What Nike’s CEO May Be Getting Wrong About Remote Work

In a globalized world, remote work has been a longstanding practice among distributed workforces and is becoming increasingly widespread. In a recent survey of Fortune 500 executives by Altassian, every leader reported their teams work in a distributed way, whether they have an in-office policy or not. And almost all (99%) agreed that work will only become more distributed in the future.

There are many push and pull factors to this. According to a Deloitte study, 59% of millennials and Gen Zers prioritize remote work in their job search, and these are the future leaders of today and tomorrow. Another key point to remember is that any organization with a global workforce has always had to operate with a distributed workforce, even before the pandemic. This is not a new concept for global companies but it continues to cause bargaining between employee and employer. Distributed teams are similar to remote teams, and we need to adjust our approach to remote work to better reflect the dynamics of distributed work, rather than simply hoping that replicating in-person work will be effective.

The Remote Work Blame Game

Remote work is often the first thing leaders blame for any reduction in innovation and productivity, citing the lack of in person collaboration. In my previous article, I discussed how some CEOs leverage return-to-office (RTO) mandates to mask poor performance. As NikeNKE CEO John Donahoe recently told CNBC: "In hindsight, it turns out, it's really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe, on Zoom. Our teams came back together 18 months ago in person, and we recognize this."

While several factors influence stock performance, I always find it interesting to look at a company's stock over time to get additional context. I find it very interesting that, since Nike first announced their return-to-office mandate in Feb 2022, their stock price has shown significant fluctuation. Based on my analysis of Nike’s stock since then (see the visual below), it appears that the company performed much better from a stock perspective during the pandemic when their workforce was remote and distributed. However, their average stock steadily declined over that time period from $142.87 in Feb 2022, to $99.97 in October 2023 after mandating return to office for 3 days a week. The average stock price in April 2024 had further reduced to $90.58 after Nike updated their return to office to 4 days a week in October 2023.

Visual generated by ChatGPT with raw stock data from
Visual generated by ChatGPT with raw stock data from

I understand that several factors and metrics are at play here, and I am using the stock price as just one indicator. However, the question remains: Does the CEO believe that remote work is hindering innovation because it has not been implemented effectively, or does he think that it was the most relevant issue to highlight at this time?

The Truth About Remote Work and Distributed Teams

Just because distributed work is the future, that doesn’t mean its proponents advocate for complete isolation for employees, as is commonly perceived. On the contrary, the world's best-distributed teams understand the need for a new work model that balances convergent and divergent modes of working. Nike has been a global organization for a long time. How did they foster innovation and collaborate globally before the pandemic within their distributed workforce?  My guess is that they always worked well in a distributed manner and may have missed the mark on adapting how their teams function and continue to innovate remotely, with the rise of remote work through the pandemic. Perhaps they have missed one of the key ingredients critical to success: in-person connections.

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