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Apple Won't Go Back to the Office

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
3 min read
Apple Won't Go Back to the Office

Artificial Intelligence is important, and tech companies are in fierce competition to hire the best talent. Earlier this month, Ian Goodfellow, a Director of Machine Learning at Apple, decided to quit. Why? Because Apple tried to force him and his team to spend three days a week at the office. "I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team," Goodfellow reportedly wrote in a parting note to staff.

Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Goodfellow is joining Google's DeepMind division. "Goodfellow is the most senior employee known to leave over the company's return-to-office policy, but more departures are expected" once the company's new 3-days-a-week policy goes into effect.

Apple's new policy was announced in April but is yet to be implemented. Earlier this month, nearly 1500 Apple employees signed a petition asking the company to "let go of the rigid policies... Stop trying to control how often you can see us in the office." The petitioners ask the company to trust them and let their direct managers — rather than a single policy —figure out how and where they work.

The petition is compelling and includes a famous quote from Steve Jobs: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." The petitioner's closing statement drives this point home:

"Here we are, the smart people that you hired, and we are telling you what to do: Please get out of our way, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives."

On Tuesday, Apple announced postponing the new 3-day policy due to "Concerns about Covid-19." The company said it will continue with a "plan" to bring people back to the office for two days a week but allow anyone "uncomfortable coming into the office" the "option to work remotely."

Apple is not alone. Other companies that depend on top talent are doing the same process. Last year, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said that remote work "is not ideal for us and it's not a new normal... it's an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible." Solomon ordered everyone to come back, but only half of the people showed up — and we can safely assume that half included mostly junior employees. Earlier this week, Goldman shifted to the "bargaining" phase, announcing a new policy that allows senior staff members to take "unlimited time off." Goldman's concessions will not end there.

This is a classic case of the "Five Stages of Real Estate Grief" that I described in my book. Something has changed — employees figure out a new way to work (and live). At first, employers, office managers, and landlords tried to ignore it and hoped things would just go back to normal on their own. Then, they got angry and tried to force people back. Now, they're bargaining. Next up, depression and acceptance.

Last year, I explained why this would happen.

The first reason is "invisible talent leaks." Both Goldman and Apple will never run out of employees. For every Ian Goodfellow that leaves, Apple can hire another qualified Machine Learning expert who'll happily take up the salary and perks. But Apple would still be worse off. Creative industries (including software and finance) are increasingly reliant on outlier employees. Such employees are hard to spot and recruit. But if you hire from a bigger talent pool, you're more likely to catch one (consider a basketball team that only hires players who happen to live near the stadium...).

Every extra day at the office reduces the number of people who are likely to join your company. By reducing the pool of potential employees, you are reducing your odds of finding and recruiting the outlier that will develop your company's next groundbreaking feature or product.

This brings us to the first reason Apple and Goldman will continue to make concessions. These companies aren't operating in a vacuum. They are surrounded by companies with more flexible work policies that are willing and able to pay just as high salaries. As I wrote in "the office prisoner's dilemma," once some companies embrace remote work, all companies are forced to embrace remote work.

In the past, employees were afraid to express their preferences for fear of being fired (or not hired). If one candidate asked to work remotely, the company would hire a different candidate. Even if both candidates would like to work remotely, both of them assume that it is not an option, and so the best thing to do is conform and get hired.

Covid turned this "game" on its head. Now, everyone knows that remote work is viable, and job candidates know that they're not the only ones asking for it. As a result, employees are emboldened to express their preferences directly. Companies that want access to the best talent will have to give them what they want.