Companies trying to get office workers to return to in-person work have their work cut out for them.

“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,” wrote CEO Tim Cook to Apple employees in June. “Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

Apple employees, Cook outlined, starting in September would be required to show up at the office- at least part of the time.

The uproar from the Apple rank and file was immediate, and deafening. It must have become instantly clear to Apple execs like Cook: Many employees don’t want to return to the old corporate culture wholesale takeover of the best years of their lives.

One silver lining of Covid, for some anyway, has been a better work/life balance between office and home. Now that Covid seems to be on the ebb, what will become of this new addiction to flexible schedules and spending more time with family?

Some offices, like Apple, have resisted intense internal employee pressure and insisted on a return to in-person work anyway. Some levels of collaboration and creativity, office-culture enthusiasts like Cook insist, can only be reached together- with in-person co-workers, sharing real space in real time.

“When you’re working remotely, the people that you’re working with, no matter how hard you try, they tend to turn into icons on a screen just a little bit rather than people,” one data analytics and digital marketing engineer told NPR for a piece called, “‘Why Do We Have To Go Back To The Office?’: Employees Are Divided About Returning”. “So being back in the office, it kind of restores that relationship aspect.”

Others- namely employees who do not want to return to the office, those who found they work better alone, people with more demanding family commitments, and those struggling with health problems- do not feel the same.

To put it mildly.

“We got an email saying that on June 1, 2021, all remaining remote workers were returning back to the office,” said Cindy, a 44-year old education professional working in El Paso- using only her first name to preserve anonymity. “And for me, I actually cried when I read that notice.

“Why and how to bring employees back into the office — those are the kinds of decisions company leaders are having to make,” said interview host Audie Cornish. “And they’re thinking about how to give employees flexibility, how the pandemic has impacted innovation and company culture.”

One of the people interviewed for NPR was Christina Seelye, CEO and founder of video game publisher Maximum Games.

“Innovation’s a big one. I think that innovation — I haven’t seen the technology yet that replicates what it’s like to be in a room with people and bounce off of each other,” said Seelye.

There are certainly plenty of opinions. “We’re Fumbling the Return to Physical Offices,” laments the Scientific American, citing the well-known scientific principle that, “people don’t want to go back to work, therefore they shouldn’t.”

3 Reasons Employees Should Lead The Way Back To The Office,” writes Mark Perna for Forbes, arguing against employers forcing employees back to work.

There’s Actually No Good Reason for Us All to Go Back to the Office, insists Joel Nihlean on Medium in a piece containing such gems as, “asking employees to commute into an office every day to do work that could have easily been done from home is disrespectful,” and, “work from home provides the unparalleled perk of working in pajamas.”

In surveys across a wide variety of industries, the consensus is clear, among office employees, anyway; flexible schedules are indeed their overwhelming preference.

Covid revealed the appeal of a better work/life balance and now employees feel entitled to a company that cares about the happiness and well-being of the people who work there.

Does Apple?

On the other hand, 60% of U.S. jobs don’t offer the flexibility of work-at-home hours. Doctors, retail workers, hair stylists, truck drivers, those in the manufacturing industry and many others don’t have that advantage.

Companies, and corporate hiring managers, are often said to be making note of the hold outs- who is excited to come back to work and who is fighting it every step of the way.

Compliance on workspace safety issues is also of new concern. There are questions, and serious ones: Can your employer force you to get the vaccine? Can your employer force you to return to in-person work?

Does an employee have any reasonable expectation to not get sick on the job? A tall order, considering the fields that work directly with the public. There may be new liability issues, and no company seems to want to be on the forefront of finding out these answers the hard way in a court of law.

Even OSHA seems intent on covering its own assets, legally speaking.

“This guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations,” OSHA’s recent offering, “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” was careful to note from the outset. “It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.”

With so many factors at play, Apple has reportedly delayed its moratorium on fully remote work. The recent rise in COVID-19 cases and nervousness about the Delta variant has almost certainly played a part. Apple executives must be breathing a sigh of relief, however, that their impending confrontation with angry Apple employees is being delayed.

The September deadline originally given for a return to office work, and firmly upheld by Tim Cook in spite of the resulting slack channel kerfuffle, has been moved back to October.

Google, and many other large companies, long ago caved to internal pressure from staff resistant to a return to in-person work. Will Apple do the same?

The company is already under intense pressure: The Chinese Communist Party driving an ever-harder bargain of censorship and surveillance for the privilege of doing business in China, a homeless tent city on the Apple campus, and thousands of employees demanding Apple, among other things, support Palestine by boycotting Israel.

Apple, like many other companies who have created and fostered an atmosphere of social justice and activism, is perhaps a victim of its own success in that particular endeavor. It’s only natural that Apple employees, with their attention turned to fairness in all aspects of American life, should organize and attempt to agitate for better working conditions

Corporate managers may have to admit, for better or worse, that Covid, and to a lesser extend the presidency of Donald Trump, may have changed corporate America forever. The old dynamic of “Me boss, you employee,” might be dead at last, however much human resources managers may soon miss it.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)