Back-to-the-office moves leave tech uneasy


A lot of CEOs are itching to get workers back to the office, but tech CEOs who want that face an extra uphill battle: After all, theirs is the industry that made remote work possible.

The tech industry was built on "dogfooding" — the idea that companies should use the products they push on the public — and every effort by a tech leader to hound reluctant employees back to the office park seems to betray that ideal.

 This week Apple, tech's most valuable company, began requiring its workers to report to the office at least three days a week.

  • Many leaders in tech and beyond see this week and coming weeks as their "best hope at getting workers on a more regular office schedule before the fall and winter holidays," per the Wall Street Journal.
  • Others are gradually accepting that there's no going "back to 'normal,' the way it was before the pandemic, in most industries," as Jason Bram, a NY Fed economist, told Axios' Emily Peck last month.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has walked a careful line between acknowledging the appeal of remote work but praising in-person "serendipity" and "collaboration" and making clear that he and Apple would really like to see more of the troops at the company's $5 billion, beached-flying-saucer headquarters.

  • The company has always prioritized secrecy, and that's harder to enforce when employees fan out.
  • Last month, more than 1000 Apple employees signed a petition urging the company to adopt more flexibility in its three-day-a-week rule.

 Apple's stance is unusually uncompromising among tech giants.

  • Some tech firms have embraced remote work and even given up their headquarters. Others have tried to let workers choose the mode they prefer.
  • Few have gone as far as the big New York banks and other corporate giants that want everyone back at their desks five times a week as if COVID had never happened.
  • In most industries, executives are three times more likely than employees to favor a return to the office, per a Pew survey earlier this year.
  •  In tech, every fight boils down to numbers. But arguments over the relative levels of productivity workers can achieve remotely vs. in-office are tough to resolve with data.
  • In the software industry, in particular, worker productivity is notoriously difficult to measure.

Inevitably, managers who favor in-office work rely less on statistics and more on the invocation of culture and creativity.

  • That's often heartfelt — but it can also feed workers' suspicion that bosses are driven by nostalgia or hunger for control.

 COVID is still very much with us, frequently sending "back to the office" workers right home again.

 Apple TV+ had a streaming hit this year with "Severance," which depicts a world of office workers profoundly alienated from themselves via a neural technology that ropes off their work experiences and memories from the rest of their lives.

  • Sure, there are some problems with this arrangement. But they all show up at the office every weekday!

Apple led the personal-computer revolution with an appealing pitch to personal empowerment. The company's reluctance to fully embrace remote work is not only likely to demoralize some of its employees — it feels surprisingly off-brand.

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