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Deirdre O’Brien: Balancing virtual and in-person experiences is key to leveraging pandemic learnings

Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail + People, spoke today at Fortune Brainstorm Tech, a virtual conference featuring leaders in the technology and media industries. During the interview, O’Brien reflected on the unprecedented challenges Apple’s teams continue to navigate during the pandemic.

Update (12/4): WIRED also spoke to O’Brien about Apple’s COVID-19 response and the decision to create custom face masks for its employees.

Apple temporarily closed nearly all of its retail stores in March during the first major COVID-19 outbreaks. At the same time, demand for Macs, iPads, and technical support skyrocketed as customers began working and learning from home. The unique situation has been an immeasurable learning opportunity for Apple. According to O’Brien:

“We’re taking advantage of the new skills we’ve all learned (during the pandemic). 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. And so we’ll find that right balance of being in-person and also working remotely.”

The “new skills” O’Brien speaks of are no exaggeration. Every facet of Apple’s retail business was profoundly impacted by the pandemic. Apple Store Specialists have learned how to support customers online as AppleCare At-Home Advisors. Creative Pros took in-store education virtual with online Today at Apple sessions, and a team of local event planners suddenly found themselves producing events for a global audience.

Outside of the spotlight, the teams that power Apple’s online store have also been learning. With customers encouraged to stay at home, online sales and support became essential for businesses and schools. Other teams were tasked with designing and deploying Apple Express — a system of storefront kiosks and pickup logistics — to hundreds of locations across the world.

The accelerated timeline of the pandemic has forced Apple to find its balance between remote and in-person work on a global stage. Even today, Apple Stores around the world are constantly evolving new operating models and safety measures as customer preferences and needs evolve. O’Brien acknowledged that she hopes to bring back a full in-store experience someday:

“We want to make sure, especially as you come into our stores, that you can experience everything that we have to offer. 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.”

You can read and watch more from Deirdre O’Brien’s conversation at Fortune. Follow along on Twitter for daily Apple Store news.

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Avatar for Michael Steeber Michael Steeber

I’m a Creative Editor passionate about Apple Retail and design. My stories highlight the work of talented artists, designers, and customers through a unique lens of architecture, creativity, and community.

Twitter: @MichaelSteeber