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Why Malcolm Gladwell (and Many Leaders) Get Remote Work All Wrong

Are your decisions based on beliefs or facts? Be ready to challenge your assumptions about hybrid work.

By Gustavo Razzetti

August 11, 2022

The problem is not hybrid work but the flawed beliefs about people

Remote work is here to stay – and so is the debate about whether to return full-time to the office. Author Malcolm Gladwell recently joined the ranks of celebrities who slam people who work from home: “What have you reduced your life to?”

Gladwell is the best-selling author of many books, including Outliers and The Tipping Point. He's sold an estimated 4.5 million books worldwide. However, his appearance in the Diary of a CEO podcast wasn’t that popular. The Canadian writer faced backlash for claiming that working from home is not in anyone’s best interest.

“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?” Gladwell grew emotional as he talked with host Steven Bartlett.

The author believes that “this trend” is hurting society – though he didn’t explain how – and hopes a recession will force people back into the office.

From Fortune to Vice, many journalists went after Gladwell, challenging his unfounded attack and hypocrisy (the author has prided himself on working remotely and writing from his couch).

My goal is not to attack Gladwell but rather his underlying assumptions. He’s a talented storyteller and accomplished writer and speaker. However, the master of the let me take you by the hand prose style, as Andrew Ferguson describes Gladwell in The Atlantic, is a victim of his own storytelling. His beliefs, not facts, dictate his narrative.

That’s precisely why many leaders struggle with a hybrid workplace. They act based on assumptions, not facts. Many think people working from home just sit in their pajamas and do nothing all day. Just like Gladwell does.

In this post, I will address the most common beliefs that get in the way and share insights from my new book Remote, Not Distant to help you challenge your assumptions.

Let’s tackle them one by one.

Belief #1: People are lazy in their pajamas

Reality: For many, life doesn’t revolve around work but the other way around

“If we don’t feel like we’re part of something important, what’s the point?” Malcolm Gladwell believes that working remotely makes work less meaningful. The author can’t imagine people being motivated or leading fulfilling lives outside of work.

Drew Magary called Gladwell’s argument “nonsense.” He wrote on SFGate: “(This is his most annoying belief) that the rest of us have nothing better to do outside of working ourselves to death. He can’t visualize a work-from-home scenario that doesn’t involve every remote employee instantly turning into a couch potato from a 1988 sitcom and pumping out half-assed work while double-fisting bags of Cheetos.”

The pandemic has made us reevaluate our lives. We moved from seeking a work-life balance to work and personal life integration. That’s one of the five key shifts of the hybrid workplace. People don’t want to design their personal lives around work but the other way around.

Many people have moved back home to their families. Others have started to have kids and want to be closer to their parents. A significant number of employees benefit from the flexibility to define not only where but also when they work. Seizing the opportunity to embrace their kids is NOT an obstacle to doing great work.

“I'm tired of other people, especially self-important faux celebrities, telling me what is in my best interest. You don't know me. I don't derive all my meaning from listening to gossip in the office. I've been able to collaborate and be creative just fine with the colleagues that matter. Plus, I recently had a daughter, so the extra time I get with her each day is huge,” one listener responded to Gladwell’s remarks.

Meaning is something personal. And, for many, work is just a job – their happiness is not correlated to their professional achievements. Not everyone needs to belong to something at work. Others value the time regained from not commuting. They feel less tired, can do chores during the breaks, and relax when they need to without guilt.

Tip: Don’t assume all people are the same. The fact that some people prefer working from home and others don’t, it doesn’t mean that one half are lazy and the others are more dedicated. Treat people how they, not you, want to be treated.

Belief #2: Remote work erodes culture

Reality: Your culture was never your office

Often, the conversation about hybrid gets stuck because people focus on proving why it's not going to work (justifying their beliefs) rather than on how they can make it work (challenging their beliefs).

Gladwell falls into this trap by assuming that physical disconnection equals emotional disconnection.

Physical proximity facilitates connection but doesn’t guarantee it. How many couples have you seen that share the same roof and bed yet feel no passion or love for each other? Similarly, before the pandemic, most employees felt disengaged from their teams even if they worked full time in the office– they were close but distant.

Starting in May, Airbnb employees can live and work anywhere forever without losing pay. This new policy spiked traffic to its career page, reaching a million visits in the first week. CEO Brian Chesky believes that the office as we know it is over. He told Time that “the office is like an anachronistic form…from a pre-digital age.”

Your culture was never your office. Forcing people into the office without redesigning the experience could increase the disconnect between leaders and team members.

Your office is just another element of your hybrid workplace playbook – use it wisely.

“If the office didn’t exist, I like to ask, would we invent it?” Chesky said. “And if we invented it, what would it be invented for?”

Tip: Building a sense of belonging requires intentional design, not just closeness. Remote shouldn’t mean distant. Rethink the office experience. When should people work from the same place? And, most importantly, why? The office should be a special place, not one full of interruptions and routines.  

Belief #3: People need to be controlled

Reality: People thrive when they have autonomy

Associating working from home to laziness is not only a flawed belief but also an assumption based on a lack of trust.

Funnily enough, Gladwell believes that “Having choices does allow a range of freedom that is denied to those who are embedded in an established culture.” That’s the secret to his success. However, he advocates for the opposite when it comes to everyone else.

Many managers worry that their employees are less productive when they aren't visible. That is frequently untrue. The majority of remote workers, particularly those who prefer flexible schedules, are as productive (or even more so) than when they work full time from the office.

For many years, managers have promoted a culture of presenteeism that rewards those who are the first to arrive to and last to leave the office. They thus encourage people to look busy rather than being productive.  

It’s no surprise that, thanks to the pandemic, presenteeism has gone digital.

54% of workers feel pressure to show they’re online, according to the Killing Time at Work study. People are responding to notifications or emails or showing up to Zoom meetings just to be seen. The average worker spends an additional 67 minutes online daily to avoid being perceived as not working.

Start by reframing the narrative that working remotely is bad.

The flexibility of a hybrid model not only improves productivity but it can also positively impact other aspects of workplace culture.  

Since Spotify introduced its "Work from Anywhere" policy in February 2021, the company has seen rapid and amazing improvements. This new policy not only encouraged employees to decide how often they work from an office (or if they do so at all), but also changed its salary banding to by country rather than by city. The first major change was that 6% of Spotify’s staff relocated – either switching states within the US or moving to a different country.

The new policy improved key indicators at Spotify:

1. Attrition rate: The overall rate dropped by 15% in Q2 2022 in comparison to Q2 of 2019. They expect this number to improve even more by year's end.

2. Employee diversity: Spotify expanded its talent pool, increasing its African-American and Hispanic employee base from 12.7% to 18% between 2019 and 2021. Their female leadership pool also increased from 25% to 42% in the same time frame.

3. Time to hire: The metric decreased by 12.5%, dropping 6 days on average. An impressive statistic, especially considering the tight tech labor market.

Airbnb experienced a similar productivity boost.

CEO Brian Chesky recently stated that the company had “the most productive two-year period in our history” despite the pandemic and the need to work from “our bedrooms, basements, and home offices.” Airbnb exceeded 100 million nights and experiences booked for the first time, bringing in revenue of $1.5 billion.

Tip: With freedom comes accountability. Giving people autonomy to make decisions increases a sense of ownership. Allow employees to choose the approach that works best for them. Focus on the outcome you expect to see, not the path required to achieve it.

Belief #4: A flexible environment equals chaos

Reality: Freedom and discipline go hand in hand

Flexibility is the new engagement. That’s the element everyone appreciates the most in a hybrid arrangement. Research shows that people expect flexibility not only in terms of where they work but also in their schedules. 72% of workers who are unhappy with their current level of flexibility are likely to look for a new job.

What's important is that you offer choice.

Flexibility doesn’t just make people happy but is also more effective. 81% of workers believe they are more productive when they have flexibility over WHEN they work. A majority of workers (65%) agree that they have more flexibility than before the pandemic. They also expect to have more flexibility as to when they work in the next 3 years.

I could go on and on with more studies. So, if the data doesn’t lie, why are leaders pushing back? For one, leading in a flexible workplace isn't easy – integrating individual and team expectations requires more intentionality and effort. Also, many believe that people will abuse the system if given freedom.

Flexibility doesn't mean permission to do whatever people want. Instead, it's about encouraging them to make personal choices in the team's best interests.

Discipline is the glue that holds flexible employees together. When team members have different arrangements, this inherently requires better coordination, communication, and documentation. That's where discipline comes in handy.

A hybrid workplace requires well-defined team agreements: from being obsessive about documentation to defining “collaboration time” where everyone is available for team collaboration regardless of their individual arrangements.

Default-to-asynchronous work is a vital shift to protect individual time, especially deep work. When helping teams design their hybrid work culture, the most frequent expectation people share with me is to have uninterrupted time. They want to avoid office interruptions to tackle tasks that require deep focus and concentration.  

Unfortunately, companies often pay lip service to asynchronous work. Even though most CEOs are aware and supportive of async, a majority of employees feel that their organizational structures, tooling, and leadership are stuck in the old way of working, as a study in the US and UK by Qatalog and Gitlab shows.

Target Corporation has adopted an experimental approach to hybrid work in which the office space is considered another tool. Employees and teams can choose when and where to work. People are incredibly appreciative of that flexibility, although some expect more direction/ clarity on how to work. Succeeding in an async-first approach requires training and experimentation.

Not everyone is ready to deal with freedom. Leaders must support their teams, providing guidance and clarity without being prescriptive. Most importantly, leaders need to embrace their new role as facilitators of culture. Rather than dictate how things should be, they must pave the path.

Consider the new strategy of Google's CEO Sundar Pichai – the company will be asking employees three questions to bolster productivity and foster a stronger sense of togetherness:

  • What would help you work with greater clarity and efficiency to serve our users and customers?
  • Where should we remove speed bumps to get better results faster?
  • How do we eliminate waste and stay entrepreneurial and focused as we grow?

Tip: The concept of “time” at work is dead. Collaboration doesn’t need to happen in real-time – most team interactions can be done asynchronously. Review the 6 collaboration modes with your team. Reflect on the benefits of asynchronous and synchronous communication – as well as when to use which.

Belief #5: Hybrid is not going to work for us

Reality: Hybrid requires experimentation – explore what can work for you

The notion that working remotely will hurt society, as Malcolm Gladwell recently stated (or your business, for that matter) is not only flawed but based on assumptions, not facts. Many companies write off a hybrid model because they believe it will not work for them even before trying it.

Leaders are afraid of what they can’t control.

That’s why many employers are rushing to establish some sense of normalcy: either forcing people back into the office or creating a rigid approach that randomly dictates which days people should work from home (or not). Leaders run the risk of increasing the disconnect within their teams.

If you never try, you never know. At scale, a hybrid model is hard to do right. It will require continuous experimentation. Adopt a people-first schedule.

When Spotify kicked off the "Work from Anywhere" policy, very few employees opted for an extreme – either to work fully from the office or home. The majority chose to continue to experience the office as their primary place of work. This flexible approach improved many metrics, as I explained above, but also created some issues.

The company realized that people felt less connected to Spotify as a whole but more connected to their immediate team. HR is now betting on Intro Days (part of Spotify’s onboarding program) in person to mitigate this. Leaders encourage teams to get together once every six months to connect, strategize, and plan work.

Spotify found that teams with multiple members spread across geographies are more successful than teams with just one person in a different geography. This interesting fact is the result of experimentation.

IBM and Slack have made deep inroads in adopting hybrid work. One of the secrets of their success was admitting that a hybrid workplace is relatively untested – it’s about embracing uncertainty.

As Nickle LaMoreaux, Chief Human Resources Officer at IBM, wrote: “This decentralized approach carries risks, especially over the near-term. At its worst, it might lead to organizational chaos, where different parts of an organization can never get in sync because they are all operating on different rhythms. But at its best, it’s well worth the inevitable short-term growing pains. It promises to unleash access to a broader talent pool, more empowered employees, and organizations that can operate with newfound agility and decisiveness.”

LaMoreaux strongly recommends resisting the urge to impose new top-down policies and structures. Instead, as I explain in my book, allow individuals and small teams to experiment with how work best gets done for them.

There are trade-offs in any mode of work. Managers must learn how to overcome the downsides of remote and hybrid work, just as they dealt with other challenges in the past.

Tip: Be open to experiment. The first prototype will never be the final one. Even if you get it right the first time, you’ll have to make adjustments as the team, nature of the work, and people’s preferences evolve.

Challenge Your Beliefs About the Hybrid Workplace

Underlying assumptions are the biggest obstacles to improving the workplace. Any narrative based on beliefs is easier to support if it feels convenient, regardless of if it's true or not.

Getting hybrid work right is going to be hard for your organization. Every company is different. However, don’t let past beliefs get in the way. This is a unique opportunity to redefine how to work better.

The notion that collaboration requires an office, that culture suffers if people don't see each other often, or that working remotely equals slacking are not facts but beliefs.

Getting it right will require commitment and avoid the urge to see failure as an excuse to get back to how things used to be. Embrace the uncertainty that comes from moving away from a 9-to-5 schedule and toward a flexible workplace. Let people drive the conversation and discover how they can do their best work. Pave the path and learn from experimentation.

Minimum incremental changes – tweaking around the edges – will never be enough.

Start by examining your underlying assumptions using the Personal Beliefs Canvas.

How do your company rules treat your people? As trustworthy or not? Do you believe people are self-driven or lazy? Do you think flexibility begets productivity or chaos?

Finally, are your decisions based on beliefs or facts? Be ready to challenge your assumptions.

The culture that got you here won’t get you into the future of work.

Brian Chesky said it best: “Two decades ago, Silicon Valley startups popularized the idea of open floor plans and on-site perks, which were soon adopted by companies all around the world. Similarly, today’s startups have embraced remote work and flexibility. This will become the predominant way that we all work 10 years from now. This is where the world is going.”

For more insights and tool on remote and hybrid workplace culture: Get your copy of Remote, Not Distant at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Depository, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, and more (It's already an Amazon bestseller!).

Remote Not Distant book
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