Malcolm Gladwell with One of the Worst Takes Ever
This has absolutely nothing to do with sports, but it is an interesting topic and very annoying at the same time.
A story at the New York Post aggregates a podcast appearance from author/journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who bemoans the COVID-inspired shift to working from home:
Author Malcolm Gladwell thinks that remote work is hurting society and that a recession will likely drive employees who are “sitting in their pajamas” back into the office.
“It’s not in your best interest to work at home,” he said. “I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?”
“Don’t you want to feel part of something?”
Gladwell added: “I’m really getting very frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to explain this effectively to their employees.”
“If we don’t feel like we’re part of something important, what’s the point?” he said. “If it’s just a paycheck, then it’s like what have you reduced your life to?”
This is hilarious to me, because Malcolm Gladwell does not even work in an office. He is unmarried and has no children, which is absolutely fine, but it means he has very little real-life understanding of the married American couple with kids. What I’m trying to say is that Gladwell has never gotten a text message from preschool because the water main broke and he’s gotta pick up his kid and bring them home, then try to finish his NYT best seller while the kid watches Team Umizoomi on her tablet.
EDIT – I am redoing the above paragraph as a matter of good faith/journalism. Gladwell got in touch to confirm that he does indeed have a child, and he noted that this 2005 article from The Guardian comes from “a period in my life when I was freelancing and had no office to go to” –
Malcolm says: “I hate desks. Desks are now banished.” He starts the day writing at home, but this is always done from his sofa, using his laptop. “I work better when I’m comfortable,” he says. After a stint on the sofa, it’s out into the world.
“I refer to my writing as ‘rotating’. I always say ‘I’m going to rotate’ because I have a series of spots that I rotate.”
There’s one in the lower East Side. “The waiters are all Australian and they play The Smiths all day long which I find so fabulous. I always go there on the weekends. Then there are restaurants in Little Italy that I go to. I often go to these places in the middle of the afternoon, when they’ll let me linger.”
Gladwell actually has a reasonable macro-level argument here, but it’s delivered poorly and in the wrong vessel. What he’s really trying to say is that we’re social creatures and we should be interacting with co-workers and getting out and about, leaving our comfort zone to learn new things and pursue diverse engagements and experiences. We should want a career and not a job. That’s actually a good take. Most kids are buried in their phones these days and are shit communicators, so sitting in front of a computer at home all day does nothing to help that. There’s certainly a sociological and developmental thing that shifts when we’re going from in-office, to hybrid, to at-home work. And maybe there’s a blunting of ambition for people working for “just a paycheck,” though you can phone it in no matter where or how you work.
However, the benefits to working at home are myriad. Employees are much more productive. You cut out a 30 minute commute in both directions and that’s one more hour each day to focus on tasks. Five hours if you tally up the entire week. You can simply get more done at home. You don’t waste your time listening to Bobby at the water cooler make small talk or tell you about his dumbass fantasy baseball team. You aren’t sitting in some useless meeting, which could have been an email. Roads are less congested and mass transit is less clogged up because fewer people are using those services. And in a globalized world, you’d still be communicating with London/Paris/Tokyo via video call, even if you did commute down to the office in Philly or D.C. We’re now able to set up globalized networks that run efficiently because we’ve made the shift to Zoom, Teams, etc and have regular communication across the planet. You meet in person where/when necessary. And if you’re a parent and something happens at school, you are in a position to respond instead of having your kid sit in the office for 2 hours waiting for you to come pick them up. The lost time working is made up on the back end, either logging an hour or two at night or on the weekend. Give employees flexibility and they’ll reciprocate it.
Working from home or doing hybrid work, maybe three days in, two days at home – that’s really helped us trim the fat and become more efficient people. It’s like the movie Office Space:
“Hi Peter! What’s happening? Uhhhh… yeah, you forgot to put those cover sheets on your TPS reports.”
Peter would have been more productive if Bill Lumberg just left him alone. He could have done his TPS reports from the comfort of his home while wearing his clothing of choice, instead of being shoved into a cubicle like a farm animal and having to commute in traffic while wearing a nice shirt and a tie.
Now, obviously if you’re the cafe below the big Manhattan skyscraper, or owner of said skyscraper, you want patrons in the area and tenants in the building. There are economic ripples that follow a big shift like this, and while the lunch spot in the city has to adjust, maybe you’re taking your break at the local place wherever you live instead. You aren’t “rotating” around New York City like Gladwell, and if he’s concerned about the bigger picture, i.e. feeling isolated or disconnected or whatever he’s trying to say here, then he need not worry. People who work from home talk to their spouse, their preschool teachers, the nanny, the neighbor, the guy at Wawa, etc. We didn’t become hermits, we just became more efficient and more productive while transitioning into an environment that oftentimes makes more sense.