clock menu more-arrow no yes

WeWork’s CEO says remote workers are less engaged. Is he right?

What studies say about engagement and productivity.

An adult working from home in the same room as a toddler.
People are less engaged when working from home. That’s likely because there’s a pandemic going on.
Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

Earlier this week, WeWork’s CEO told the remote audience at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival that more engaged employees want to come back to the office. “Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home,” Sandeep Mathrani said.

The backlash online was swift as people pointed out how a man whose livelihood depends on leasing office space had obvious motives for maligning remote work — a trend widely embraced by workers during the pandemic and likely to persist after we can safely return to offices.

WeWork and other coworking outfits stand to thrive as companies are reconsidering how much office space they’ll need and if workers need to show up every day. The flexible office space that companies like WeWork offer could be more attractive than signing long-term traditional leases. So it makes sense that people are skeptical of Mathrani’s comments because WeWork will benefit if more employers insist their workers show up at an office at least a few days out of the week.

But what’s the reality?

While they might be unwelcome, his comments about engagement are not wrong, according to Eddy Ng, Smith professor of business at Queen’s University, who studies remote work.

“At the office, all you do is focus on the office,” Ng told Recode. “At home, you have to juggle multiple demands,” especially if you have kids — resulting in less engagement.

But focusing on engagement might be beside the point, especially during a global pandemic. While highly correlated, engagement doesn’t necessarily equal productivity. Work engagement is a psychological state in which an individual “experiences vigor, absorption, and dedication at work,” according to Ng, whereas productivity refers to the quantitative output of a given job, like how many calls a customer service representative handles and how helpful those calls are.

Both metrics matter, so it’s important to talk about both when assessing the merits and pitfalls of letting employees working from home. It’s hard to tell right now how much engagement levels have been affected by the realities of the pandemic, when lots of other factors — loss, isolation, lack of child care — can affect it.

“At best, with the return to the office you can expect productivity to return to pre-pandemic levels, while you can actually get greater productivity out of working from home,” Ng said. Part of that has to do with how, when you work from home, you experience fewer interruptions from colleagues and also save time by avoiding a commute.

Since the pandemic began, numerous studies about worker productivity have shown that, by and large, people have been just as productive — sometimes more so — when working from home than at the office. But, just like the WeWork CEO’s comments, we might want to take some of those studies with a grain of salt.

Most studies about working from home during the pandemic, including Ng’s, rely on employees’ self-assessment of productivity.

And most employees have said they prefer to work from home, at least some of the time. Indeed, one in four employees has said they might quit their jobs after the pandemic, largely to look for work with greater flexibility to work from home. Another study found some employees are willing to take an 8 percent pay cut to work from home two or three days a week. Employees, in their desire to work from home, might be biased in their reporting of their productivity.

But there are also some more objective studies that suggest working from home doesn’t hurt productivity.

Early in the pandemic, Microsoft published data about the number of times engineers working from home submitted changes to the company’s computer code — using this metric as a proxy for productivity. Productivity didn’t go down when engineers began working from home. “Across work items, commits, and pull requests, we’re not seeing any declines,” the report read.

And data from Time Is Ltd., a productivity analytics firm, also found that people were able to maintain productivity at home.

As Jan Rezab, Time Is Ltd.’s founder and CEO, put it in an interview with Recode earlier this year, “We are just as unproductive as we were before.”

Of course, we can view this data skeptically, too. Microsoft licenses Teams, video, chat, and collaboration software that, while also used in the office, is much more essential when working from home. Time Is Ltd. makes its money measuring how employees use workplace software — arguably more necessary when they’re at home.

That’s not to say they are messing with the data, just that their findings conform with their business models, so we should keep that in mind.

And you can’t divorce productivity metrics recorded in the last year from the reality that living through a pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. A large Microsoft survey found that 54 percent of workers globally said they were overworked and 39 percent said they felt “exhausted.”

Presumably, the alleviation of many of these extenuating circumstances will make work — both engagement and productivity — better. But we’ll have to wait and see. We’ve lived through the first phase of the great working-from-home experiment and now we’re moving into the second phase — when many will work from home but without the crushing realities and distractions of also living through a pandemic.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.