Earlier this week, the CEO of WeWork told the remote audience Wall Street Journal Future of Everything Festival that more engaged employees want to come back to the office. “Those who are less engaged are very comfortable working from home,” said Sandeep Mathrani.
The reaction online was swift as people pointed out how a man whose livelihood depends on renting office space had obvious grounds for denigrating remote working – a trend widely adopted by workers during the pandemic and likely to persist after that we can safely return to the offices.
WeWork and other coworking outfits prosper as companies reconsider how much office space they will need and whether workers should show up each day. The flexible office space offered by companies like WeWork could be more attractive than signing traditional long-term leases. So it makes sense that people are skeptical of Mathrani’s comments, as WeWork will benefit if more employers insist their workers show up to an office at least a few days a week.
But what is the reality?
While they may not be welcome, his comments on the engagement aren’t wrong, according to Eddy Ng, a Smith business professor at Queen’s University who studies remote working.
But focusing on engagement may be irrelevant, especially during a global pandemic. Although strongly correlated, engagement does not necessarily equate to productivity. Commitment to work is a psychological state in which an individual “experiences vigor, absorption and dedication to work”, according to Ng, while productivity refers to the quantitative result of a given job, such as number of calls handled by a customer service representative and how useful those calls are.
Both parameters are important, so it is important to talk about both when evaluating the pros and cons of letting employees work from home. It is difficult to say at this time how much engagement levels have been affected by the realities of the pandemic, when many 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, when you can actually achieve greater productivity working from home,” Ng said. Part of this is because when you work from home you experience less interruptions from your coworkers and save time by not having to travel.
Since the start of the pandemic, numerous studies on worker productivity showed that, on the whole, people were just as productive – sometimes more – when you work from home rather than at the office. But, just like the comments from the CEO of WeWork, we might want to take some of these studies with a grain of salt.
Most studies of working from home during the pandemic, including Ng’s, are based on self-assessment of employee productivity.
And most of the employees said they prefer to work from home, at least part of the time. Indeed, one in four employees said they could quit their job after the pandemic, largely to seek work with greater flexibility to work from home. Another study found that employees are willing to accept an 8% pay cut work from home two or three days a week. Employees, in their desire to work from home, may be biased in their reports of their productivity.
But there are also more objective studies that suggest that working from home doesn’t hurt productivity.
At the start of the pandemic, Data published by Microsoft on the number of times home-based engineers have submitted changes to the company’s computer code – using this metric as a measure of productivity. Productivity did not drop when engineers started working from home. “For work items, commits, and pull requests, we’re not seeing any drops,” the report read.
And data from Time Is Ltd., a productivity analytics company, also revealed that people were able to maintain productivity in their homes.
As Jan Rezab, Founder and CEO of Time Is Ltd., said in an interview with Recode earlier this year: “We are just as unproductive as before.”
Of course, we can also view this data with skepticism. Microsoft licenses Teams, video, chat, and collaboration software which, while also being used in the office, is much more essential when working from home. Time Is Ltd. makes money by measuring how employees use work software – arguably most needed when they’re at home.
This doesn’t mean that they are manipulating the data, just that their conclusions are in line with their business models, so we need to keep that in mind.
And you can’t separate the productivity metrics recorded last year from the reality that experiencing a pandemic has taken its toll on everyone. A big microsoft survey found that 54% of workers worldwide said they were overworked and 39% felt “exhausted”.
Presumably, alleviating many of these extenuating circumstances will improve work – both engagement and productivity -. But we’ll have to wait and see. We have been through the first phase of the great work from home experience and now we are moving to the second phase – when many will be working from home, but without the overwhelming realities and distractions of the pandemic.