The COVID-19 pandemic was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s not over yet conceded Apple CEO Tim Cook, who told employees this week they’ll be working from home “until June.”
The new normal is already here
Cook spoke during the company’s regular all-hands town hall meeting, during which he told staff it was unlikely they’ll be returning to the office en masse until at least next June. That’s in line with most big tech firms, and follows Cook’s statement in September, when he said: “I don’t believe that we will return to the way we were,” and revealed that just 10% to 15% of the company’s staffers were currently working at the office.
The CEO implied that Apple, which has traditionally required employees to submit to an office-based structure, can expect to work remotely more frequently post-pandemic, in part because we now know for certain that remote working works.
“There’s no replacement for face-to-face collaboration, but we have also learned a great deal about how we can get our work done outside of the office without sacrificing productivity or results,” he said.
“All of these learnings are important. When we’re on the other side of this pandemic, we will preserve everything that is great about Apple while incorporating the best of our transformations this year.”
Will WWDC 2021 be an online show?
The pandemic has also generated interesting new approaches to working remotely. At Apple, for example, the fact that key engineering workers were unable to visit manufacturers during the product development process in March led the company to make use of augmented reality and remote-controlled robots to provide some form of telepresence.
Such tools let U.S.-based engineers help set up and monitor product development and manufacturing supply lines remotely.
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Apple also made use of iPads and augmented reality software to help manage technicians in factories outside the U.S., and some staff in America ended up living in China time.
Executives hinted that Apple has picked up a few product development ideas from this process, as it now has a much stronger understanding of how AR can be used to augment remote workflows.
The strength of Apple’s WFH pivot is reflected in the quality of the products the company has managed to introduce this difficult year. Its teams managed a cavalcade of challenges to achieve this, and it’s hard to imagine the complexity of some of the decisions that had to be made, not least around supply chain management, retail repositioning, employee provisioning and more.
For most Apple watchers, the clearest evidence of this effort was the move to an online WWDC, which (on the basis of Apple’s June promise) now seems very likely to be the approach the company takes to WWDC 2021, given that a June return now looks like a best case scenario. Even June may not happen.
Why act surprised?
There’s no reason anyone should be surprised. Culture-shifting plagues have been part of human experience since ancient history, and anyone who pretends they couldn’t imagine one should not hold positions of power or responsibility. We’ve had warnings for decades.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I spent a few weeks studying a London School of Hygiene & Tropical medicine course exploring what was then known about the disease. I’ve been wearing a mask and social distancing since, even at my own father’s COVID-19 related funeral. The only way to break a disease like this is to break the cycle. Those economies that have accomplished this are already back to a new normal.
Apple’s concession that we aren’t there yet is a sad reflection of the work that must still be done.
Enterprises will need to make continued investments in remote working and work from home policies, and they must make active engagement with employees, providing resources, equipment and both physical and mental health support.
It also means removing the stigma of remote working. Those industries in which it could be achieved across the core business are moving forward, and all the data I’ve seen shows remote employees are often more productive than before.
Apple’s statement makes it far more likely other enterprises will make the same commitment, as so many companies already have. IDC predicts 60% of the U.S. workforce will be remote by 2024, while Gartner data claims 47% of businesses will let employees continue to work from home in future.
I’ve been offering guidance for remote working all year; here are a few articles that can help.