In June 2022, Apple CEO Tim Cook sounded pretty philosophical about remote work. “We’re running the mother of all experiments,” he said at the TIME 100 symposium in New York, “because we don’t know,” he trailed off. Just a couple months later, though, he ordered staff back three days a week. And now he’s reportedly threatening to discipline the holdouts. In other words, the experiment may be losing steam.
Apple is threatening to level disciplinary action against workers who fail to come into the office for three-fifths of the working week, Zoë Schiffer, managing editor of tech newsletter Platformer, tweeted on Wednesday. She added that it is tracking employees via ID badge swipes, and some managers may give escalating warnings that could ultimately lead to termination.
“At Apple, some orgs are saying failure to comply could result in termination, but that doesn’t appear to be a company-wide policy,” Schiffer added.
A representative for Apple did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
Apple is one of the many companies that have attempted, at various points since the first lockdowns, to set a firm date on a return to office. Throughout 2021, as new variants emerged and more workers pushed back, leaders continued to push that date back.
The company first asked workers to come back in, for just one day a week, in March 2022. “For many of you, I know that returning to the office represents a long-awaited milestone and a positive sign that we can engage more fully with the colleagues who play such an important role in our lives,” CEO Tim Cook wrote in a memo at the time. “For others, it may also be an unsettling change.” And the mandate did, in fact, lead to an avalanche of discontent among workers.
Cook is far from the only Fortune 500 CEO to decry fully remote work. Earlier this month, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg said it’s “easier to build trust” among workers when they’re all in the office at least three days a week. And Twitter’s Elon Musk just sent out a mass email—at 2:30 a.m.—reminding employees that the office is not optional.
Apple gradually added more days to the return-to-work mandate throughout 2022. By August, it had upped its requirement to three days per week: Tuesday, Thursday, and a third day each team leader chooses. Employees didn’t like that, either.
Over 1,200 Apple workers signed a petition last summer—dubbed “Apple Together”—pushing back against the in-person mandate and arguing that they have done “exceptional work” from home throughout the pandemic.
“We believe that Apple should encourage, not prohibit, flexible work to build a more diverse and successful company where we can feel comfortable to ‘think different’ together,” members of Apple Together wrote.
And in fact, Apple workers can point to some spectacular financial results in the remote era. Apple surpassed $2 trillion in market capitalization in August 2020, as millions of consumers ran for their products. In January 2022, right in the midst of a pushed back return to office mandate, it briefly reached a truly massive market capitalization of $3 trillion—this represented a tripling of its valuation in fewer than four years, becoming the first U.S. company to hit the milestone.
Cook remained undeterred. In an interview with CBS in November, Cook defended his company’s hybrid work push.
“We make product and you have to hold product,” he said. “You have to collaborate with one another because we believe that one plus one equals three. So that takes the serendipity of running into people and bouncing ideas off and caring enough to advance your idea through someone else because you know that’ll make it a bigger idea.”
That doesn’t mean five days of in-person work, he added. “If you were here on a Friday, it would be a ghost town.” He’s not wrong; as of last summer, just 30% of American workers were going to offices nationwide, per data from property manager Kastle Systems.
The issue with tracking
To be sure, Cook and like-minded leaders may have a point on the benefits of office work. Research from software company Citrix found that hybrid knowledge workers were more likely than remote or fully in-office workers to connect with their coworkers in a manner that led to increased productivity, satisfaction, and connection with their bosses. Cook’s peer Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, famously slammed return-to-office orders in June 2022 before concluding just months later than in-office workers were simply higher-performing.
But three years into the pandemic, the vast majority of workers still really seem to hate the idea of commuting back to the office on their bosses’ orders. Per Slack’s Future Forum research, 95% of workers want full freedom to choose when and where they work.
Stanford economics professor Nick Bloom, a leading expert in the emergent field of remote work research, told Fortune in October that companies who plow ahead could be showing a real lack of foresight. “Women, people with disabilities, and people of color all have a preference for remote work—not only are [companies] upsetting employees, they’ll face issues of diversity if they continue on this,” Bloom told Fortune last year. “That’s just another cost I don’t think they’re aware of.”
Bloom argued that companies who monitor their workforce haven’t really considered their actual end-goal. If a worker only comes in two days a week instead of the required three, which HR discovers by tracking swipes and informs the worker’s manager, what happens next? “Where does the manager go from there?”
They have two choices, Bloom said: They can ignore it, which would make it clear to employees that the rule has no teeth. That ultimately makes management look weak. Or: They could start to penalize people and say, “I know you perform well and hit your targets, but your attendance isn’t good, so we’re slashing your pay.”
“Obviously, that just pushes high performers out the door to your competitors,” Bloom said. “Neither of those choices are appealing, so either way you execute, I don’t see how it’s a good policy.”
It’s an especially silly metric to impose at a company like Apple, which only hires the best of the best in the first place, he said. “Everyone there is super ambitious; they’re stars of their class, not slackers,” Bloom added. “They’d generally do anything to improve their career. In-office mandates being unpopular should show that it’s not important.”
“In 2023,” Bloom said, “We’ll be laughing at anyone who does anything else but hybrid.”