We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Work

Best-selling author Dan Goleman argues that the issues around where work is being done are less important than whether the work is meaningful.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

The people have spoken: remote work continues to be in demand for many.

A 2022 Society for Human Resources survey found that 48% of respondents will “definitely” seek a full-time remote position for their next job. To get them to remain at a hybrid job with a 30-minute commute, employers would need to offer a 10% to 20% pay raise.

Still, many companies continue to debate whether or not remote work comes at a cost to their long-term success.

Do people get as much done at home as they do in the office?

Are dips in employee engagement the result of too little face time?

As with most things about human behavior, there’s no one answer.

Pre-COVID research with call-center employees showed that remote work led to greater productivity— in part due to fewer sick days and a quieter environment. A more recent study conducted with programmers and marketing and finance staff confirmed such findings: working from home at least part of the time (i.e., hybrid) was shown to reduce attrition by 35% and resulted in 8% more written code, a common metric for gauging the productivity of programmers.

So why the debate?

Part of it has to do with how well employees ideate in a virtual environment. Research from Stanford has shown that virtual meetings can hinder a group’s ability to innovate and be creative. When working on the same problems, the study found, in-person teams generated more ideas than remote teams did. For companies whose survival depends on cutting-edge innovation, this lost creativity represents a significant threat to the bottom line.

But does this mean that employees need to be in the office 24/7? Or does it just mean that leaders should rethink their approach to virtual work sessions and how they engage people across geographies?

Considering how many workers are demanding flexibility, the focus on dragging them into the office might be a waste of energy. Productivity, creative thinking, and talent retention are priorities most organizations have in common. To be successful, leaders might be better off focusing on the root causes of why employees stay, engage, and contribute their best talent.

When we think about it this way, the debate around remote work is almost tangential to the conversation around what motivates people in the first place. In a 2019 Korn Ferry survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that their personal principal driver at work is the belief that their work has purpose and meaning. Meanwhile, just as many executives have said that having a sense of purpose beyond the daily commercial mission made them more able to innovate, disrupt, or respond to disruption.

The focus on whether or not people should come into the office could distract companies from turning towards a more important conversation: the question of how work does or doesn’t provide a sense of meaning. Engaged employees aren’t just satisfied with their jobs, they are willing to put in discretionary effort. Regardless of where they are located, they bring their best ideas forward because they are passionate about where those ideas might lead.

Peter Drucker, the great pioneer of management theory, said it well: “In innovation, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.” Drucker argued that for innovation to sustain itself—for workers to keep taking creative risks in the face of the potential for failure—we need a sense that what we are doing really matters.

The question isn’t “Where are people working?”

The question is “Why, beyond a paycheck, does the work really matter to them?

If organizations can inject more meaning into how employees relate to their jobs and to one another, it may matter less where those employees are located. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.