Another day, another high-profile CEO railing on remote work.

"It's also pretty obvious that those who are overly engaged with the company want to go to the office two-thirds of the time at least. Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home," said Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of WeWork, the New York City-based company whose business it is to get people out of their homes and working at co-working spaces, at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival on May 13.

Predictable public backlash ensued. For starters, of course he wants to criticize remote workers, who don't work in co-working spaces like WeWork's. But his comments also drew the ire of the workplace community, because they're not backed by hard science and harken back to the old pre-COVID take that "remote workers can't be trusted."

Mathrani walked back his comments in a LinkedIn post last week, saying, “I want to clarify that it was not my intent to cast a negative light on those who are working from home and I apologize if my comments were not clear.”

Still, his indictment of disengaged remote workers warrants some exploration. The data paints a more nuanced picture.

Related Article: Does Netflix CEO's 'Pure Negative' Comment on Working from Home Have Merit?

Is This Out of Touch With the Last 15 Months?

Mathrani noted that in April, WeWork published a report on the data collected from a survey conducted with Workplace Intelligence, which asked 1,000 C-suite executives and 1,000 non C-suite employees across the U.S. for their perspectives on the hybrid model of work. 

"Ultimately the findings overwhelmingly demonstrated that employees are energized about choice, about finding new ways to work, and CEOs are equally committed to providing options that work best for their people," Mathrani wrote, noting those options include working from home, utilizing drop-in space, going to a corporate office, or a hybrid of these options.

Still, his blast against disengaged remote workers led to a few easy Twitter jabs from other high-profile CEOs:

Jabs aside, Mathrani’s comments come amid easing federal and state workplace capacity restrictions that allow employees to return to physical workspaces after more than a year shuttered in homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a real choice now, and companies are crafting their “hybrid work” strategies featuring a mix of in-office and remote work.

Mathrani’s comments also come about seven months after Netflix CEO Reed Hastings called remote a “pure negative.” He added he’d like his workforce to return to the office “12 hours after a (COVID-19) vaccine is approved."

It’s not shocking for CEOs to take a hard stance on workplace matters, and certainly not shocking when one statement clearly promotes a CEO’s own business model. But that aside, the numbers don't back up Mathrani's perspective.

The Numbers Say Remote Works

Hastings, Mathrani, or whomever shares these feelings ... the vitriol toward remote working doesn’t exactly jibe with some of the latest data on what employees want.

According to a FlexJobs report in April, 58% of workers said they would “absolutely” look for a new job if they cannot continue remote work in their current role. An additional 31% said they aren’t sure what they would do, and only 11% said that working remotely is not a big deal.

According to Reworked's 2021 State of the Digital Workplace report released this month nearly 70% of organizations foresee a hybrid workplace, although one in five believe there will be a full return to the office — a proportion that has grown significantly in six months. 

And let’s face this fact: no working arrangement is perfect, even remote work, no matter how convenient it may be to get a load of laundry done while collaborating in a Google Doc. The State of the Digital Workplace report finds organizations report positive and negative outcomes on specific points of remote working such as employee wellbeing and work/life balance. That said, there is more consensus on improved productivity.

Zoom fatigue, the challenge in applying solid face-to-face processes in remote work, a lack of spontaneous watercooler moments in office settings and difficulty onboarding new hires are some of the challenges of remote work cited in the report.

Related Article: Building a New Model for Remote Work

Engagement Can't Be Determined by Opinion

But this issue isn’t as much about remote work vs. in-office as it is about employee engagement. That’s always been a hot topic. How do you engage and inspire employees, no matter where they work?

Mathrani’s original comments indicate that those in an office setting can be more engaged than those at home. However, those who claim that employees are more engaged either at work or at home ignore both the definition and the science of engagement, according to Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, a New York City-based HR and talent consulting firm, and a former talent management executive at Bank of America and Avon Products. 

“The most common definition of engagement is the willingness to give ‘discretionary effort’ to your employer — to choose to go above and beyond,” Effron said. “The most common drivers of employee engagement are pride in your company, a manager who shows interest in your success and the ability to learn and grow. A simple survey can accurately measure this.”

That definition and those drivers apply whether you’re working in an office, at home or on an airplane, Effron added. This means that Mathrani’s statement is difficult to reconcile with the science of engagement. 

Learning Opportunities

Simply an Outdated Statement

Setting aside for a moment Mathrani’s and WeWork's need to get employees out of their homes, his statement is outdated because it equates physical location with engagement, according Gregory Ng, CEO at Raleigh, N.C.-based consultancy Brooks Bell.

“This type of work culture reflects the days where management watched the clock and ensured you arrived on time — and only took 45 minutes for lunch,” Ng said. “This is also a dangerous statement because it builds a sentiment that rewards the personality type that draws energy from others. While this may be the type of personality that he is, it essentially punishes those that work more efficiently in other settings.”

Employee engagement could mean being present, being an active participant in conversation, and making specific contributions to group work. But the new “rules of engagement,” Ng added, can now also mean living core values, driving innovation and aligning on vision.

“All of these things can be accomplished while working from home and/or being in the office,” Ng said.

Related Article: Why Remote Working Will Not Become the New Work Model

Blanket Statement Gone Wrong

Employees are motivated by different things. Some need social connection at work, and others are more productive working independently. But it would be hard to distinguish between the two without the proper insights to support that designation, according to Jonathan C. Krause, founder, president and CEO of Synclarity Consulting.

“The pandemic gave leaders and organizations the ability to reframe how their teams worked and collaborated,” Krause said. “So I found it interesting that there was a blanket statement made about how people prefer to work.”

There are plenty of platforms that can capture data to support making real-time business decisions on employee engagement, productivity and offer insights on how to best leverage the work being done, and who is doing the work.

“Depending on the business model, resources available, and interest in supporting the organization, making an investment on how best to support individuals and teams to make work more efficient could help identify high performers in any working format,” Krause said. “This creates the ability to properly align human capital and job functions in a way that supports the individual and the long-term viability of the company.”

Getting Qualified Measurement of Employee Engagement

So how do you measure employee engagement, beyond a CEO’s understanding of the function? The new way of measuring employee engagement is not quantified, it's qualified, according to Ng.

This approach requires a number of initiatives be put in place, including:

  • Direct 1:1 engagement between employees and managers to ask, discuss and learn about what fulfillment looks like for each employee individually.
  • Empowering managers and leaders to meet employees’ unique needs on a case-by-case basis.
  • The investment in company innovation by giving “thinking time” to drive new ideas, initiatives and products.

“These types of HR endeavors,” Ng said, “can then be evaluated for alignment to overall company vision, much like any other business metric."

Related Article: Riding the Employee Engagement Rollercoaster

All About the Science

The bottom line is there’s no science available to tell us if there’s an overwhelming benefit to working at home or from an office location, or the ideal mix of each. That means that anyone’s statement on this topic simply expresses their opinion, Effron noted.

“Now, some opinions matter more than others,” Effron said. “So if your CEO demands you go back to the office, you have the choice to go, to argue or to quit. The best advice for CEOs is to keep their comments to strategy and the P&L unless they’re willing to invest the time to understand the science of human performance.”