What 10 Influential Fortune 500 CEOs Are Saying About Remote Work

06/11/2020 9 min read
Paul Estes
Paul Estes Editor-in-Chief at Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, Paul brings 20 years of executive experience, leading innovation at Microsoft, Amazon, and Dell.
What 10 Influential Fortune 500 CEOs Are Saying About Remote Work

With companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Zillow announcing that they’ll allow workers to stay remote until 2021 (or in some cases, permanently), the defining moment for remote work adoption may finally be here. A Gartner survey of CFOs and finance leaders found that 74% plan to make some of their workforce remote even after shelter-in-place restrictions ease.

Not every corporate executive has embraced this new mindset, however. Some are trying to replicate in-office approaches like employee monitoring and micromanagement. Steering away from at least a partial remote work transition ultimately leads to location bias, which prevents companies from realizing the transformative benefits of unparalleled diversity. There’s a ton of untapped potential.

Some companies aren’t set up for remote (think of Apple’s secretive physical product development) or haven’t been proactive in preparing for a shift like this. I took a close look at what some of the most influential Fortune 500 CEOs are saying about their remote work experiences during the pandemic. Their answers may reveal which companies are poised to capitalize on the strengths of remote work and which are in danger of cutting off their access to the best possible talent.

10. Salesforce

Despite quickly sending Salesforce employees home during the pandemic, CEO Marc Benioff doesn’t seem interested in keeping any of those employees remote, at least not permanently. His plans revolve around getting people back into the office, whether that is in South Korea or San Francisco, though the company will allow remote employees to stay out of office through the end of 2020.

“When you come back, we won’t have 10, 20 people in the elevator—we will have a few people. They will get a ticket [informing them] when they can arrive in the elevator, much as you would arrive at Disney for a ride . . . It will be a slightly different work environment than it is today.”
– Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce

It’s indisputably odd that a cloud-based company hasn’t yet realized the potential of a cloud-based workforce.

9. Apple

A Bloomberg report uncovered a plan for Apple to break from the trends of its competitors, bringing employees back into the office through a two-phase plan in the later half of 2020. The tech giant has reportedly encountered difficulties shifting to remote because of the secretive nature of its products. CEO Tim Cook’s position, given in an internal memo, was “Please feel free to work remotely if your job allows,” but anonymous remote employees cited difficulties accessing internal systems and even knowing what work they were allowed to do while remote.

“. . . we’re making a major effort to reduce human density and ensure those teams that are on-site can do their work safely and with peace of mind. . . . please feel free to work remotely if your job allows and in coordination with your manager. Our offices are open for employees whose work is mission critical or who prefer to come in.”
– Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Pundits have underlined that Apple’s culture simply does not translate remotely, yet its experience with the current crisis will likely force it to adopt more progressive remote work policies in the future. Distributed work may not be possible in every situation, but it’s critical that those who want or are able to work remotely be empowered to do so efficiently.

8. Alphabet (Google)

In an interview with WIRED, Sundar Pichai explained his belief that remote is working now but only because team members haven’t always been remote.

“I’m excited that some of this is working well. But it is based on a foundation of all of us knowing each other and having the regular interactions we already had. I’m curious to see what happens as we get into that three-to-six-month window and we get into things where we are doing something [remote] for the first time. How productive will we be when different teams who don’t normally work together have to come together for brainstorming, the creative process? We are going to have research, surveys, learn from data, learn what works.”
– Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google

The idea that employees can’t brainstorm and be creative remotely isn’t supported by the facts, nor is the idea that distributed teams only work when they’ve had in-person interactions first. The truth is that team success is based on mutual respect, clear roles, good communication, and most importantly, strong leadership—all of which can occur remotely.

7. Microsoft

In an interview with The New York Times, CEO Satya Nadella said that an all-remote setup would be "replacing one dogma with another dogma.”

"What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like? What does that connectivity and the community-building look like? One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What's the measure for that?"  
– Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Burnout is a notorious issue in the workplace, whether the environment is remote or in-office. It’s also important to note that the current iteration of remote work is not a good barometer for the effectiveness of a remote work transition—this is working at home during a pandemic, not remote work. Creating a strong remote culture is as critical as creating a robust in-office culture.

Some would argue that remote work allows for more focused and intentional social time, whereas in-office socialization is rarely optional. Many of the in-office interactions that employees look forward to can be successfully recreated when remote, and many of the world’s largest remote organizations have thriving cultures. It all comes down to intentionality, no matter where work is occurring.

6. Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs is shifting its thinking toward remote work.

“It [video conferencing technology] will make us more comfortable in providing more flexibility to employees, which, by the way, makes this a more attractive place for people to work.”
– David M. Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs

Currently, 98 percent of Goldman Sachs employees are working remotely. Solomon’s goal right now is keeping everyone safe and healthy. When it comes to remote policies of the future, Solomon seems to have honed in on the fact that remote work is a big draw for a lot of job seekers. Candidates consistently cite location independence as a top draw when looking for a new employer.

5. Morgan Stanley

That a major financial services firm (80,000+ employees in financial centers such as New York and London) is hip to this trend and adapting to it is a huge indicator of what’s to come.

Currently, 90 percent of Morgan Stanley’s employees are working from home, and with great success. Gorman reports having almost no issues, crediting the success of the endeavor to his technology and operations teams.

"Clearly, we've figured out how to operate with much less real estate. Can I see a future where part of every week, certainly part of every month, for a lot of our employees will be at home? Absolutely."
– James P. Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley

However, when it came to specifics, Gorman was not forthcoming. As for now, the how and when of allowing some workers to go semi or fully remote seem to still be in the planning phase.

4. Zillow

Before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its workforce, Zillow issued a work-from-home recommendation to its employees—one of the first in the nation. Since that time, they have created a new virtual onboarding program for employees that CEO Rich Barton says is as robust and meaningful as the in-person training they’ve had in the past.

“My personal opinions about WFH (Work from Home) have been turned upside down over the past two months. I expect this will have a lasting influence on the future of work . . . and home.”
– Rich Barton, CEO of Zillow

In April, Barton announced that all Zillow employees will have the option to work from home through the end of 2020.

3. Dell

Dell’s workforce was already 25 percent remote—and it guarantees that number will increase after the pandemic subsides. “Technology is more important now than it’s ever been,” says CEO Michael Dell, noting that customers have moved from scrambling to adapt to the remote work transition to ensuring their setups are secure for long-term use. Dell is in the unique position of both enabling remote work for customers and its employees and doesn’t seem to be shying away from the trend.

“I think if you were skeptical about work from home, you probably aren’t now . . . And I think we’ve all learned a lot in the last few months here. I think that will flow through and create opportunities.”
– Michael Dell, CEO of Dell

2. Facebook

Facebook was one of the first companies to announce they’d allow remote work through the end of 2020. Furthermore, Mark Zuckerberg predicts that within the next 10 years, at least half of Facebook’s workforce will be remote. To get there, Facebook will open up remote hiring, rather than “constraining our hiring to people who live around an office which isn’t open.” Existing employees will be able to request permanent remote work status.

I ranked Facebook so highly due to Zuckerberg’s assertion that going remote is more than a reaction to COVID-19:

“We’re working on a lot of remote presence technology and products . . . So if you’re long on VR [virtual reality] and AR [augmented reality] and video chat, you have to believe in some capacity that you’re helping people be able to do whatever they want from wherever they are. So I think that that suggests a worldview that would lead to allowing people to work more remotely over time.”
– Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

1. Nationwide

Even before COVID-19, Nationwide had more than 5,000 employees working remotely. Not only have they already created an internal manual for remote work, Nationwide has been working on a program called “The Future of Work” to increase its remote worker capacity due to employee demand. CEO Kirt Walker trusts his employees to do a great job and believes in output over hours logged. He says he hasn’t been disappointed.

“We hire for attitude. We have built a culture where we can trust associates. And they are using the same technology now that they had in the office. We rely on 10 key performance indicators, and employees can monitor their own work day-to-day, and so can their supervisors. We don’t try to hold people accountable with amount of time they're putting in, but rather how well they are doing on those indicators.”
– Kirt Walker, CEO of Nationwide

Work to Be Done

Though the pandemic has demonstrated the value and feasibility of remote work, many organizations are still struggling to adapt to the realities of a remote workforce. Over the course of the next several weeks and months, thoughtful remote work policies that focus on hiring, culture, productivity, security, support, and technology will be required in order to adapt blended or fully remote teams to the new reality of work.

Doing so is imperative. When the right policies are in place, organizations become more agile, open up access to on-demand experts, and gain the ability to attract the best talent.

If you’re new to remote work or just want a peek under the hood, read Toptal’s Suddenly Remote Playbook. With expertise and insights from the World’s Largest Fully Remote Company—4,000 individuals in more than 100 countries and zero offices—it’s an indispensable resource for newly remote teams.

Paul Estes
Paul Estes Editor-in-Chief at Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, Paul brings 20 years of executive experience, leading innovation at Microsoft, Amazon, and Dell.