Disclosure: All companies mentioned here except Apple are customers of the author.
Stella Lou is one of the people I love in the tech world, whom I initially met at Dell Technologies. I moved from Dell to Cisco to Apple, then quickly jumped to HP. Dell, Cisco, and HP prioritize job satisfaction for employees and partners, while Apple places more emphasis on margins and cost reduction.
Which approach is better?
Apple’s performance and market valuation show the financial benefits of its methods, but issues with companies like Qualcomm, and its ongoing efforts to remove employees’ ability to leave could create serious problems with hiring and retention once these methods are discovered and become more widely known.
Apple seems to manage employees as if they were commodities – this isn’t an uncommon approach, but it often has results like unions and over staffing. Counterbalancing this disruption are policies that restrict the movement of employees, which are also not uncommon. Dell, Cisco, and HP treat employees like people, some would argue like the perfect family.
The theory is that the approach of Dell, Cisco, and HP is unlikely to lead to employee unions, unsustainable employee disruption, or behavioral problems associated with employee abuse. This is a theory, at least, although basic cognitions can be driven more by time than process.
What is happening now is one of the rare occasions when you see two opposing employee management systems in the same industry being pursued at the same time on a large scale.
remote work theory
Arguably, the most powerful company that supports remote employees is Dell. Ordered from the top down, Dell has not only allowed any employee to work remotely, but is also the most aggressive with programs that attempt to help employees do better work with work-life balance, while placing a high priority on creating relationships within the company.
In contrast, Apple has required employees to return to the office – and appear unwilling (or unable) to successfully manage those who choose to work from home. Dell puts the wants and needs of employees first, while Apple sees command and control as the top priority. Additionally, Apple appears to put office occupancy above employee satisfaction; Dell appears to be rethinking both the importance of its office structure and how those offices should operate in the future.
Tactical vs. Strategy
You can also distinguish one Apple approach from the other as tactical versus strategic. Apple’s approach is tactical, as it addresses the problem of effectively managing remote workers by restricting them – making the problem easier to deal with. But the number of employees at Apple who now say they might jump ship, especially because it’s so public, suggests that Apple will pay a strategic cost for the move in terms of lost employees and productivity-related damage.
Other tech companies seem to realize that working from home is an important advantage, given the huge disparity in the cost of living in the areas where these companies reside. And they take the time to find new ways to mitigate any balance between command and control, work/life, and relationship problems that the remote model is known to have.
Companies like Dell should have fewer employees, which should lead to fewer employees becoming disgruntled and behaving illegally. But it also means that managers will need to be retrained, and that team building and related programs will need to evolve. The benefits of this effort are likely to be realized over time rather than being immediate.
It’s about more than the bottom line
Apple’s high valuation may indicate that its approach to employee commodification, and its positioning, far below the focus of the company’s margin and the need for control, will ultimately be counterproductive. Software such as those at Cisco, HP, and especially Dell should allow for better strategic execution over time – and more stability – but may not allow any of them to surpass Apple’s assessment. (The company’s smartphone success isn’t mirrored in any other company, which gives it a huge boost.)
The danger is that if companies simply look at finances, they may conclude that treating employees like commodities is a best practice. That could be disastrous and it would be a mistake. The difference in tactics is likely related to the unique nature of Apple’s success in a segment where others aren’t playing.
Apple pays well, and it’s not uncommon for employees to put their pay ahead of other factors. But money doesn’t make up for the agony of working in a careless environment, and a lot of Apple employees seem to be trying to vote with their feet. It has not yet been decided whether this is enough to stop this productivity-lowering practice. But I know how I would like it to end, with an industry that recognizes that employees are its greatest assets and is treated accordingly.
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