloom told the Atlantic.

In terms of productivity, there aren’t particular days of the week that are inherently better or worse for in-office work. “The whole plan sounds ad-hoc—why not three other days?” says Choudhury.

Both Choudhury and Bloom suspect that Apple and other similarly inflexible companies will see high levels of attrition if they don’t adjust their policies. Ideally, they say, in-office and remote-work days should be determined by managers after consulting with their direct reports in order to understand what makes the most sense for the team, given both employees’ individual situations and the nature of the work at hand. That’s pretty much what Apple employees’ latest letter is asking for.

“We are asking to decide for ourselves, together with our teams and direct manager, what kind of arrangement works best for each one of us, be that in an office, work from home, or a hybrid approach,” the letter explains. “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”