Sep 7, 2022 - Technology

Back-to-the-office moves leave tech uneasy

Illustration of a person working at a desk in the middle of a island

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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.

Why it matters: 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.

Driving the news: 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.

The big picture: Apple's stance is unusually uncompromising among tech's 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.

Between the lines: 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 invocation of culture and creativity.

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

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

Of note: 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!

Our thought bubble: 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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