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Tim Cook in September 2020 at Apple Park. (Courtesy Apple)

When Apple CEO Tim Cook recently laid out the company’s plans for a return to the office, it didn’t take long for some employees to lash out in opposition to the new work policy.

In fact, it only took two days for some staff members to send a letter to Cook, blasting him for announcing on June 2 that workers will be expected to return to the office three days a week in the fall. The employee letter, written and edited by about 80 people, was obtained by The Verge.

“Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple,” the workers said in the letter.

To be sure, like many organizations, Apple’s stance on remote work has evolved since the coronavirus outbreak.

Pre-pandemic, Apple had discouraged remote work, so its change in policy, to allow employees to telework two days a week, constituted a relaxing of previous restrictions. Still, the policy is less generous than that of fellow tech giant Google, which said in May that 20 percent of its workforce would be able to work from home permanently.

A growing disconnect

In addition, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that remote work “is the future,” and told staff they can all work from home forever as long they get their manager’s approval.

According to the Apple employee letter, the fact that the new policy didn’t go farther in allowing remote work to continue is what ruffled their feathers.

As Covid-19 vaccinations curb the outbreak in the U.S. and organizations begin to plan their return to the office, the Apple dispute is indicative of the growing disconnect between executives and employees in general over the future of the workplace.

Studies are bearing evidence of this disconnect.

A large majority of CEOs worldwide don’t expect their employees to work remotely even two to three days a week after the pandemic subsides, according to a survey by accounting firm KPMG.

At the same time, 70 percent of 500 CEOs polled in KPMG’s 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey plan to have most staff working from the office once the health crisis ends.

Those findings clashes with the expectations of many employees. More than 70 percent of workers want to continue to work remotely at least partially even after it’s considered safe to return to the office, according to a 2021 work trend survey by Microsoft.

The letter to Apple’s Cook also reflects how employees across the U.S. are becoming emboldened to demand a better work/life balance, which many employees feel was facilitated by the pandemic-spurred shift to remote work. The fact that numerous studies have showed most managers and employees have reported higher productivity while working at home certainly has contributed to the employees’ cause.

One foot out the door

In fact, many employees are ready to give their employers the heave-ho should they lose the right to continue working remotely. According to a report published last month by Realtor.com, almost a quarter of U.S. employees said they will look for a new job if forced  to return to the office.

According to a 2021 Achievers Workforce Institute survey, about half of employees plan to actively job hunt this year — up from a third in 2020. Twenty-five percent cited a desire for a better work/life balance as the top reason for seeking a position elsewhere.

Some workers at Apple, which has long been considered one of the most prestigious tech companies to work for, are doing just that, according to the note sent to Cook.

There has been “concern among our colleagues” that “Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit,” the letter said.

Tara Kiely, a human-resources business partner at HR Collaborative in Michigan, says that employees have a lot of leverage in the current environment when it comes to influence over company policies regarding in-office and remote work.

“Remote workers absolutely have a leg up on what to insist on for their expectations, with a lot of [job] choices,” she said.

Companies need to prepare for such disputes over work policies by keeping the channels of communication open with staff, she warns.

CEOs come under fire for remote-work comments

To head off any potential conflict, organizations should plan for some form of flexibility in the workplace or talent will be lost to those who do, she says, adding that the need for businesses to listen to employees is a crucial step in the transition to work arrangements post-pandemic.

“Businesses must be willing to listen to their employees and make their best effort to align their company needs with their employee wants. The expectation of the workforce now is flexibility,” Kiely added.

The Apple employees emphasized in their letter that CEO Cook’s announcement on the new work policy clearly missed their expectations of future work.

The letter goes on to say that employees, over the past year, have often “felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored.”

It also asked that the company allow teams to decide about work locations for employees and that it formulate a plan for disabled persons, including “location-flexible work,” among other demands.

Cook is not the first executive of a major corporation to be criticized for appearing to be out of step with what employees want when it comes to the future of the workplace.

WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani was accused by some critics of downplaying the benefits of remote work after he told a virtual audience at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival on May 12 that more engaged employees seek to come back to the office, while “those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.”

A few weeks later, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of Washington, D.C.-based magazine Washingtonian, came under fire in the media after she suggested that staff who didn’t return to the office faced losing their full-time job status.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, she wrote that “while some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like.”

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