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Apple's Deirdre O'Brien talks lessons learned from coronavirus response

Apple SVP of retail and people Deirdre O'Brien in an interview on Tuesday spoke about the lessons learned from dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, an ever-changing situation that forced companies to strike a balance between in-person and remote work.

Speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference, O'Brien admitted that shifting Apple's corporate and retail operations to a largely work-from-home strategy was a monumental undertaking.

"If you had asked me a couple of years ago, could Apple do what we've done this year on shifting to working from home, I would have been challenged to imagine it," she said.

The tech giant was forced to shutter retail locations and corporate offices around the world early this year as the severity of the virus was thrown into sharp relief. Starting with China in February, and rapidly extending to Europe and the U.S., Apple was forced to close stores and offices in a bid to protect its workers and customers.

While the threat remains, Apple is slowly moving toward a new normal instructed by months of pandemic education. Stores are reopening — but with strict social distancing safeguards — and employees are trickling back into Apple Park. While many, including Apple, turn to virtual experiences as a replacement for in-person meetings, O'Brien says face-to-face encounters are at times necessary.

"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," O'Brien said, adding that Apple will "find that right balance" between remote and in-person contact.

Physical presence is especially important for Apple's lucrative retail chain, where customers have a chance to test drive new products like iPhone and Mac. The inherent intimacy of certain items, such as Apple Watch and other wearables, has posed a particular challenge to the tech giant.

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

For now, Apple is making do with highly restricted store occupancy rules, customer screening, mask requirements and other accommodations. The company has also conducted completely virtual special events — including a massive effort for WWDC — and moved some of its usual offerings, like Today at Apple sessions, online.