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On June 2, Apple announced that from September, its employees should return to working from its offices, the impressive Apple Park in Cupertino, California, and will only be able to work from home two days a week for a maximum of two weeks a year, with management approval. The policy, which specifies that in-office work will be required on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, is more conservative than that of many other companies, and particularly much more so than that of other tech giants, but it represents a certain relaxation of working conditions for a company that has traditionally maintained a hostile attitude to distributed work and has required its employees to work from the office.

In the memo, signed by Tim Cook, the company talks about how employees have missed each other’s company over the last 18 months and that video conferencing, while it can bridge the gap, cannot replicate the supposed advantages of being physically in the office. In March, Tim Cook said he was looking forward to getting employees back in the offices, insisting: “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity, it’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

In response to Cook’s June 2 back-to-office announcement, several thousand employees have signed a letter of protest pointing out that they were not consulted, and insisting they be allowed to continue working in a distributed manner. The letter says that the company’s lack of flexibility has led many people to leave their jobs at Apple, and highlights a strong disconnect between the way management thinks about distributed work and the positive experiences of many Apple employees during the pandemic. Furthermore, argue the signatories, distributed work is an integral part of the company’s efforts to accommodate diversity and inclusion: “For Inclusion and Diversity to work, we have to recognize how different we all are, and with those differences, come different needs and different ways to thrive.”

The experience of the past year has shown many employees that for the first time in their careers they have been free from the constraints of the challenges that commuting or shared-use offices inevitably impose, while still being able to take better care of themselves and the people around them. And most importantly, states the letter, this has led to many people doing their best work.

If this tug of war is taking place in a company like Apple, with a historic culture of face-to-face work, an expensive, symbolic and newly built headquarters, and a management determined to return to the old ways, what must be happening in other companies where the workforce wants to continue enjoying the benefits of distributed work?

Let’s not return to the past.