Malcolm Gladwell, addressing criticism: ‘Solitary work’ can be done at home but for creative work, ‘offices really do matter’

Wealth

Some employees thrive working on the couch in sweatpants. Malcolm Gladwell isn’t among them — at least, not anymore.

While certain types of work — freelance writing, for instance — might not require regular in-office attendance, according to Gladwell, the author of bestselling books such as “The Tipping Point” and “Talking to Strangers,” tells CNBC Make It recent experience has convinced him “offices really do matter” for “collaborative, creative work.”

His comments come in the wake of a social media firestorm set off by a July episode of “The Diary of a CEO” podcast hosted by British entrepreneur Steven Bartlett. On the show, Gladwell said employees working from home could be “socially disconnected from their organization.” Their work could be less inspired and companies could experience higher turnover.

The observation came from his own experience, Gladwell said. In 2018, he co-founded Pushkin Industries, a podcast and audiobook company. In recent months, he noticed the employees who frequently came into the office and connected with co-workers seemed more excited and stayed at the company longer.

“It’s not in your best interest to work from home,” Gladwell said on the podcast. “If you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? … What have you reduced your life to?”  

After the interview was published, Gladwell’s comments went viral and triggered accusations of hypocrisy. Twitter users were quick to point out that Gladwell once had a reputation for working remotely himself.

Several people posted links and screenshots of a 2008 New York magazine article, which said Gladwell’s editors at The New Yorker sent couriers to pick up his fact-checking materials, so he didn’t have to come into the office in midtown Manhattan.

In 2010, he also wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal dedicated to the joys and woes of writing in coffee shops across the world, a routine he wrote that he’d had for “much of my adult life.”

When remote work makes sense, according to Gladwell

During that time period, though, Gladwell worked as a freelance writer for The New Yorker, he tells CNBC Make It. He also wrote two books between 2008 and 2010: “Outliers,” and “What the Dog Saw.”

That type of individual work did not require his physical presence in a corporate office, he argues.

The nature of his work at Pushkin, he says, is much more collaborative, and therefore requires a different arrangement. The experience hasn’t changed his mind about working remotely — rather, it’s changed his perspective, he says.

“For solitary work — like when writing a book — I’m not sure it’s an issue whether you are in an office or not,” Gladwell writes to CNBC Make It in an email. “For collaborative, creative work — of the sort I do now [at Pushkin] — it’s really a question of what the goal of your work is, at any moment.”

While Gladwell didn’t specify exactly how many days per week Pushkin employees would, ideally, be in the office, his concerns appear to align with those of several employers. In March, Microsoft published a survey that revealed 50% of leaders already require or plan to require employees to work in-person full-time within the next year.  

That’s in contrast to research published by the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City, which found 50% of workers would also prefer a hybrid schedule, even after the pandemic.

So far, Pushkin appears to be partially abiding by public opinion. The current open roles within the company say the staff positions will be based in New York, New York, or in Los Angeles, California, with a hybrid work arrangement.

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