How where we work impacts our culture, productivity and health
“It’s not in your best interest to work from home.”
“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?”
“Sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom…it’s difficult to feel necessary.”
These memeable soundbites were from Malcolm Gladwell’s recent appearance on The Diary of a CEO podcast in which he evangelized against the post-COVID embrace of working remotely. His comments were met with significant blowback both on social media and in the press. Critics were quick to call out that Gladwell has openly talked about his personal preference for working pretty much anywhere other than an office and his own company’s office is actually a renovated home which he owns, making him both the landlord and the tenant.
Aside from the blatant hypocrisy, perhaps the reason why Gladwell’s statements struck such a deep nerve is because they are rooted in antiquated ideas about the role our careers are supposed to play in our lives. When millennials entered the workforce, the notion that they could be deeply fulfilled in their jobs while turning big profits for their employers fueled a culture of 50-60-hour workweeks (sometimes longer) and “always available” expectations. They were led to believe that visibility in the office was a critical part of proving their value as a good worker and spent five to ten hours a week commuting to make sure they were seen. A decade and a half later, workers are anxious, burnt out and fed up.
The COVID Effect
The pandemic gave many office workers the time and space they needed to reflect on what was really valuable to them for the first time since they started the grind. As they sat in their cozy home “office” spaces sipping their homemade java, they decided that commuting an average of 27 minutes to a cold, windowless, poorly-lit office downtown to do the same thing they could do from their couch didn’t rank high on the list. Unsurprising.
So what is best? Best for workers, best for employers, best for our families, and best for our communities and society at large? And maybe most importantly, what’s best for our health?
Let’s dig in.
WFH is good.
Perhaps the biggest headline that often gets overlooked in this conversation is that workers are demonstrably more productive when they work from home. In fact, let’s say it again – workers are more productive when they are remote, on the couch, at the coffee shop, at their kids’ soccer practice and basically anywhere else that is NOT the office. A recent study found that they are around 9% more productive when they work remotely. Additionally, remote workers often work longer hours, have better work life balance and experience less work-related stress than people working in the office.
Remote workers save up to $4500 a year in commuting costs, are often more physically active, and get sick less often. If you consider that illness-related absenteeism costs American companies $225.8 billion every year (roughly $1685 per employee), keeping employees healthier makes great business sense. All of which sounds like a significant plus for both workers and employers.
Then there are the more obvious but less measurable benefits – workers are able to spend more time with their families and work at their own pace, leading them to feel more relaxed and fulfilled.
Sounds great right? How could this possibly not be preferred by employers? Well…
WFH is bad
At the core of Gladwell’s argument is a good and well-intentioned point: our offices used to be a community hub, and connecting with people in a physical space for 40 hours a week is what creates and perpetuates a company’s culture. Not only does this lead to the occasional spontaneous collaborations around the snack station, but it helps create and enforce a shared set of values that give our lives meaning and purpose.
When you have a collective that you see every day, face to face, it’s easier to celebrate your wins and commiserate over your losses. This contributes to you feeling like you are part of something bigger than yourself, and grounds your life in a purpose.
Also having a physical space to do your job, in theory, helps to create boundaries between you and your work. When the day is over, you can close your laptop, walk out of the building and go home. It’s hard to leave your bad day at the office when your office is your couch.
And there is some data that actually supports a lot of Gladwell’s concerns. The majority of employees working from home say they experienced negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day.
This starts to beg the question: if both remote work and office work have pros AND cons, then what about a mixture of each?
What about a hybrid model?
The hybrid model appears to be the compromise that many big tech companies are making. Hybrid refers to the idea that people will work a mix of in-office and remote hours with the hope of getting the best of both worlds.
At the core of the hybrid conversation is the debate between deep work and collaboration. As most creative people know, the oh-so-popular open floor plan can be like kryptonite for the heavy lifting that great work requires. You can’t do that kind of deep work with your coworkers jabbering in your ear. And obviously the isolation of remote work is anathema to spontaneous interpersonal collaboration. Both are important, but what is the right balance?
On paper the hybrid model appears to be a win-win; employees get flexibility and a better work/life balance, employers get happy, thriving, productive employees, and lower operational costs.
Unfortunately, the reality appears to be a bit more complicated. Scheduling becomes a game of three dimensional chess and most people are still coming back to a half-occupied office space and spending their days on video calls. Turns out recreating that magic, in-person culture of collaboration is like trying to capture lightning in a conference room.
Additionally, workers can feel a bit of identity whiplash going back and forth between the office and home, or may try to compensate for not being able to get enough done in the office by working longer hours at home, leading to faster and longer-lasting burnout.
Ok, so what’s best for our health?
It should not be surprising – given all this information – that working remotely is largely better for your health. Here are just a few of the benefits:
- Healthier eating habits
- Better/more sleep
- Less anxiety
- Sick less often
- More likely to exercise
- You’re able to show up better in your relationships
- Greater personal freedom
- More options for how you want to position your body while you work
- Generally happier
That said, there are two big, measurable drawbacks that any remote worker needs to keep in check:
- Isolation: The negative impact of isolation on our health is up there with smoking and obesity. As anyone who has worked from home can tell you, it becomes very easy to deprioritize real, human contact and interaction. In fact a recent study found that the biggest downside that workers reported experiencing working remotely was simply loneliness.
To combat this, remote workers should try working out of public spaces like coffee shops occasionally. It can also be helpful to be more proactive in your social life outside of your work. Make plans and stick to them.
- Lack of boundaries: As many people experienced during the pandemic, working from home can quickly start to feel more like living from the office. The lines between work time and living-your-life time start to blur into an endless mush of checking email and responding to Slack messages. In fact, 47% of remote workers express concern about the blurring of work/life boundaries and one third report feeling the pressure to always be accessible.
To combat this it can be really helpful to set up schedules and routines for yourself and stick to them. This can be as simple as giving yourself “office hours,” or as complicated as creating a morning routine to prepare you for the workday even if you’re not commuting. Consider creating a “work-free sanctuary,” a space in the house where you go when you need a break. Clean, clear boundaries.
The core of Gladwell’s argument is the idea that it is imperative that we, as humans, believe that our lives have meaning and that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Yes.
Where he falls short is asserting that this “meaning” needs to come from our careers, and that if we are simply exchanging our labor for a paycheck, we have reduced ourselves to something we should be ashamed of.
It’s preposterous to assume that the email marketing manager of a SaaS company wakes up every morning feeling like their life’s purpose is to sell B2B solutions that revolutionize the way people sort through an Excel spreadsheet. It’s far less preposterous to assume that they are fulfilled in their life, in part, because they are able to provide for themselves and their loved ones, but also because they live an otherwise fulfilling life.
Working remotely has allowed many workers to reconnect with the things in their lives that truly fulfill them, and put their careers in perspective. This fact may be a hard pill for business owners, like Gladwell, to swallow.
One more thing:
The information for this article is largely based on statistics and averages. While these numbers are helpful for understanding societal trends and the behavior of large groups of people, they are not very good at accounting for your individual, personal experience. A lot of people actually enjoy going to an office every day and there is nothing wrong with that. Ultimately what’s best for your happiness is probably pretty good for your health.