Writer Malcolm Gladwell found himself an outlier when he commented on the need for people to get back to working in the office. Of course, in today’s world of the easily offended, such incredibly ordinary, commonsensical statement generated a ton of outrage.
Speaking to Steven Bartlett, host of the podcast Diary of a CEO, Gladwell pointed out that while “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?”
The problem is that “people in positions of leadership [are failing] to explain this effectively to their employees.” Hence, Gladwell laments, “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.”
Of course, it didn’t help that Gladwell has publicly professed his preference for working at home and his aversion to office desks. In a 2020 article for the Wall Street Journal, he admitted that most of his writing was done in coffee shops.
But that is neither here nor there: Gladwell is a writer and writing is oftentimes a solitary business. For most people, however, working in an office is just simply the better way.
Professional business consultant Liz Campbell wrote of “Four reasons why the office environment is still key to employees” (July 2021):
1. You can benefit from the culture of your organization — It is also much easier to create a culture of support and personal development when you have employees of all levels in the same space. An office space is often at the heart of your business culture.
2. It helps to maintain a healthy work-life balance — Even if you love your job, it’s not healthy to feel like you’re working during every waking hour.
3. The quality of your workplace is assured — For many, the office also offers an escape from distractions. Home-based working can often mean having to contend with spontaneous interruptions, whether that’s pets, children, or deliveries arriving at your door.
4. It’s easier to build relationships — Being in the office allows employees to connect with people they may not interact with daily. These spontaneous conversations over coffee or while passing in a corridor are hugely valuable. These moments can provide people with context about the business, sounding board advice, new ideas, collaboration opportunities.
Another important benefit of working in the office, according to workplace consultant Ashley Skinner (“Why your people still need the office,” February 2022), is that mentoring becomes much more effective: “In the office, managers can more easily spot the visual cues for when an employee needs that little bit of extra support. Bringing employees together in the workplace is also key to creating something called ‘osmosis learning.’ The 70-20-10 rule posits that 70% of learning happens through experience, 20% comes from observing colleagues and friends, and only the final 10% is down to formal training.
“Our survey throws weight behind these findings. When asked to rank the reasons they’d like to return to the office, ‘learning from others’ and ‘career progression’ were two of the top three answers. Exposure to senior staff is undoubtedly a key factor in supporting career development.”
The Gensler Research Institute’s 2020 US Work From Home Survey found employees feeling a deeper sense of isolation when working from home. Asked what are the top reasons workers want to come to the office: “Three out of four respondents said the people. When asked to rank the most important factors for wanting to come into the office, meetings with colleagues, socializing with people, and impromptu face-to-face interaction were the top three answers.”
Finally, and this reason may be the least popular but undoubtedly the most significant, is that people shouldn’t let themselves be too comfortable. Columbia law professor Tim Wu writes of “The tyranny of convenience” (February 2018): “We err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.”
Doubtless rising transportation costs presents a problem but an even bigger problem is complete loss of income when one’s employment is closed due to lessened productivity. The simple fact is: working from home is not a viable long-term arrangement.
Like students that clearly need to go back to the classroom, those working need to go back to the office.
Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence