Apple told staff to return to the office. Its timing couldn't be worse

Apple's broad-brush approach to office work, combined with spectacularly poor timing, has drawn the ire of Apple workers.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that staff would have to start working from the office again from September.

Image: Apple/Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Apple employees have launched a petition against the company's return-to-office mandate after the company called for all staff at its Cupertino HQ to be back at their desks starting from September.

A group of Apple employees operating as a "solidarity union" called Apple Together is pushing back after Apple CEO Tim Cook said staff would be required to work from company offices for at least three days a week from September 5.

The group claims that Apple's broad-brush stance on office work fails to take into account "the unique demands of each job role" and ignores evidence that suggests remote work benefits productivity, diversity, inclusion, and work-life balance.

Apple Together also notes that Apple's return-to-office deadline falls on Labor Day – a US public holiday established to recognize and celebrate the contributions of workers, and honor the men and women who campaigned for worker's rights, such as the eight-hour day and 40-hour work week.

"We believe that Apple should encourage, not prohibit, flexible work to build a more diverse and successful company where we can feel comfortable to 'think different' together," the petition by Apple Together reads.  

SEE: Return to the office or else? Why bosses' ultimatums are missing the point

In addition to the symbolically poor timing of Apple's office return deadline, souring staff ahead of what is traditionally the busiest time of the year for the iPhone maker could also prove problematic – particularly given the continued demand for tech skills and the plentiful employment prospects for those wielding them.

Apple is expected to launch the iPhone 14 at an event on September 7, alongside new Apple Watch models, with new iPads and Mac devices likely to follow in October. Dealing with groups of disgruntled staff will be the last thing the company wants in the run-up to these big launches. Then again, having everyone back in a central location and 'all hands on deck' is likely the exact reason behind Apple's thinking.

In an all-employee memo sent to Apple staff last week, which was published by The Verge, Cook said its hybrid work pilot was "a great opportunity to come together, reconnect with our teams, and meet new colleagues in person." 

Apple's stance on working arrangements has softened since its last attempt to get employees back into the office, which was eventually scuppered by rising COVID-19 cases. Initially, the company said all Apple staff would be required to come to the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The new plan – should it go ahead – requires in-office work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a third floating day to be allocated by managers. Depending on role, some Apple employees will have the option to work remotely for up to four weeks a year.

Cook said the revised plan "would enhance our ability to work flexibly, while preserving the in-person collaboration that is so essential to our culture."

Apple Together argues that any schedule that mandates if and when employees should work from an office ignores the fact that staff have demonstrated they can work effectively from home.

SEE: Remote work vs office life: Lots of experiments and no easy answers

Instead, the group argues that workers should be permitted to come up with individual flexible-working arrangements alongside their immediate line manager and without "higher level approvals, complex procedures, or providing private information."

The petition notes: "Those asking for more flexible arrangements have many compelling reasons and circumstances: from disabilities (visible or not); family care; safety, health, and environmental concerns; financial considerations; to just plain being happier and more productive.

"The one thing we all have in common is wanting to do the best work of our lives for a company whose official stance is to do what's right rather than what's easy."

At the time of writing, Apple Together's petition has attracted 54 signatures out of a target of 100.

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