Celebrity author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell is getting roasted online—and for good reason. He attacked remote work during a recent podcast interview, and his remarks went viral over the weekend.
“It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected,” he said. “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 we want you to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary.”
— New York Post (@nypost) August 5, 2022
“We want you to join our team,” Gladwell added. “And if you’re not here it’s really hard to do that.”
His ultimate conclusion was the most bombastic of all: “It’s not in your best interest to work at home. 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?”
You can watch Gladwell’s remarks for yourself (and my reaction) below:
Suffice it to say the internet was not amused by Gladwell’s take.
Malcolm Gladwell needs you at your cubicle if he’s going to write more pseudoscience self-help books marketed to dummies who were in a gifted class forty years ago https://t.co/jyfCM0R4oD
— Mike Drucker (@MikeDrucker) August 7, 2022
I ain't no fancy intellectual like Malcolm Gladwell, but if he finds it "really hard to explain" a "core psychological truth," then maybe the problem isn't everybody else living their lives wrong. Maybe the problem is that he's wrong. pic.twitter.com/htCN5Lqq1y
— Max Kennerly (@MaxKennerly) August 7, 2022
malcolm gladwell should be in jail for 10,000 hours for what he has done to the shelf space of the median second hand book shop
— emi fisher 🎣 (@emi_f1sher) August 6, 2022
There are so many problems with Gladwell’s argument, which is unfortunately shared somewhat widely among the elite class, that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Malcolm Gladwell is a Work-From-Home Hypocrite
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that Malcolm Gladwell himself has a long history of working remotely.
In fact, New York Magazine reported in 2010 that despite living just miles away from his publication’s office, Gladwell almost never went into work:
“He is a well-known figure around his neighborhood, fond of tapping away on his laptop in coffee shops and cafés. His writer’s life is part anachronistic, part futuristic. His Lexus IS—a car, he concedes, he rarely drives—is parked down the street in the space he pays a small fortune to lease. A couple of miles north in Times Square are Gladwell’s editors at The New Yorker, who don’t see him in the office very often—owing to his self-professed ‘aversion to midtown’—but who grant him a license to write about whatever he chooses and accommodate him with couriers to pick up his fact-checking materials, lest he be forced to overcome that aversion.”
Similarly, Gladwell declared in 2005, “I hate desks. Desks are now banished.” The Guardian reported that, “He starts the day writing at home, but this is always done from his sofa, using his laptop.”
In 2010, Gladwell described himself as “someone who writes in coffee shops for a living.”
To be clear, Gladwell’s hypocrisy doesn’t necessarily negate his argument. But it does suggest that he personally has found the many upsides of remote work far more important than “belonging”—and to be in his “self-interest.”
‘Best Interest’ is Different for Every Person
Gladwell’s sweeping claim that remote work isn’t in one’s “best interest” is fundamentally foolish, because it ignores the reality that people’s lives, styles, and situations are so different that no one lifestyle is in the best interest of everyone.
For some more introverted people, like myself, working from home makes us happier and more productive. For others, it might be totally untenable and drive them crazy! It also depends enormously on what industry you’re in and what kind of work you’re doing. Some work lends itself easily to remote work, while other kinds of work must necessarily be done in person.
It’s deeply arrogant for Gladwell to think he knows what’s in everyone’s best interest. It seems obvious that the utmost authority on a person’s self-interest is, well, that person—and millions have decided that remote work is most certainly in their best interest.
Discriminating Against Remote Workers is a Terrible Idea
Gladwell went on to advocate for discriminating against prospective employees who want to work remotely.
“If you preferentially select people based on their desire to work in an office, it’s a really wonderful way to build a nice office culture,” he said.
Gladwell concluded this allows you to “cream-skim” the bad employees out of the bunch. But this is actually a terrible idea and a surefire way to harm your business.
Sure, some roles might necessarily require in-person work. Yet if remote work is an option and you insist on only hiring those willing to relocate/commute into an office, you are arbitrarily—irrespective of talent and potential—ruling out like 95% of the applicant pool. Many amazing employees might have a child at home they need to stay with or a partner who can’t relocate.
If an entrepreneur follows Gladwell’s advice, they would be shrinking their talent pool and ruling out tons of potentially great employees—a recipe for mediocre hires, not “a nice office culture.”
Ultimately, Gladwell’s take deserves the viral condemnation it is receiving. Remote work isn’t right for everyone or every job, but it’s a wonderful development for many that’s empowering workers and increasing our quality of life.