In-person work and store experiences are still often better options, according to Apple HR and retail chief

Even though Apple has adjusted well to the pandemic by having its legions of developers and store employees work from home, the head of the tech company’s retail and human resources says in-person contact is still ideal in many cases.

In a nod to the pandemic, Apple has had to limit the number of customers in its stores and make moves like shifting its popular “Today at Apple” series of in-store tutorials online. The maker of the iPhone also managed to launch a heavy slate of new products this fall despite minimal face time among staff.

Apple eked out a modest sales increase in its most recent quarter even as it coped with the pandemic and its effect on its operations.

“If you had asked me a couple of years ago, could Apple do what we’ve done this year on shifting to working from home?, I would have been challenged to imagine it,” Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and people, said at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference on Wednesday.

But the reality of employees being separated from one another and customers unable to get the same full experience at stores is not always optimal in her eyes.

“We’re taking advantage of the new skills we’ve all learned [during the pandemic],” O’Brien said. “We also do feel that collaboration, and many times face-to-face work, does allow us to do our best work and sometimes move a little faster.” Apple will “find that right balance.”

The work-from-home versus in-the-office debate has raged in corporate circles as people imagine what work life will look like once the pandemic wanes. Echoing Apple’s sentiment that in-person collaboration can be better are companies like Walmart (which is building a massive new headquarters, like Apple did a few years ago), IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Mastercard. Others, like Shopify, see work from home as the next standard, with in-person meetings optional.

And while Apple stores have adapted to the limitations imposed by measures to fight COVID-19, O’Brien says the full retail experience is still optimal for Apple and its customers.

“We want to make sure, especially as you come into our stores, that you can experience everything that we have to offer,” she says. That means, for instance, being able to come in, learn about the products, take in a seminar on a new product or feature, and get a Genius Bar consultation in person.

“That’s been a bit more challenging in this socially distant environment. I’m really hoping we’ll be able to go back to a full experience situation in our stores for our customers,” she said.

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