Dear Tim Cook,
Your employees are trying to convey something that many leaders are missing today. But your people get it. As they pointed out, now is the time to “burn the boats – to boldly declare ‘yes, this can be done and done successfully, because there is no other choice for the future.”
I whole-heartedly agree. Here’s why:
I’ve been a management and change implementation leader for over 20 years and I know that advancing workplace culture to keep pace with how contemporary society functions is not easy. Culture is like a freight train barreling down the tracks, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to alter its course. Workplace culture operates on decades of deeply ingrained and conditioned beliefs about how work is supposed to happen.
Beliefs around when work starts and stops, and where it’s supposed to take place. Beliefs around how people should be managed and what authentic leadership looks like. Beliefs that we’ve collectively inherited from past decades, before the internet, personal devices, email and a myriad of 21st-century innovations that enable us to connect and collaborate with one another as easily and effortlessly as the swipe of a digit or a few keystrokes from the tips of our fingers.
And thanks in part to Apple, we now live in a world with an entire ecosystem of hardware and software that enables us to work and live in ways unimaginable a mere 20 or 30 years ago. And yes, we’ve accomplished all of this from behind our desks, in our cubes, at our corporate headquarters, under the watchful eye of our managers.
So what’s the problem? Why change? Shouldn’t we be preserving our work culture? Clearly what we’ve been doing is working right?
It depends on your perspective. Is the engagement and health of your workforce advancing at the same pace as your business? Is the culture you’ve created something you’re done with? Are you inadvertently preserving something that, in the long run, is not worth preserving because it’s grossly out of sync with the times? As your employees so eloquently pointed out, “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.” Our collective beliefs about how work is supposed to happen creates this environment of either-or, rather than all-of-the-above.
For decades the prevailing paradigm says we can never achieve equity in the workplace because it’s impossible to manage (this is what your employees are asking for, and your management is saying isn’t possible). Nothing kills innovation, motivation, engagement and loyalty like the statement ‘it isn’t possible’. So we continue to opt instead for equality, packaging up flexibility programs like ‘the hybrid approach’ and touting them as innovative and fair. A hybrid approach is nothing revolutionary and it doesn’t take into account the identity of the person doing the work – it doesn’t recognize their work habits, their preferences, their lived reality on any given day. And above all, it doesn’t take into account the central thing it purports to focus on most – the actual work itself.
In a world where everything I do and touch is based on my personal approach and preferences, why am I stuck in a 1952-style workplace where I’m put in a box filled with archaic rules under the guise of fairness?
Why not start each day with clarity around the work? Why not have the freedom to choose how you will accomplish the work in concert with others in the most efficient and effective way? Focusing on where employees are working from and creating policies and rules around work location is outdated thinking from a world that no longer exists.
What’s remarkable to me about the letter you received from your employees is that they completely recognize this reality – that the hybrid flexibility model does not empower or support them to be their best selves every time they approach their work. What’s even more remarkable, and I hope this wasn’t lost on your leadership team, is that Apple has such dedicated employees, so loyal to the work that Apple does, that they’re advocating for the ability to continue to serve Apple’s customers in record breaking ways – case in point, all that was accomplished during a global pandemic.
“We believe that Apple has the ability to be a leader in this realm, not by declaring ‘everyone just work from home for forever,’ as some other companies have done, but by declaring an official broad paradigm policy, that allows individual leaders to make decisions that will enable their teams to do the best work of their lives.” Bingo. Autonomy and accountability. A workplace built on the contemporary foundation of autonomy and accountability leaves the hybrid organization’s flexible rules and policies in the 20th century where they belong.
When the pandemic hit, we had no choice but to adapt and change. We had no choice but to rethink what’s possible and take immediate action. What was accomplished was nothing short of a miracle. What does it say about us if we ignore the lessons learned during this time, and revert back to the status quo? Flexibility is not a new idea and it is not considered management innovation. It’s more of the same. And your employees get it.
Listen carefully to your most valuable resource, your employees. Their message is heartfelt and clear. It’s up to you to act. It’s up to you to boldly reject the ‘management of people’ and embrace a culture that manages the work. Anything short of that is simply more of the same.
CEO and Founder of CultureRx
Creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)