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Gladwell on RTO: Right Message, Wrong Audience


Last month, Malcolm Gladwell was skewered for criticizing work from home policies. I don’t believe that the substance of his message was wrong. I believe he directed his ire at the wrong audience.


The video that circulated started with him saying “It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected. [Employers] want you to have a feeling of belonging, and to feel necessary… but if you’re not [in the office], it’s really hard to.” He concluded this message with a question to employees: “It’s not in your best interest to work from home… Don’t you want to feel part of something?”


In his remarks, Gladwell seemed to sympathize with employers and assumed they all want to provide their employees with a sense of belonging. That’s total BS. In fact, most employers don’t do much in this area. He also assumed all employees want to achieve their sense of belonging from their employment. That’s also not true since most employees get it elsewhere.


While Gladwell is right in that most employees aren't satisfied with the opportunities for connection in the workplace, he is wrong in placing the blame on them. Employers are to blame. They are the ones with both the need and the resources to make it happen.


The pandemic didn’t start this problem. It exasperated it. The treatment of employees has gone downhill, resulting in work feeling more and more transactional. In the absence of belonging at work, employees have sought it in other places and will continue to do so until employers start taking the topic more seriously. (I’ve written extensively about how employers can cultivate belonging in the workplace.)


Gladwell made it seem like people live meaningless lives if they work from home. That’s absurd. The return to office movement needs to be tackled in conjunction with fostering better office cultures.


The fact that people still want to work from home should be a wakeup call: employers need to make returning to the office an interesting prospect and that starts with cultivating belonging in the workplace.

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