Few don't like working from home

Editorial | Mary Ma 7 Jun 2021

Apple chief executive Tim Cook's staff circular demanding employees to return to offices in September offers at least two perspectives to understanding the aftermath of the pandemic.

For one, it's curious that Cook has specified September for starting the in-person schedule. Does it mean he is confident that the Covid situation will continue to improve in the US and everything should be largely back to normal by that month?

That's an optimistic timetable, but it would be great if it actually happened. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

The new models of working and learning from home have gone through the most extensive experiment during the pandemic, with some success.

But can it be a permanent substitute for the conventional in-person environment in most cases?

Although the home-based model has proved valuable, it would be too far-fetched to say it can be a permanent replacement for the pre-pandemic norm.

Cook joined the debate by dissenting from his hi-tech peers in Facebook and Twitter, with Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey telling their staff they can work from home on a permanent basis if they so wish.

Instead, Cook expects his staff to return to offices on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, although they can work from a distance on Wednesdays and Fridays.

But for positions of "in-person" duty, he's adamant that they show up in the office for up to five days a week.

The demand to return to "in-person" work may have caught some by surprise as hi-tech companies are often considered to be leaders in remote working.

As matters stand, this assumption isn't true with Apple. To the contrary, the company was known to be insistent on in-person work even before the pandemic when its technology peers began practicing home-based work modules to some degree.

Undoubtedly, some Apple employees will dislike a return to the old norm.

However, there is no denying that Cook's point is valid in the sense that, although video-conferencing can narrow the distance between colleagues, it cannot replicate everything that an office environment provides.

It's true that something is missing.

The same is true for learning. Undergraduates may continue to attend lectures via video links, but they will not see their college mates.

Distance learning may have spared students from getting caught in traffic on their way to and from school, but learning in isolation can be disastrous to them.

Staff working from a distance also work in isolation. Savings from daily travels and eating out are achieved at the expense of human interaction that, if at universities, broadens a learner's horizon and, if at work, deepens a worker's potential.

The shift of Facebook and Twitter to letting employees work from home for good is not the industry standard. Google is adopting a hybrid environment that requires staff to work in the office for a few days a week and a few days at home.

And Citibank has also informed its New York staff to be prepared to return to offices in the summer.

If the end of the pandemic is within sight with vaccination pressing ahead, the work-place experiment is far from being over.

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