Dealing with Pushback about Returning to On-Site Work (What Tim Cook Got Wrong)

Dealing with Pushback when Returning to On-Site Work

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, announced to the 137,000 Apple employees that they would be expected to return to work onsite beginning in early September not necessarily full-time but potentially up to three days a week. Almost immediately, there was pushback from some employees who wrote an open letter to him stating: We feel like the current policy is not sufficient in addressing many of our needs.

This issue is one that many companies and leaders are facing conflicting views and desires regarding employees returning to work in the office. Surveys and polls are finding that a large segment of employees want to continue to work remotely in fact, one poll found that 39% of employees say they would rather quit than give up working remotely.

Cook’s email has created an avalanche of responses from the traditional business leadership community. Their arguments span a wide range of topics from the economic feasibility of a hybrid model to the need to listen to the desires of one s employees.

I believe Tim Cook is an incredibly bright individual who has demonstrated amazing skill and leadership ability. And I do not disagree with his decision. But here is where I believe he missed the mark.

In the closing remarks of his email, Cook stated, For now, let me simply say that I look forward to seeing your faces. I know I m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built. This is a nice, warm personal statement; and is probably true for many.

This proposition may surprise you coming from me but missing the hum of activity and the sense of community we’ve all built isn t the right reason to bring people back to onsite work. Cook s thinking leans toward the actual reason for the increased call for employees to return to the office. But he doesn’t state it overtly, which has led to confusion and left him open to a wide range of criticisms. 

To get to the underlying why employers are asking their workers to return to the office, we need to review four foundational principles about work.

4 Foundation Principles About Work

  • First, from an economic perspective, work is the process of: (a) providing goods and/or services that (b) people need or want, and (c) are willing to pay for. There are obviously other purposes for work, the good of the community, providing meaning and purpose for the individual worker, etc. But the ultimate starting point is the economic exchange of goods and services for something of value to the worker.
  • Second, the ultimate judge of what is needed in the workplace lies with the customer and client. Employers are only the intermediary they essentially serve as the broker between the work provider and the customer. The business owner has identified a need or desire customers have and has assembled a process and resources — materials, information, skilled laborers — to meet the need. In many ways, the issue is not what the employer wants or desires if the action taken doesn t serve the client well.
  • Third, the owners of a company (and the leaders they have hired) have the authority to make the decisions they believe are in the best interest of their clientele and for the long-term benefit of the company. A company which does not make enough money to meet its expenses will eventually cease to exist. Leaders often have access to information across a variety of arenas that impact decisions in specific areas of the company. Conversely, frequently managers and employees do not have all of the relevant information related to decisions made.
  • Finally, the long-term health of an organization is dependent on taking care of and considering the needs of its employees. At Appreciation at Work, we don t pursue positive workplace cultures just for the sake of general harmony. Positive, supportive workplaces create better products and services for their clientele and they do so more efficiently and profitably than organizations that ignore the human-ness of their employees.


The real reason employees need to work onsite (at least partially) is because doing so is what is best for the customers they serve and the long-term health of the organization. If better quality products and services can be produced more effectively and profitably when employees return to the workplace, then that has to be part of the company s post-pandemic plan. In fact, the Securities and Exchange Commission now requires publicly held corporations to document their strategy, plan and investment in developing their human capital (that is, their employees) because companies who invest in their employees and the workplace culture outperform those companies who don t.

What Tim Cook did wasn’t wrong, just incomplete. It was fine that he communicated his own desire to have team members around, but he needed to connect his decision with the deeper purpose to better serve their customers and to maintain the ongoing health of the company. While employees might not like the personal implications of the decision, giving them these foundational reasons would provide firmer ground on which to stand.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to address this issue. Each company has to develop their own guiding principles through investigation, reflection, and communication with team members.

Various factors will have to be considered — which types of team members need to return to in-person work, how often they need to be there, how to build supportive team relationships with. . . the benefits of less commute time and working in a quiet environment without interruptions. These will have to be balanced to attain the best results for your customers, employees and the health of the organization.