In the aftermath of Apple employees pushing back on return-to-office policies and negative reactions to that (and again and likewise), Charlie Warzel wrote at length about why companies need to listen to the concerns of their employees in his Galaxy Brain newsletter:
Every manager/executive… who is good at their job and works at a company with employees who aren’t broadly miserable employs a similar strategy: they listen to their employees. They listen and they do it regularly. I don’t mean sending out end of year feedback forms and having HR compile long reports nobody reads — I mean they actively seek their employees out and, humbly, listen. They listen not to confirm their priors, but to gain some new understanding. They do this, in part, because they give a shit about their employees, but also because it’s good business. It turns out that your employees — the ones doing the day to day labor of making the business run — are quite good at sending signals about the real status of the company’s culture. You just have to be willing to listen.
The issue of how a company should structure its workspaces and work policies post-COVID is incredibly complex. There’s no single right answer because every company and every job is different. It’s true that most Apple employees took their jobs with the knowledge that they’d be required to be present in Cupertino (even if that didn’t necessarily make sense, even at the time, for many groups). But surely the last year has changed things, at least somewhat?
More broadly, is Apple’s corporate culture1 the secret to its success, and should it never change?2 Are some aspects of it more important than others? If Apple changes its culture in any way, does it risk not being the company that made it so successful?
The truth is, no memo could ever truly change Apple’s culture. That’s not how corporate culture works. Corporate culture (for good and ill) is an invisible force built into the structure of a company. It exerts its power even when all the individuals in the company agree that changing the culture is appropriate. It takes real effort, and commitment, and time to change corporate culture.
At this point, if Apple’s work culture changes, it’ll be because circumstances force it to. Apple will have star employees who insist on being remote, so the company will make exceptions for them. It will try to hire talent and fail because of its insistence on everyone being in Cupertino, and that failure will lead to a readjustment of policies. The existing policies, when compared to those from other tech companies that have embraced remote work, will likely lead to a brain drain within Apple—and those in charge of hiring and recruitment will realize they need to counteract those effects by offering jobs that don’t require spending three-ish days a week in Cupertino.
But unless the world reverts back to a pre-2020 state as if nothing happened, Apple’s culture will probably have to change, regardless. And the pain of that change will be magnified by the fact that Apple’s executives seem so resistant to it. Maybe they should listen—really listen—to what their current employees are trying to tell them.