Dr. Beth Kaplan

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Respectfully, Mr. Gladwell, Belonging is More Than a Place

Ever since reading The Tipping Point, I’ve loved Malcolm Gladwell. That won’t change, but his recent comments on how working from home is destroying society really threw me off. Does he really believe that people who work from home are lazy and sit in their pajamas all day taking calls from their beds? How can someone whose writing is so admired worldwide reduce remote workers to a stereotype? 

Mr. Gladwell, 

In a recent interview, you slammed working from home, asking remote workers, “What have you reduced your life to?” You claimed that remote work is hurting society and that employees who are “sitting in their pajamas” need to get back into the office to feel a sense of belonging. In fact, you said that people need the office to have a “sense of belonging” and to “feel necessary.” Mr. Gladwell, I have some news for you. A sense of Belonging is more than a location, more than about work, and more often than not, more than about other people. 

You grew emotional and shed tears as you told Steven Bartlett, host of “Diary of a CEO” podcast, that people need to come into the office to regain a “sense of belonging” and feel part of something larger than themselves. While you are right that belonging is about feeling part of something larger than ourselves, you left out something very important that the rest of the world is pretty up in arms about. Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us without having to sacrifice who we are. Employees are done sacrificing who they are to achieve workplace belonging.

Mr. Gladwell, the workplace has become trauma-informed. To borrow your phrase, you could say that it hit a tipping point that was exposed during the pandemic. Years and years of companies claiming that they are the place, the destination for belonging, it’s done a number on people. Your message assumes that offices welcome all employees with open arms, which is simply not the case. There are many, many groups that do not feel like they can bring their true selves to work (minorities, non-cis- gendered, disabled employees, to name a few), and in that case, they do not feel a sense of belonging at work. 

You see, it turns out, work is not like family after all. The problem is that our good old institutions where we used to seek belonging, like religion and community, have changed. So people were like, sure, we spend enough time at work, let’s sync our energy into the workplace and call it home. And there is such a thing as “place-belongingness,” where people think a physical location is “like-home”, and you can belong to it. I can truly say that most work locations don’t give off a “like-home” vibe….even the super hip ones with bright colors, stocked kitchens, and baristas. Do we need a place to feel a sense of belonging, in this scenario, at a headquarters or office? No, we do not.

You also said, “If we don’t feel like we’re part of something important, what’s the point? If it’s just a paycheck, then it’s like, what have you reduced your life to?” I’m also going to debate you on this one. Yes, purpose and vision and mission and every other corporate buzzword are probably coming to mind. Those concepts are wonderful when they are positive and more than talk, when companies walk the walk. When you align with the company’s values, when you work for an amazing leader, and when you have the sunshine pump going, employees feel great. Why? It feels great when we are all beating to the same drum, but what happens when they don’t all align? Employees feel like crap. Employees are seeking purpose, vision, and mission in their own values, not necessarily a company’s. Your comment of what’s the point if you don’t find your mission and purpose at work? Me, I’m the point, I find my mission and purpose in my family, in my friends, and in my pursuit for people to feel less alone and have a greater sense of belonging to themselves. Ironic, right? It doesn’t have to be all about work, and as a recovering people pleaser and workaholic, I’m here to testify to that. No, this epiphany didn’t start with the pandemic, and to your point, what are you reducing yourself to? Here is what I’ve “reduced myself to” since the world went remote:

– Earned my doctorate 

– Established a calmer and more present, centered lifestyle

– Rebuilt friendships I lost when I was “all-in” to serving a company

– Became healthier, even getting in a midday workout here and there (sans pajamas of course)

Mr. Gladwell, I don’t think I’ve reduced myself to anything other than rising above the stress to recognize that 20th-century office locations aren’t always necessary or meaningful.

In the same podcast, you said: “I’m really getting very frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to explain this effectively to their employees.” Explain what? Mr. Gladwell, if we were more productive by working in an office, I would give it to you. The research is there – work-from-home employees were proven to be more productive than the in-office ones.

Why are we more productive? So many reasons; here are a few:

– Less stress knowing we are all in the same boat.

– Personality has a lot to do with it. If your company culture is extroverted and you are introverted, you may feel less anxious having all of that stimulation all of the time. Vice versa, if you are extroverted, you may want more stimulation and find that the newfound time you have now that you don’t have to commute

-Fewer distractions during the work day, no interruptions from colleagues, it’s quiet around me

-Less drama–in fact, fewer office politics leave me feeling less confused and belonging uncertainty that stems from office drama.

-Less anxiety about the drama

Mr. Gladwell, you are saying that workplace belonging and a sense of mattering, our well-being is tied to your employer or immediate coworkers. I implore you to change the narrative. You are giving way too much power to our employers. While it’s true that your manager is the biggest influence on your sense of belonging at work, please inspire leaders to do more good than harm by teaching them how to lead and how to change behavior in a way that encourages people to be their best selves. Work harder to build culture and support connections among teams in a remote work environment. Stop blaming “remote work” for organizations failing to communicate and/or actualize their purpose, meaning, and values. Encourage people to have an identity outside of work. Individuals own their sense of belonging, they determine whether they truly belong or not. Stop telling us to sacrifice who we are and what we want to be good corporate citizens and play by office rules in the name of belonging.

IMHO a greater opportunity is for companies to acknowledge that working remotely provides employees great satisfaction & productivity along with a better quality of life living anywhere they want. Change the narrative; meet your employees where they are at if you are really looking to improve belonging.

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