Impact Insights Blog

When it Comes to How ‘We Work,’ Engaged is a Feeling, Not a Location

July 2, 2021

Filomena FanelliEvery now and again a news headline stops me dead in my tracks. When I came across this recent article in The New York Times – “WeWork’s C.E.O. says ‘least engaged’ employees enjoy working from home” – I stopped scrolling, furrowed my brow and decided I must speak out.

Nearly 44 percent of companies had employees working fully remote during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we recover and the world reopens, some are shifting to hybrid models, others are talking about full returns and another group is opting to embrace a virtual workplace, as our team has.

There is a level of bias that comes with running an office space-based business, as Sandeep Mathrani does, and I’m willing to own my own bias. My PR agency started fully remote more than seven years ago and, like many founders, I had this sophisticated setup: a laptop on a kitchen counter; a seemingly never-ending cup of coffee; and a sense of humor. I took new business calls from my car when the kids had snow days at school, wrote client copy in the back of a Barnes & Noble, and managed to recruit like-minded PR professionals who focused on opportunities over obstacles, all without a shared address. They could make anything happen anywhere, it seemed.

Before long, the company grew and we longed to collaborate in-person, procuring a small office adjacent to a fencing studio. Productivity was at an all-time high and we felt connected, but headed home to finish out the day once the afternoon classes began. Our monitors shook from the students hitting the other side of the wall to avoid the sword and we had to pack it in. Clients continued to get stellar, award-winning work and we had lots of laughs.

We then expanded another notch and doubled our office footprint, but also needed to recruit more talented team members. One was from Fairfield County, Connecticut, and our home base was in New York’s Dutchess County. To make it work, we offered her the same flexibility all of us had ­– the ability to work remotely several days a week. Now it’s called the hybrid model, but we didn’t have a fancy name for it back then. It was a way to respect everyone’s work styles and home lives and to save on commutes, allow for heads-down strategic thinking and deep work and to show we trusted the people we worked with.

Their value was never measured by time in a seat or visibility in front of others, but rather client results, commitment to colleagues and living out the values we proudly hung on our wall for all to see. It wasn’t just people who commuted from afar; it was moms who wanted to get to the soccer field after work on time, it was adults who wanted to exercise right before the work day began, it was introverts who wanted to recharge their batteries. Heck, it was even me, a self-proclaimed “extra extrovert.”

When the pandemic hit, we packed it in ahead of New York state telling us to do so – and we stayed there long after we were told we could go back. That decision was made because it was in the best interests of our team and our clients. As owner, I saw the results come in, heard directly from the companies and brands we work with, and they never felt a difference, so the focus was more on what the team needed to feel successful, as I believe it ought to be.

While there’s nothing wrong with beautiful digs, and I loved mine at one time, they do not magically create connection and meaning. Ann Johnson, corporate vice president at Microsoft said it best when she said, “If the only way you can keep your employees engaged is by being in the office with them, you have a leadership issue – not an employee engagement issue.”

As for our team, we’ve forged forward and grown, created new forward-thinking traditions, shared laughs and wins, consoled one another when the world was uncertain, deepened our ties with our clients, doubled down on living out our core values and didn’t look back. Will we ever meet up indoors? Sure! We’ll rent coworking spaces when the need arises, but because we treasure working with – and for – companies that line up with our ethos, you can be assured it won’t be at WeWork.

This article originally appeared in the Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals.