When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic last March, some of the world’s biggest companies faced an unexpected challenge—maintaining productivity while keeping their employees safe.
Remote work became the norm overnight. Pew Research found that only 20% of workers whose jobs could be done from home worked remotely some or all of the time prior to the pandemic—a number that skyrocketed to 71% by October 2020. Coronavirus-driven work-from-home arrangements became so prevalent that more than half of the total US workforce was remote in April 2020, allowing organizations big and small to continue operating amidst unprecedented circumstances.
In June 2020, Staffing.com reviewed what nine of the most influential Fortune 500 CEOs were saying about their remote work experiences during the pandemic. Their answers revealed which companies considered the pivot an opportunity to capitalize on remote work’s strengths and which doubted its feasibility. Nearly one year later, we’re again taking a look at those companies to see how they’ve fared, whose opinions have evolved, and which CEOs are counting the days until workforces “return to normal” and report to an office building each morning.
Alphabet Inc. (Google)
In a May 2020 interview with WIRED, Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai said the sudden shift to remote work was functioning primarily because team members hadn’t always been remote.
“I’m excited that some of this is working well,” he said. “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.”
In December 2020, Pichai sent Googlers an email stating employees could continue working remotely until September 2021. “The good news is that over the last nine months we’ve learned how to work better virtually. We’ve adapted. We’ve kept innovating,” Pichai wrote.
The company is also experimenting with permanent, flexible work options, including a schedule where teams work remotely several days each week and come to the office for “collaboration days.” New office designs allow groups to book indoor or outdoor meeting spaces, or even an individual desk for folks ready for a home-office break.
“Ultimately, we are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and [well-being]. Those goals have always been at the core of Google’s workplace philosophy and will stay front and center for us as we plan for the future. No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model—though a few are starting to test it—so it will be interesting to try. We’ll approach these pilots with a spirit of innovation and an open mind, and do rigorous measurement along the way to help us learn and adapt.”
A May 2020 Bloomberg report uncovered Apple’s intention to bring employees back into the office through a two-phase plan in the latter half of 2020. The tech giant reportedly encountered difficulties shifting to remote because of its products’ secretive nature. CEO Tim Cook’s position, relayed 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 remotely.
“[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. ... Our offices are open for employees whose work is mission critical or who prefer to come in,” said Cook in his memo.
By December 2020, CEO Tim Cook stated it “seems likely” most Apple team members will continue working remotely until at least June 2021, according to a Bloomberg report.
“There’s no replacement for face-to-face collaboration, but we have also learned a great deal about how we can get our work done outside of the office without sacrificing productivity or results,” said Cook. “All of these learnings are important. When we’re on the other side of this pandemic, we will preserve everything that is great about Apple while incorporating the best of our transformations this year.”
Dell’s workforce was already about 25% remote—and it guaranteed that number would increase after the pandemic. “Technology is more important now than it’s ever been,” said CEO Michael Dell, noting that customers have moved from transitioning to remote work to ensuring their setups are secure for long-term use. Dell is in the business of improving remote work for both its customers and its employees, and the company appears to be embracing the trend moving forward.
“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,” said Dell.
Dell expects 60% of its employees to permanently remain remote or to come into the office only one to two days a week. “After all of this investment to enable remote everything, we will never go back to the way things were before,” said Dell COO Jeff Clarke in August 2020. “While the pandemic didn’t start the remote learn and work trend, it is certainly accelerating it.”
Dell has “moved beyond work as a location. COVID-19 has made one thing clear to us: [Work] is something you do, an outcome, not a place or a time. And it takes teamwork and a culture that prioritizes outcomes and results over effort,” Clarke said. While COVID-19 and remote work have presented new challenges, “we are seeing a human transformation right before our eyes, emphasizing trust, empathy, patience, and flexibility that will serve society and business long after these tough times are over.”
Facebook was one of the first companies to announce remote work through the end of 2020. Furthermore, CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicted that within the next 10 years, at least half of Facebook’s workforce would be remote. To get there, Facebook plans to 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.
Zuckerberg has asserted 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,” he said.
At the close of 2020, Zuckerberg told employees they may continue working remotely through the first half of 2021 and has offered up to $2,000 per employee for home-office setups. The CEO continues to believe in the feasibility of long-term remote work and still expects about half of their workforce to be fully remote in the next 10 years. Permanent remote work may come with a price tag, however. Employees that choose to move out of expensive cities such as San Francisco may receive a cost-of-living salary reduction.
With the onset of the pandemic, Goldman Sachs began shifting its thinking toward remote work.
“[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,” said David Solomon, CEO.
As of April 2020, 98% of Goldman Sachs employees worked remotely. Solomon’s main goal was to keep everyone safe and healthy. In regard to remote policies for the future, Solomon homed in on the fact that remote work is a big draw for many job seekers.
Nearly a year of at-home work has not made Solomon a remote evangelist: “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible,” the BBC reported in February 2021.
Solomon is ready to get his workforce back in the office. “The big focus right now is we’ve got to get people vaccinated—we’ve got to get to the other side,” he told Bloomberg in January 2021. “I certainly would expect that we’ll have Goldman Sachs employees back in full by the end of the year. We will get through this, and I’m really hopeful that over the course of the next six months, we see a real improvement.”
In a May 2020 interview with The New York Times, Microsoft 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?” he said. “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?”
Last October, Microsoft announced it was pushing its return-to-office date to July 2021 at the earliest. Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer, wrote in a blog post that the company’s goal is to “offer as much flexibility as possible to support individual [work styles], while balancing business needs and ensuring we live our culture.
“For now, returning to many of our offices around the world is still optional for employees, except for essential [on-site] roles. While we’ve shared that we will challenge long-held assumptions and seek to be on the forefront of what is possible leveraging technology, we have also communicated that we are not committing to having every employee work from anywhere, as we believe there is value in employees being together in the workplace.
“We will continue to evolve our approach to flexibility over time as we learn more.”
That a major financial services firm (60,000+ employees in financial centers such as New York and London) adapted to the work-from-home trend was a huge indicator of what was to come.
After the start of the pandemic, 90% of Morgan Stanley’s employees were working from home, and with great success.
“Clearly, we’ve figured out how to operate with much less real estate,” CEO James Gorman said. “But could I see a future where, part of every week, certainly part of every month for a lot of our employees to be at home?” he asked. “Absolutely.”
When it came to specifics, Gorman was not forthcoming about when some employees would transition to semi or fully remote work.
As of December 2020, less than 20% of Morgan Stanley employees were back in the office, and Gorman was the only senior executive at a major Wall Street bank to acknowledge that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
He said he and his team have stayed in constant communication through Zoom calls. “I did them from my home—people seeing you in casual clothes, sitting in your home office—and I think it gives them comfort to know that you’re not freaking out.”
Gorman has stated he hopes a vaccine will allow more workers to return to the office by mid-2021.
“I firmly believe that the office is important for mentoring, development, socialization, creativity, brainstorming—all the things you do together with others—but we can certainly be more flexible,” he said.
Even before COVID-19, Nationwide had more than 5,000 of its 34,000 employees working remotely. Not only had they already created an internal manual for remote work, but the company also had been planning a program called “The Future of Work” to increase its remote worker capacity due to employee demand. By April 2020, 98% of Nationwide’s workforce was remote.
CEO Kirt Walker expressed trust in his employees to continue doing a great job, and believes success is measured in output instead of hours logged. He said 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 the amount of time they’re putting in, but rather how well they are doing on those indicators,” said Walker.
In a December 2020 statement, Nationwide moved its return-to-work date from January to June 2021.
“We believe delaying the return of our workforce to the office until June provides time for anticipated vaccines to be widely administered … our associates have proven we are able to serve the needs of our members and business partners in a seamless fashion. We will continue to view our [return-to-work] plans as flexible.”
Despite quickly sending Salesforce employees home during the pandemic, CEO Marc Benioff didn’t seem interested in keeping any of those employees remote, at least not permanently. His plans revolved around getting people back into the office, whether that was in South Korea or San Francisco, though the company said it would 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,” said Benioff.
“An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk in our Towers; the 9-to-5 workday is dead; and the employee experience is about more than [pingpong] tables and snacks,” Brent Hyder, President and Chief People Officer of Salesforce, wrote in a blog post in February 2021.
Salesforce will now allow its workforce to be fully remote, office-based, or flex, which involves one to three days per week in the office, based on proximity to a Salesforce office and role requirements. The decision was made after an employee survey showed people preferred different work styles. While “nearly half of our employees want to come in only a few times per month,” he wrote, “80% of employees want to maintain a connection to a physical space.” He continued, “Our talent strategy is no longer bound by barriers like location, so we can broaden our search beyond traditional city centers and welcome untapped talent from new communities and geographies.”
Work to Be Done
Though the pandemic has demonstrated the value and viability of remote work, many major organizations continue to struggle with its realities. Over the past year, thoughtful remote work policies that focus on hiring, inclusivity, productivity, security, support, and technology have made it easier to transition blended or fully remote teams to the new way we work.
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.
To learn more about remote work, 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 remote teams.