Work From Home Is Good
A return to the village setting
Famous nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell delivered a rant against working from home, and was scorned for it by a lot of people, especially in the media. I completely disagreed with his take, but figured it for a great opportunity. In assailing an increasingly modern practice, Gladwell was giving people a platform to justify it as a way of life. And I would like to justify it.
But first, Gladwell’s take. On the “Diary of a CEO” podcast, Gladwell strongly, and emotionally, assailed working from home. He didn’t just do it on the grounds of productivity but on the basis of something much deeper.
Cue the New York Post recap:
The bestselling author of “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” grew emotional and shed tears as he told the “Diary of a CEO” podcast hosted by Steven Bartlett that people need to come into the office in order to regain a “sense of belonging” and to feel part of something larger than themselves.
“It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected,” the Canadian writer 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.”
“And we want you to join our team,” Gladwell continued. “And if you’re not here it’s really hard to do that.”
“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?”
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?”
These comments were provocative, especially since they came from that ”Diary of a CEO” perch and were delivered by a highly successful author who of course, had done so much of his writing out of office. Here’s a small sample of the blowback.
As often happens with Internet controversies, the response against him was overwhelmed by the urge to be angry at him, specifically. Certain public figures set off these almost explosive chemical reactions and Gladwell is one of those guys for reasons that could fill up another article. Wrong or right, Gladwell was talking about a massively important shift and insisting that it’s bad. Whoever he is and whatever his flaws are such small issues compared to the topic he raised.
There was a quieter kind of pushback, though, one that wasn’t commenting on how Gladwell took flights with Jeffrey Epstein. It was about the actual topic, and while it wasn’t necessarily evangelizing for the WFH phenomenon on a society-wide scale, it included these anecdotes, testimonials to greater individual fulfillment.
Well, what if all this newfound happiness is happening at a massive scale? What if, after years of declining wellbeing rates, culminating in a period of pandemic-triggered isolation, we’ve finally stumbled on a sort of elixir?
Covid kicked almost everyone out of the office, in what was a theoretically temporary stopgap measure. It’s looking not so temporary these days. In spring of 2022, McKinsey & Company retrieved some surprising survey results in their sample of 25,000 American workers. There were two main takeaways from the findings: 1) 58 percent reported having the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week; and 2) when afforded this opportunity, 87 percent of them take it.
McKinsey summarized its findings, saying:
This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. The flexible working world was born of a frenzied reaction to a sudden crisis but has remained as a desirable job feature for millions. This represents a tectonic shift in where, when, and how Americans want to work and are working.
So this is big, a quiet revolution that’ll fundamentally change us in meaningful ways. While I can’t predict whether the work from home future will go well or poorly for society, I believe its potential is incredible. The hope is that it’s the disruption that can reverse some of the damage done by the other technologically inspired social disruptions.
And what damage is that? Broadly, social tech has been increasing our sense of atomization, in part because it’s so often a more efficient substitute for human interactions. We accomplish certain ends more easily while losing whatever edification comes from the means. There are many ways to explore how that process goes, but it’s probably just easier to link this woman’s story about a near-decade spent dating on Tinder. Here’s one impressively constructed though soul-deadening paragraph:
Over the years, there were so many Jays I cannot count them all. I learned to be buoyant in the face of disappointment. So many of these dates were just people plucked out of a random void and returned to that void after. The memory of their rejection couldn’t last if they didn’t. Plus there was always another message, another hit, another Jay to distract me. If there were long-term effects from this creeping sensation of disposability, I didn’t pay any attention.
She’s specifically writing about the tech-shaped dating scene, but a kind of lonely uncanniness seems to haunt much of modern life. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that our youngest generation, the one most plugged in, happens to be historically miserable.
So the natural question is, why should Work From Home be any different? Why shouldn’t this removal of man from meatspace end any happier than all the other socially geared innovations that were supposed to free us? It sounds like WFH can enable a kind of hermit lifestyle, the sort of retreat from physical life that’s at the root of all that ails. So when Gladwell asks, accusatorily, “If you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?” what’s the answer?
My response to Gladwell’s question is, emphatically, “Yes.” The pajama bedroom work life is literally the one I want to live and I’m actually living it. I didn’t have a traditional job before the pandemic, but I’d attend NBA practice facilities and arenas. Since I left to run this site, fully from home, I miss a lot of the friends and colleagues I’d see there. But still: It’s the healthiest decision I’ve ever made and I suspect a lot of people are discovering similarly, even if their specific circumstances are different.
One reason the answer’s “yes” is because work had already swallowed up our private quarters, the trendy office open floor plan offered little room to focus, so this is both our revenge and reclamation of sanity. WFH is an opportunity, but its dominance is also a reaction. As I said of WFH in my post on the massively successful but not altogether happy NFL newsbreaker Adam Schefter:
I see this as a renegotiation of territory in response to a sustained incursion. History can go this way; it’s a little more complicated than one long onslaught of the strong dominating the weak. For years, corporations have been moving their digital junk into our homes, while demanding that we physically attend work in theirs. Eventually, they’d moved so many of the relevant tools to the digital space that we needed only a trigger event to kick off this mass physical decoupling from the workplace.
We, the Work From Homers, didn’t invent a condition that Gladwell appears to blame us for embracing. It was imposed by corporations and their obsession with communicating better than the next company. We didn’t demand that Slack/Zoom/Text/Email/Twitter creep into our bedrooms. It all just showed up. Then, one day, we decided that it was pretty pointless to hop on a subway that would bring us no closer to jobs that had so rudely pulled up a seat by the nightstand.
I know almost nothing about Shark Tank, except for Mark Cuban, but this clip from its co-panelist Kevin O’Leary talking to Bill Maher has stuck with me, enough to where it’s my second time referencing it on this site.
In the clip, Maher asks O’Leary, proprietor of O’Leary Fine Wines, about his discovery that a shocking 55 percent of his employees prefer staying home in perpetuity. O’Leary says of the survey finding:
We thought it was about 15 percent. We have a sample size of about 10,000 people in our supply chain, plus our companies. I thought it would be in accounting, logistics, compliance departments, the people who used to work in cubicles. It’s everybody. They don’t want to come back. And so we have to learn to live this way and I’m okay with it. It works. I find it really interesting.
O’Leary goes on to discuss an individual example, one that city-loving Maher ends up finding rather unbelievable.
One of the guys that’s crucial to our whole company accounting said to me, ‘I grew up on a farm. I’m going back to the farm. I’m going to live on the farm. I’ll work for you, but it’s going to be from the farm.’ And I said, ‘Cool. I’m okay with it. No problem.’
Some people like to live on farms. Issue is, there weren’t a lot of jobs near farms other than, well, farming. So the people who grew up in rural places left for the cities, in search of occupations and sexual partners. That was good for the cities, but not so great for towns that lost brainpower, workers and replenishing youth. Now, the American landscape is dotted with the desiccated husks of places that once hosted healthy multigenerational communities. Few important people seemed all that interested in reversing such a trend, and if they spoke up about it at all, it was usually to insist on its inevitability.
Well, if living near the city is now no longer a must, these other places just might get a lifeline. That could be trouble for cities, but theirs has been a long winning streak. I think the shift goes a lot deeper than which places get the people, though. WFH can fundamentally change how we are in our surroundings.
Here, I will describe my neighbors and most of what I know about them, with names changed. I apologize if the mundane details I share about the people around me happen to bore you. I’m mostly doing this just to demonstrate what can happen when you don’t go to an office and if you wish to skip, you can jump ahead to where I’ve written the bolded ALL CAPS word “RAGAMUFFIN.”
On a typical day, I’ll take a quick break from whatever I’m doing and walk the dog. Upon getting up the driveway, I might see my neighbor Red and strike up a conversation. He’s in his 80s, but he doesn’t look it. An expert carpenter who’s often busy, Red’s always got helpful, practical home advice. After Red, I walk past Christy’s garden, which is the best in the neighborhood. My son often asks her questions about her plants and she offers him fruit.
As I trudge downhill, I’m liable to see Gayle, walking her dog. She’s boomer-aged, tough and reflective. Gayle once survived getting shot three times, but betrays no sense of tragedy. Her husband, Tim, has a deep love of music, but not a precious attachment to his various instruments. He’s let my son abuse his guitars and drums with abandon. They are generous people, which is why the entire neighborhood leapt into action when their Tibetan Terrier was lost this week. Thankfully, Christy found the dog on a search drive and returned him all in one piece.
It gets younger down the street as I wave hello to my friends, the millennial couple Damian and Kathy. Damian just quit his tech job to work full-time as a personal trainer, out of his garage, and Kathy works from home. Damian has taught me the wonders of squats and deadlifts, along with a bunch of necessary injury prevention tips. Kathy, also a very active person, goes on walks with my pregnant wife. Their presence inspires us and a lot of other people around them to enjoy life and get moving. They’ve been godsends since moving here roughly a year ago.
We’re all friends with Burt, a languidly cool Gen Xer who walks his massive Great Pyrenees around the neighborhood and regularly visits the Damian garage. Burt is in pharmaceuticals or some such, not that it matters. He works from home as well these days. Damian’s neighbor is an elder hippie named Mark, who’s always in his yellow bicycle spandex. Mark has a podcast. That reminds me — I gotta check it out. Down from Mark we’ve got elder millennial Thomas, who does something with currency. I can rely on him to share my disappointment in the Oakland A’s. Higher up on the street, we have Kathy’s mom, Samantha, who’s from Norway. She moved to be near her daughter and granddaughter. Though quiet in classic Scandinavian fashion, Samantha exudes a complimentary warmth towards my wife that always seems to improve her spirits.
Rainah, a boisterous German lady, is the most active person in the neighborhood. If I’m out, I’m bound to see her and her little dog Rio, and she’s bound to fire off three colorful complaints before I can say anything (“They say ze rain is gude for preventing the fires, but ze grass grows even taller!”). As often as I see Rainah around my house, I probably see her more outside the cafe closest to my house. That place is run by Jessica, who’s from Vietnam. Jessica’s quite generous and also enthusiastically unguarded. Buster Posey once ate at the cafe and the next day she couldn’t stop telling us how handsome he was in person.
There’s another cafe farther down the road, but don’t tell Jessica I frequent it. But hey, I gotta check on my guys, boomer retirees Rick and Vin. Rick is an old-school Bostonian Celtics fan who loves to travel and share his vacation pictures. Vin is an MSNBC liberal who likes retelling the events of the day through that lens. They’re both hilarious and act as the dual fulcrum of the cafe’s boomer scene. Old men get together on a daily basis just to kibbutz and argue. If I’m in the area, I’m dropping in for 15 minutes and firing some takes off.
My walk back takes me past Melanie’s house. She’s personable and her kids are of similar ages to my son. Same goes for Jake, who lives next door to her. He’s curious if my kid my wants to start playing baseball with his. Mary, whose son is friends with mine, walks her husky along this route. Miles and Julia, whose son is still just a baby, also walk their husky in these parts. I saw them at Damian’s wedding. Even before the wedding I knew Miles was a federal agent of some law enforcement extraction. I just didn’t know that he’d approach Kevin Durant’s trade demand like it was a case. He really, really wants to know where KD’s headed and won’t simply accept my ignorance. Okay, RAGAMUFFIN.
I moved to this neighborhood two years ago, back when Covid was a significant drag on socializing. We were the new kids and there was a pall cast over every social interaction. And yet, two years later, I know more people here than the combined sum of everywhere else I lived after college. To give you an idea, I edited half of them out for the purposes of brevity.
Their collective presence in my life has been simultaneously steadying and energizing. I’m now convinced that we are meant to live this way, connected to a surrounding community rather than dependent on Netflix for our intake of humanity.
So why did this happen to me? A few reasons, including the inherent friendliness of the neighborhood, but here are the two obvious ones I’m zeroing in on: 1) I work from home and 2) now so many others do too.
That’s the thing about WFH reaching critical mass in certain parts. Gladwell envisions a bunch of lonely, enervated pajama jockeys, and maybe that’d be me if everyone else drove off to work every morning. But no, many people are around, WFHing or retired, and so I say hello to a bunch of them whenever taking a dog walk break.
Maybe you’re an introvert and this sounds like hell. I’d say you might end up liking it more than you’d think. I certainly didn’t seek this out, or even wish for it. But it feels right and natural. I’m reminded of Camille Paglia, years ago on C-SPAN, riffing on how humans lived for thousands of years. Her frame was on women, but the basic premise is that people are used to a state of common cause and purpose with those in their immediate vicinity:
In the agricultural period, which again I’m very close to because this was the experience of my family until one generation ago. In the agricultural period, the mother doesn’t even raise the baby! The baby is seized the minute it’s born. The aunts, the grandmothers, you have the combined knowledge of the tribe, of the village, which raises that child. Now women are very, very isolated, especially in America. A lot of our contemporary problems are the product of the industrial revolution.
A lot of good also came out of the industrial revolution, obviously. Paglia wouldn’t deny that, but her main point, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here, is this: We can’t go back to before industrialization, but we should admit we lost something in the exchange.
New technologies helped us in all these fantastic ways, and allowed us to leave the relatively impoverished village setting. But attached to the kind of progress that lengthens your life a few more decades was a kind of loss. We were built for the village. But we had to flee the village, because where else could one work and enrich ourselves past the point of subsistence? Now, we’re allowed back in the village.
One note of WFH caution I’ve heard is that it could widen the divide between the virtuals and the physicals. There’s already a massive chasm between the laptop class and those who must show up for work, and it’s concerning. Generally speaking, the former looks down on the latter and the latter resents the former.
I suppose I’d say that we’re already there, with two divided cohorts. In the meantime, I just want one of the cohorts to get less insane. In my opinion, a major driver of modern societal dysfunction is that the highly influential laptop class has lost its collective mind, possibly because so many of these minds experience social life through the screen. Personally, I’m for whatever we can do to get our college-educated Slack addicts shifting towards some semblance of sanity. If they’re happier and more grounded, they’re less likely to push for nihilistic social policy as some weird form of atonement.
That’s the theory anyway, and when discussing the future, it’s nearly all theory. But predictions can falsely assume a sort of inevitability. And I don’t see it that way. The headline says that “Work From Home is Good” because that’s a more clickable phrase than the truth, in my opinion. Like I said earlier, this is an opportunity. It can go a variety of directions. We actually have the agency here. To make this form of work, well, work, we have to leave our houses and have to form connections in our communities. Maybe after we do, we’ll learn that certain aspects of old office life are deeply missed. Perhaps some of you are already coming to that conclusion.
But, much like the disruptions of the industrial revolution, there’s no running from this. It’s here and it’s everywhere. For as much as Malcolm Gladwell might lament it, there’s no going back, just like there was no going back from an older model that prioritized moving to the cities. Gladwell asks, “Is this the work life you want to live?” The answer is “yes,” but more importantly, it’s the home life we never knew we so desperately needed.
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An interesting take that captures the sentiment of most of my older coworkers and leaves me cold. I’m a 26 year old white-collar worker at a big financial services company. Work from work is optional and it seems like it’s just me, the call center people, the divorced people, and leadership there. All the people with a sufficient amount of social capital such as yourself work from home and are trying their hardest to keep it that way. These people had formative experience of working in close proximity for years. Many met their spouses, closest friends, or just a bunch of golf buddies. Now they have those friends and connections, and working from home affords them an autonomy they’ve never had before. I get why they like it. Their castle is full so they can pull up the drawbridge.
For young professionals, a work from home regime is catastrophic in the long-term. It makes it very hard to accumulate the social capital and the organizational know-how the 30+ crowd take for granted. Zoom is for communication, but it really has no room for communion (Yuval Levin makes this point). Most of my peers work from (their parent’s) home. It’s stultifying, drives the very atomization decried in this article, and will lead to the rising generation of knowledge economy workers being worse equipped than the ones who came before to take on life and work.
One more thing: if it weren’t for the office I wouldn’t be here commenting. My parents met at their first job out of college. So you’d be down at least one subscriber Ethan!
Some great responses here. Appreciate all the thoughtful comments on what is to be a massive change that impacts people in different ways.