Apple cracking down to enforce its RTO policy - exclusive

Originally published 2 February 2023. More than 6 weeks after publishing, publications like Business Insider, Apple Insider and 9to5 Mac have published the same story, repeating the same details I shared over a month before. If you'd like to get news like this in your inbox weeks or months before it goes mainstream, subscribe!

👋 Hi, this is Gergely with a bonus, free issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. We cover one out of seven topics in today’s subscriber-only The Scoop issue.

Apple was the first Big Tech giant to mandate a proper return to the office and back in September 2022, this initiative was in full swing, being rolled out in the US and with 3 days per week in the office mandated in the UK. Back then, I wrote:

“Apple rolled out RTO in a staged fashion, adding an additional day/week in the office every month. In May, it was 1 day/week, in June it was 2, and by July it was 3 days/week in the office.

Apple struggled with office space in London because of hiring. During the lockdowns, Apple kept hiring with full speed in London as well. When RTO started, the company had several smaller offices across the city. Those going into the offices found themselves cut off from other teams, but also struggling for space.

Apple addressed the problem swiftly, according to my sources. The company made changes so all software engineers will work from the same location—Bishopsgate 22—and they are renting an additional three floors so all the software engineers will fit. Those floors will open up in November.”

Apple has started to check badge access to verify if people are in the office enough. Like most Big Tech offices, Apple’s can only be accessed via badges. In offices like the US, badges also control access to more sensitive areas. Limiting access this way isn’t common in most tech companies, but it’s in Apple’s DNA to restrict how information spreads and which areas people can access. This approach is also a reason why details about new Apple products rarely leak.

Over the past few weeks, Apple’s HR team has been sending engineering managers notifications informing them that their team members were out of the office too often last year. Managers have been asked to explain why, and told to take action. These inquiries – and warnings – have been sent in both the US and UK.

However, enforcing the 3 days/week in the office policy is problematic for some teams. I talked with a software engineer in the UK who works in a distributed team and mostly communicates over chat throughout the day. They explained that in the office there are not enough private spaces for keeping in touch with colleagues via calls. Remember, Apple is very strict about forbidding even team-sensitive information from being shared by co-workers with no authorization for a project. This means that going to the office inhibits these engineers’ ability to keep in touch, as they’re not allowed to do a call in a shared workspace if there’s no private meeting rooms.

I’ve also talked with engineers who moved away from their main work location, and plan to only be there every few weeks. They are productive and their managers are fine with this setup. However, with this HR crackdown, these people either need to get remote work exceptions approved, or move house back to within commuting distance of the office.

Apple’s current policy allows 4 weeks of remote work per year. Outside of these 4 weeks, the company expects employees to spend at least 3 days of every week in the office. From now on, attendance is being tracked and reported on.

Needless to say, engineers whom I talked to aren’t happy about the 3 days/week being enforced. This is especially true for engineers whose manager supported them working remotely; indeed in many cases, the manager was also a proponent of remote work. A software engineer in London also shared how the office is often practically empty and speculated that building management might have been involved in wanting to increase the occupancy of the space.

My take is that, realistically, it’s hard to find a workplace that offers all three of these desirable criteria:

  1. A well-known tech company
  2. Lots of flexibility on remote work
  3. Relatively good job security

Apple is the only Big Tech company that’s been safe from job cuts, as we covered last week. They were clear that people need to come to the office 3 days/week and now they’re enforcing this rule. By the sound of it, there is some flexibility, but I won’t bet on Apple’s leadership being happy with lots of exceptions.

Apple had an “office-first” culture before the pandemic and the leadership seem clear that this is the setup they want to return to – and quickly.

Could we see Apple being the first of many companies to start to enforce RTO rules? There’s something interesting about how Apple comes up with its policies and approaches. I keep seeing Apple apparently ignore its competitors and what they are doing. Back in 2021, Apple was one of the only Big Tech companies to not get involved with the heated job market and its inflated compensation packages. It also did not speed up hiring during 2020-2021, like most other companies did.

So the question is now that Apple has decided that enforcing RTO is in its best interest, will we see other companies come to the same conclusion, and will some copy this approach because Apple is doing it?

For any leader considering implementing a strict policy like Apple’s: don’t forget that Apple is a special case. It seems to me that Apple employees are far more loyal than any other Big Tech employees I talk to. Should the company avoid any major job cuts, like it’s done for more than 25 years, then this loyalty is likely to increase despite the enforced RTO.

While the job market has cooled off from the heated 2021 peak, there are now more companies offering either full remote or flexible remote work. Right now, any business that enforces a return to the office and overrules managers who grant exceptions will risk some of its engineers potentially exploring more flexible working options elsewhere.

This was one out of the five topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.

The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:

  1. Sergey Brin’s first commit at Google, after many years. Google’s cofounder came out of retirement and made his first code change last week. I talked with software engineers at Google for their reaction to it. Exclusive details.
  2. Meta’s lowest-ever bonus multiplier. The company announced its multiplier and it’s never been as low as this. Engineers inside the company told me how they feel about it. I also share what the shrunken bonus pot means in money terms for US software engineers. Exclusive.
  3. Aggressive performance reviews at several companies. Performance review season is here and they feel far more harsh, this time. I’ve talked with managers at HelloFresh, Delivery Hero and Uber to learn what’s different. Exclusive.
  4. New trend: aggressively cutting back on vendor spending? Scaleups, big tech companies and startups seem to have a sudden – and often urgent – focus on slashing vendor costs. I share what I’m seeing as I continue to gather details about this. A heads up.
  5. Companies commit to protecting jobs. Leaderships at some companies have told staff they will aim to ensure no layoffs happen. What does this promise mean, and why does it matter? Analysis with exclusive details.
  6. An increase in solo mobile developers? Interesting insights from RevenueCat data which could indicate an increase in tech entrepreneurship. Exclusive.

Read the full issue here.

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