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Returning to the Office is Becoming a Flashpoint for a Class War

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This week the controversial author Malcolm Gladwell opened up a floodgate of criticism with his statement on a podcast that working from home is hurting one of our most necessary desires, the feeling of belonging. “If you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you wanna live? We want you to have a feeling of belonging, and to feel necessary. And if you’re not here, it’s really hard to do that,” he said.

Critics were quick to point out that Gladwell himself does not work in an office and has written about how he prefers to work from home or in coffee shops. But more than just hypocrisy, the backlash against his statements had a bit of an elitist edge to them. He was called everything from a “rich white guy” to a “childless single guy” to someone who “writes from his friends’ private jets.”

The resistance to returning to the office was originally positioned as a health and safety issue. “Why would I expose myself to COVID?!” People would say. But now, in pretty much every city in the world, restaurants are full, stadiums are sold out, and social gatherings are anything but distanced. 

So now the true nature of the pushback is coming to light and it is less about social distance than economic distance. The return to work has turned into a boss v. employee issue, which has classist undertones. The battle of workers versus management is nothing new (remember Marx?) but the pandemic has seemed to throw gas on the powderkeg of subordinate work relationships. Labor shortages, though waning, have emboldened workers to ask for raises, start labor unions, and fight against going to the office.

Even people that work from home like myself have to agree with Gladwell’s reasoning. Today much of our meaning is derived from our work lives. Add to that the friends, mentors, and significant others that we meet at work and there is an obvious benefit to physically connecting at the workplace. Loneliness is at an all-time high (one study shows that 58 percent of American adults consider themselves lonely). Many cite working from home as a reason behind the uptick.

But benefits aside, the visceral reaction to suggesting that people are better off having a workplace to go to has a lot of implications. The first is that many people just prefer to work from home. Another is that people don’t like to be told they should go to work, they would rather make that decision for themselves. Another reason is that people don’t like, more than anything, for their boss to order them back to work as it brings out the “us versus them” mentality that isn’t helpful for any organization.

Rather than pushing working from an office as “better” or “more meaningful” organizations would be better off just making the office a place where people want to go. If we really think that the biggest benefit of the office is the socialization that it provides then we need to make our offices better places to socialize. 

This is where the office industry comes in. Rather than worrying about price per desk or impact on productivity, office managers should use employee sentiment about the office as the most important metric. We all laughed at the ping-pong tables and kombucha on tap that WeWork touted in the early years but looking back that is exactly the kind of perks that would make people think of the office as a benefit and not a punishment. 

So, let’s make offices fun. Let’s fill them with amenities that we can’t get at home. Let’s spend the time and energy to host events that people feel privileged to be invited to. Let’s do away with the have versus the have-not mentality that makes people feel like they want to stick it to “the man.” Just be careful how you share those sentiments, lest the wrath of Twitter trolls looking to shame the bourgeoisie. 

Overheard

Charts and minds

Here is a really telling chart that shows just how much time we used to spend with co-workers compared to now. It stops before the pandemic so I would guess that the number has gone down even more (although there isn’t much more space to go lower). While we do spend a bit more time with our partners that time has mostly been replaced with being alone.

Our Best

Offices have become a place for collaboration. This is great for organizations but creates a lot of extra noise for office workers to contend with. Office designers are increasingly using sound dampening technology to help turn the volume down

Other reads

The social media newcomer TikTok has created a number of perks in order to help ease the pain of bringing employees back to the office. (WSJ)

After scrapping their iBuyer operation Zillow has decided to work with the largest iBuyer Opendoor in a multi-year partnership that will let Opendoor bid on homes right on Zillow’s listing site. (The Real Deal)

Cushman and Wakefield have been dragged into former president Trump’s growing legal badgering and now have provided over 35,000 documents to the New York Attorney General (CNBC).

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