Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of books like Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point, is a household name, especially among business leaders. His insights have changed the way companies and managers think about human nature and paths to success. This is why his recent comments on remote work during an appearance on the Diary of a CEO podcast sparked so much controversy.
It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected. As we face the battle that all organizations are facing now in getting people back into the office, it’s really hard to explain this core psychological truth, which is [managers] want [employees] to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary…and if [employees are] not here, it is really hard to do that.
– Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell would go on to suggest that “it is not in [an employee’s] best interest to work at home,” but he does not blame employees for empty offices. Rather, he expresses his frustration with leaders of companies and their inability to effectively explain why employees should want to come into the office. The podcast host, Steven Bartlett, echoed Gladwell’s sentiment by discussing the difficulty he had differentiating his company’s employee experience in a fully remote environment.
After the podcast was released, Gladwell received a wave of criticism. Most notably, opponents highlighted how Gladwell wrote extensively about doing his work from coffee shops in Europe and North America.
In response, Gladwell doubled down on his comments, saying “offices really do matter” and that his early career as a freelance writer amounted to “solitary work,” which is quite different from collaborative work. His comments about working from an office were not from his perspective as a writer; rather, it was from his perspective as a co-founder of Pushkin Industries, a content company focusing on podcasts and audiobooks.
The criticism Gladwell received should not be surprising, given the number of employees who want to work remotely, but that is the point Gladwell is trying to make. He acknowledges that “it is a hassle to come into the office,” but he believes the benefits of doing so are real and far exceed the costs.
Because these benefits are so poorly communicated by leaders at most companies, many employees do not recognize that office time is in their best interest. Specifically, many employees are being adversely impacted by a lack of connection with their colleagues. According the Pew Research Center, 60% of employees who switched to remote work due to COVID-19 feel less connected to their co-workers. Many would argue that workplace connectedness will continue to drop as more and more employees do not have a history of in-person interactions with each other. Having months or years of in-person interactions with colleagues prior to moving to remote work creates a foundation for connectedness that is often overlooked and underappreciated.
It is important to note that Gladwell, his detractors, and many voices in the discussion speak in absolutes. The reality is that employees and companies do not have to commit to being either fully remote or on-site. In fact, hybrid work arrangements are the most popular work arrangement, with 53% of employers expecting to implement them, according to research from Gallup.
These arrangements provide employees with most of the flexibility benefits of remote work while allowing companies to foster connectedness within their organizations. Although a hybrid approach may not be perfect for every culture, it seems like a sensible middle ground that can be a sustainable model for most companies that engage in collaborative work.