Apple CEO Tim Cook has added his voice to the chorus of business leaders who now expect the future workplace to be a hybrid environment in which remote and on-premises employees work together.

Welcome to office as a service

He’s right, of course. IDC predicts 60% of the U.S. workforce will be remote by 2024. According to Slack’s Future Forum, just 12% of knowledge workers want to return to the office, while 72% want a hybrid remote-office model in future.

Cook isn’t all in on remote working, however. Speaking to People magazine, Cook said that while he thinks Apple will become more accepting of remote work, he also believes getting people together in the physical sense is important, at least for some of the things his company does. (That includes, I assume, product development in secrecy.)

“My gut says that, for us, it’s still very important to physically be in touch with one another because collaboration isn’t always a planned activity,” said Cook.

Remote innovation takes time

This does reflect some of the experience I’ve been reading about as teams attempt to innovate together. To be successful, remote working takes a great deal of planning and – as Cook notes – it’s not always possible to plan the next great idea. Sometimes they emerge as people simply bounce smaller ideas together against the wall.

“Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” he said. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

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The Apple CEO isn’t unique in believing this; JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, among others, also believes that in-person presence is important to foster company culture and develop relevant skill sets.

It’s possible both men may be outriders. “Hybrid models of remote work are likely to persist in the wake of the pandemic mostly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce,” says McKinsey Global Institute.

Most business leaders now accept that employees can transact many of their tasks perfectly well while working remotely. Indeed, some human resources departments are beginning to explore the advantages of drawing talent from a global stable of potential hires, rather than being limited to one area or geography.

Good people need good software

We are therefore seeing the adoption of asynchronous working practices in many firms, with growing internationalization of teams and increased mobile technology deployments.

Those moves are also prompting adoption of new software solutions to support remote work, from bot-based Robotic Process Automation tools (to make interaction more efficient) to chatbots such as Apple Business Chat and powerful project management tools such as those from the Merlin Project.

These software solutions are becoming as important as the use of Webex or Zoom to businesses attempting to get stuff done. That’s why so many developers of video collaboration tools now integrate with the likes of Trello, Slack, Dropbox, Otter, or Zendesk. The future workforce will be supported by a blend of complementary technologies, remote IT support and zero-touch configuration.

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All the same, Cook said that while Apple is still figuring out how to get people back into offices, he now accepts that remote working is fine for many tasks and is full of praise for what his teams have achieved across the last year. “I really give the team credit for really rising to the occasion.”

Go when you want to

Hybrid work should end up being more voluntary.

As Dean Hager, Jamf CEO has said, attendance at the office will cease to be a requirement of employment but may become a benefit. I suspect most workers will attend the office for resources they lack at home, or — as Cook’s model envisions — simply to collaborate at close quarters with others to handle and resolve the most difficult problems.

That’s going to change office space requirements, of course. A recent Partnership of New York study found that the city’s largest employers expect just 45% of employees to return to work in the offices by September. This, of course, heralds big changes ahead in both office locations and the service industry that exists around business districts worldwide.

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