Remote Employees “are least engaged,” says WeWork CEO, Sandeep Mathrani

Published on May 21, 2021

During The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival on Wednesday, WeWork’s CEO, Sandeep Mathrani, made the claim that employees who are most comfortable working from home are the least engaged segment of the workforce.

He stated, “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,” he added. “Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.”

Mathrani, served as CEO of the mall giant, General Growth Properties, before taking over as WeWork’s chief executive in early 2020. 

In other words, both his current and previous roles were in businesses that depended on people visiting in person. On the surface, it may seem that his statements are based on ignorance or even desperation, but they’re really based on something much more subtle. 

I’ll dig into the real basis a bit later in this article, but first, I want to address the veracity of his statements.

Lessons from the 2020 pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, most employers believed that a remote workforce wasn’t realistic. 

They thought that technology wasn’t quite ready, but more importantly, they thought employees would spend their days distracted by Netflix, video games, and naps. In their minds, the reliable employees they depended on to keep their business running every day would suddenly become unreliable without their watchful eye bearing down on them throughout the day. 

Obviously, this is ridiculous. We’re talking about grown adults, many of whom care about their own performance just as much, if not more than their employer does. 

A remote workforce works, and it works incredibly well.

But this is more than a hypothesis or an opinion. Data proved it. 

Ninety-four percent of 800 employers surveyed by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, said that productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely. According to another study, employees working remotely work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based peers, resulting in more than three additional weeks of work per year. And there are countless studies showing similar results. 

Now that many businesses have seen the obvious benefits first hand, they have permanently transitioned to a mostly remote workforce, including AdobeFacebook, and Microsoft, to name just a few.

Today, over half of America’s workforce is remote, and there’s no sign of that changing direction anytime soon. Employees and employers alike have fallen in love with this model because of the benefits it provides, including productivity, flexibility, and quality of life, to name just a few.

Other experts weigh in on Mathrani’s claim

Robert Nickell, who runs the 900+ person virtual assistant agency, Rocket Station—which is staffed by an entirely remote workforce, doesn’t agree with Mathrani’s statement. 

“Data shows that a remote workforce increases productivity—often dramatically. 

This is because it gives employees a more comfortable environment to work in and reduces their stress levels, leading to increased productivity, more creativity, and greater attention to detail. It’s a more advantageous environment for employees and employers alike.”

Nickell says that in addition to increased productivity, a remote workforce also leads to reduced costs and gives employers access to a larger pool of potential employees. 

Carrie Charles says her clients are experiencing the same outcome. 

As the CEO of Broadstaff, a global staffing agency specializing in the telecom, energy, and technology industries, she’s on the front lines with numerous employers, large and small. 

She explains, “Many of our clients said that employee productivity has increased since moving remote which has motivated them to keep this model moving forward.

In fact, other employers moving their employees back in the office have experienced some resistance, causing them to rethink the old way of doing things. 

The bottom line is that poor engagement is not a remote issue, it is a company culture issue. Great leaders can keep people engaged no matter where they work. Instead of shunning remote work, business owners need to focus on strengthening company culture and engagement.”

I agree—especially with her last statement. Both Charles and I served as US Marines, so we know a thing or two about leadership in challenging environments. 

Ultimately, it’s a leader’s responsibility to adapt to the environment while still achieving the desired outcome. Expecting the world to adapt to what you want is poor leadership and frankly, not much more than an executive temper tantrum.

And if employee engagement was really as poor as Mathrani claims, surely commercial Realtors would be seeing an uptick in demand for office space, but that’s not happening. 

“For the most part, employers with office operations are not returning to the office,” according to Jason Keyz, who is the CEO and Principal Broker at Keyz Group. He’s had many conversations with clients about their future need for office space, and explains, “I wasn’t surprised to hear a majority of the tenants tell me or my team that they would not have their employees return to the office, and those that said they would, anticipated a huge reduction in the amount of staff that would be returning to a physical office.”

Does this mean every office space on the planet will soon be vacant? 

No, says Keyz. However, he does see a post pandemic world translating to smaller, more nimble offices for those companies that decide to maintain an in-office presence. 

Mathrani’s real motive

I don’t think Mathrani actually believes what he claimed. So why would he say it then? 

I believe there are two reasons. 

WeWork’s business model is based entirely on people coming into its buildings—many of which are located in cities that had imposed draconian lockdowns. 

So obviously, he has a vested interest in people getting out of their homes and back into an office environment. 

The company recently told investors it is expecting a dramatic upswing in occupancy in a pitch to value the company at around $9 billion.

This is where the other, more subtle reason comes into play. 

Regardless of your views on the pandemic response, I think we all can agree that the lockdowns are essentially over. While states like Florida have been wide open for quite some time, even states that have had the most aggressive restrictions in place are largely open now.

By making a controversial statement—especially one that is demonstrably false, Mathrani has virtually guaranteed a cycle of media coverage. And it’s already started. 

That media coverage is creating brand awareness at the exact time more people are looking for office space—potentially driving that upswing in occupancy he talked about. This could lead to increased revenue to support the $9 billion dollar valuation he’s pushing for.

And it lines up perfectly with the stated goal to go public in Q3 of this year.

In other words, Mathrani’s statement was a brilliant PR move and nothing more.

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Jeremy Knauff is a contributor at Grit Daily and several other publications, a Marine Corps veteran, and the founder of Spartan Media, a digital marketing agency that serves the construction industry.

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