Nike vs. Nvidia: The Battle of Remote Innovation

Nike's CEO claims bold innovation is lost with remote work, contrasting Nvidia's success in the same mode. Why the discrepancy?
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
April 18, 2024
min read

Nike CEO John Donahoe went on CNBC last week and said that people can’t innovate boldly while working from home part of the time:

“What’s been missing is the bold, disruptive innovation that Nike is known for. And when we look back, the reasons have been fairly straightforward. Our employees have been working from home for 2.5 years. It’s really hard to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom.” – Nike CEO John Donahoe

I wonder what Nvidia's CEO, Jensen Huang, must think about that statement. 

Because Nvidia is doing fairly well. It has grown by 225%, from $678.42B in April 2020 to $2.20T as of April 2024, and is now one of the three most valuable companies in the world. 

And, it has done so fully remotely. 

Why can Nvidia be innovative remotely, but Nike can’t? 

Aren’t chips just as much of a physical product as Nike shoes? 

Let’s dive in. 

As you've seen and heard it:

What’s required for innovation?

Besides actively writing about remote work and hybrid work, I have a vested interest in understanding this discussion about remote innovation.

After over 15 years in New York, Chicago, Singapore, and finally, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I’m moving back to The Netherlands in just a few weeks. 

This means leaving most of my team behind and adopting a remote working model. 

Now, we are well-positioned to make this transition as we have slowly morphed from a team in the office five days a week a few years ago to having one meeting and co-working day per week. 

But how can we remain engaged and innovative in our work?

The first thing to understand is how to drive innovation.

According to Harvard Business School professor Linda Hall and colleagues, innovation boils down to a few key principles:

  • Diverse Perspectives: Embrace customer insights, local knowledge, and external viewpoints.
  • Data-Informed Decisions: Utilize real-time data and visualization tools for agile decision-making.
  • Clear Decision Rights: Define and communicate who is responsible for making and executing decisions.
  • Agile Cadence: Adjust decision-making frequency based on the pace of learning and changing conditions.

Gallup’s “The Four Drivers of Innovation” highlights three additional ways the importance of the right people, managed in the right way:

  • Prioritize Talent and Engagement: Recognizing that talent is a critical predictor of success, recruit top talent, enhance employee engagement, and create an environment where creativity is encouraged and valued.  
  • Empower Effective Managers: Ensure managers act as super mentors who facilitate the translation of creative ideas into actionable innovations.
  • Build Strong Relationships: Develop strong relationships within all levels of the organization and with customers.  

These principles sound perfectly possible to do remotely. 

In fact, remote work may boost innovation, adding to a long list of remote work benefits:

A study from Erasmus Professor Luca Berchicci, drawing on survey data of 248 high-tech small firms, found that remote collaboration positively affects innovation performance as long as R&D intensity is high. 

Atlassian's Annie Dean ​added just this week​ that data from ​Molly Sands​' Team Anywhere Lab (read my ​interview​ with her ​here​) shows that remote teams can indeed be more innovative:

"We found that distributed teams were more diverse (range of skills, members spread across more crafts, more levels) and that they were more likely to produce a demo and receive a higher rank by voters." – Annie Dean, VP, Team Anywhere, Atlassian

But Annie also mentions that companies must commit to doing remote work well and that ""We’re struggling to innovate" is an admission that a company isn’t evolving how work gets done."

Sadly, most companies are not organized to successfully drive hybrid or remote innovation.

Among hybrid and remote teams, employees:

  • 50% lack enough flexibility in when to work
  • 33% say they don’t have the needed technology to work successfully online
  • Rate their manager a meager 7/10 on their ability to manage remotely
  • 39% feel they don’t have enough remote days
  • 20% don’t have access to the right information

How to Run an Innovative Hybrid or Remote Organization

So what will I, and other hybrid or remote, need to keep or put in place to remain innovative?

As experts share about successfully managing remote teams, it’s all about:

And just because you offer remote doesn’t mean you can’t work offline and in person. 

Just look again at Atlassian, a remote-first company, which says that “offices are an important part of our strategy.” 

But rather than mandating, Atlassian has 12 global workplaces and lets data dictate whether to open more, close some and improve what those offices offer. 

Offer, don’t require is a rule it lives by, and we should too. 

People will show up when you offer the right space, at the right time, and for the right purpose. Data is showing that hybrid work is actually getting more popular. 

And Nick Bloom’s latest executive slides on WFH trends show that two days per week is optimal for job satisfaction, mentoring, and performance. 

Technology to Boost Innovation

One part of Nike’s CEO's statement stood out: "It’s really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom."

Nothing against Zoom, but this negates the incredible amount of great software that, if it builds on the right organizational operating system, undoubtedly can drive innovation ‘just like in person.’

Dave Cairns, one of our 55 Remote Thought Leaders, who recently onboarded to his new employer Kadence, was struck by the difference the right tech stack can make. 

He recounts how at real estate broker CBRE, it was Teams plus Zoom, but that the combination of Slack, Notion, Gong, and other platforms he now uses facilitates and encourages great remote collaboration.

Covering this topic extensively, I’ve seen the same:

In short, when the right operating principles meet this new generation of software, it’s possible – almost inevitable – to be innovative online. 

Why Can’t Nike Innovate Online, Really?

If all the above is true, why can’t Nike innovate remotely?

Well, we’d need to see if that’s even the case. 

Last year, Nike increased its work-from-the-office days from 3 to 4. Since then, its market cap dropped from $162 billion to $138 billion. 

It's no wonder its CEO had to go on TV and blame remote workers while mentioning ‘boldly innovative design’ as if saying it enough would trigger a positive uptick. 

Professor Mark Ma, whose return-to-office research I covered previously, put it in uncertain words:

“Nike imposed 3 day return to office back in 2022 and increased it to 4 days a week in office in 2023. They have already been in office for two years. Does the CEO really believe one more day in office will lead to disruptive innovation?” – Mark Ma, Research Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Work futurist Brian Elliott added that: 

“Innovation and proximity are no longer positively correlated, like they were pre-2015, thanks to broadband and better tools. But what’s always mattered most isn’t time together; it’s the ability to ask hard questions and share heretical ideas, for which we need psychological safety.” Brian Elliott, Co-founder and General Partner, McElliott Advisors

The Bottom Line: Innovating Alone

Brian’s comment builds perfectly on the points in this article. 

With the right vision, culture, and tools, innovation can occur from anywhere and will likely thrive. 

Back to Mark Ma to deliver the knock-out punch:

“The most innovative company in the world currently, Nvidia, doesn’t have RTO. Period.” – Mark Ma

As I move to the other side of the world, I have no doubt that our way of working will continue to see us innovate in using content to bring people and technology together for a happier future of work.

And if I fail, you’ll be the first to hear it!


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A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.