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May 9, 2022updated 24 Jun 2022 4:14am

Ian Goodfellow’s Apple departure highlights tech’s hybrid working tensions

Apple's desire to get staff back to the office could see it lose out in the war for talent.

By Ryan Morrison

Apple’s head of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, has quit the company over its return-to-the-office policy. Goodfellow’s departure highlights tensions between the company and its staff as they adapt to new hybrid working patterns after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apple back to office
Apple wants staff to return to its Cupertino, California, headquarters – and other offices around the world – on a three day a week basis. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images )

Goodfellow, an eminent machine learning specialist who joined Apple three years ago from Google, reportedly told staff in an email that his resignation was in part due to the return to in-person work, saying: “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.” Apple has ordered staff working from home to return to the office on three set days a week from the end of May.

Goodfellow’s departure could lead other staff to follow suit, with Apple employees having written an open letter to the company to complain about its hybrid working policy. This will likely prompt a rethink among Apple executives, an expert told Tech Monitor.

How does Apple’s back to office policy compare to other Big Tech firms?

Apple’s policy matches that of Google parent company Alphabet, which has asked staff to resume office working three days a week, while Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has also asked staff to return. Amazon, by contrast, is taking a case-by-case approach to permanent remote working requests. Social network Twitter has said all staff can work from home permanently if they prefer, while AirBnB’s CEO has stated the office is a thing of the past.

“Apple had a work from home policy that, in Summer 2021 when it was announced, was fine,” says Professor Nick Bloom, William D. Eberle Professor of Economics at Stanford University and co-founder of Work From Home Research. “By summer 2022 this policy has become clearly too restrictive compared to the rest of tech. A lot has changed in the last year with a surge in post-Covid-19 work from home, but unfortunately not Apple.”

Apple’s work from home policy: do staff want to return to the office?

In protest at the rigid return to office policy, a group of Apple employees have formed a new group under the banner Apple Together, calling for the option to work remotely full-time where possible.

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“We are not asking for everyone to be forced to work from home,” the group said in an open letter to Apple executives, citing the three “in-office” days often being mid-week, with an office day after two days from home, as an example of the lack of flexibility.

“We are asking to decide for ourselves, together with our teams and direct manager, what kind of arrangement works best for each one of us, be that in an office, work from home, or a hybrid approach,” the letter said. “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”

The group also claims a lack of good faith on the part of Apple when it comes to honouring a commitment to approve full remote work on a case-by-case basis, claiming there are several departments where no exceptions were approved over an entire year.

Anonymous corporate employee social network Blind took a poll of Apple workers, finding that 56% of 652 employees surveyed (users sign up with a company email address, but remain anonymous publicly) were considering other options in response to the work from the office policy. Most of those surveyed worked primarily in engineering and production development roles, Blind said.

One of the workers polled said: “Attrition has been high recently at Apple. I think more people than just those speaking out are against RTO [return to office]. They are just quietly going out and finding better opportunities.”

“Apple is going to see attrition like no other come June. 60% of my team doesn’t even live near the office. They are not returning,” said another anonymous Apple employee on Blind.

Apple faces an additional problem retaining staff because, as well as changing the way people work, the pandemic has made it easier for staff to change jobs, Professor Bloom argues. “Interviewing for a new job while working from home is easy – a discrete video call,” he says. “Interviewing while working at the office can be hard – several hours away under some dubious excuse.”

Indeed, in his research Professor Bloom found that out of 2,079 people surveyed, 46% found it easier to interview for another job while working from home, compared to 23% who found it harder.

Will Apple change its back to office policy?

Goodfellow’s departure from Apple’s special projects group could hamper its efforts in artificial intelligence, especially if other members of his team join him in leaving. He is known as the 'father of general adversarial networks', a technology used AI training, and co-authored an AI textbook used in more than 1,500 universities.

Apple has one of the strictest return to the office policies of the Big Tech companies, perhaps, in part, because it invested some $5bn in Apple Park, its headquarters in Cupertino, California. CEO Tim Cook is a strong proponent of in-person working. “For all that we've been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other,” Cook said last year. “Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

The company introduced a phased return for employees, starting at one day per week from April, eventually ramping up to three set days a week, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, by 23 May.

But Professor Bloom believes it will soon make some alterations to this schedule. “I predict that Apple will start allowing working from home on Monday too in order not to lose more employees," he says. "Requiring 3-2 hybrid will be too costly, and Apple is a well-run company and will respond. Working from home is also getting better as the technology to support it is improving. Apple knows and loves tech so this would be natural for them.”

Read more: AI in the workplace is becoming more popular with staff

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