Amazon recently declared that many of its employees can stay home two days per week, indefinitely.  And they are joined by Facebook, Apple, Nationwide Insurance, Siemens, and dozens of other organizations in making virtual work permanent.   

“The world where the clock tower rings and everybody goes to work… that’s over,” said IBM CEO Arvind Krishna. “Why should I, as an employer, care as long as you can get the work done and you’re highly productive?”

However, not all employers agree.

“[Remote work] is taking a toll,” said Google chief executive Sundar Picahi.  “I miss meetings in which you can stand up and go to the whiteboard and draw what you’re thinking and have others look at it.”

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon was even more blunt, calling remote work “an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible,” 

JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon agrees: “We want people back… just like before,  And everyone is going to be happy with it.”

This stark difference of opinion echoes at every level of the economy, with half of CEOs and business owners accepting virtual and the other half expressing strong discomfort.  Yet, for most of them, embracing remote work won’t be optional.  A Gallup poll found 68% of workers prefer to stay remote, while a Prudential survey found 35% of workers wouldn’t even consider working for an organization that required them to be on-site full time.  And, in an open letter to CEO Tim Cook, Apple employees said “It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.” 

So, how can CEOs come to terms with virtual work, while maintaining productivity and preserving their organizational culture?  

  • First, accept virtual work as part of the “new normal” and invest in doing it right.  Organizations that regard virtual work as an emergency measure or an indulgent perk rather than a viable business strategy are unlikely to invest the time and effort to do virtual right.  

    According to the Society for Human Resources Management, only 26% of managers received any kind of formal training on managing virtual workers before the pandemic, and those numbers have not improved much since.  So it’s hardly a surprise that many managers have struggled with the format, and are anxious to get their teams back in the office.  Similarly, many organizations under-invest in professional development for remote staff and overlook remote workers for promotions, causing many talented virtual employees to see leaving as their only avenue for advancement. 

    Taken together, underinvestment in virtual work becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing virtual teams to underperform.

  • Second, develop clear, sensible, long-term policies for virtual work.  Many employers changed their remote work policies from quarter to quarter throughout the pandemic based on public health data.  And surveys found employee uncertainty about long-term remote work policies has been a contributing factor to the “great resignation”.  

    Organizations like Amazon, Apple, and others have addressed this issue head-on by articulating clear, long-term commitments to virtual or hybrid work arrangements.  And employers who do this will enjoy an edge in the talent wars over those who remain indecisive. 

  • Third, think in terms of possibilities, not limitations.  There is much evidence to suggest that, when managed well, virtual teams can be equally or more productive than on-site teams.  And organizations would do well to compare their own handling of virtual work against best practices before dismissing the format.

    This is precisely why CEO Andi Own of office furniture manufacturer MillerKnoll has embraced remote work, even though it’s theoretically reducing demand for her company’s products.  ”I don’t necessarily buy into the mythology of people who are just working part time and hanging out in their beds, doing nothing,” she said.  “I think people are working harder.  So many executives are holding on to remnants of the past and assuming that was normal [but] the world is evolving.”

If a manufacturer of office chairs can see the value of long-term virtual work for their organization, that would suggest other CEOs might want to stop and think before forcing everyone back to their cubicles.