Malcolm Gladwell's Fears About Remote Work Are Real. It's Your Brain That's Telling You Lies — Here's Why.
When it comes to remote work, what you need and what you want are two entirely separate things.
"It's not in your best interest to work at home." A bold and controversial statement made by five-time New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell on the "Diary of a CEO" podcast. Since then, the internet has been ablaze, mostly in opposition to Gladwell's strong stance against remote work. There was so much backlash that Gladwell reinserted himself into the conversation and doubled down on this pro-office position stating, "offices really do matter."
Gladwell is right — I can confidently say that, as someone who has spent over three years researching connections at work. No research shows that our social connections improve while working in virtual environments. This alone should cause us to pause and be much more thoughtful about how we approach work moving forward. Additionally, 69% of employees aren't satisfied with the opportunities for connection in their workplace. And people who have weak connections at work have a 313% stronger intent to quit.
So, why did so many employers and employees have issues with Gladwell's comments? Because our brain is conflicted and lying to us.
Why your brain is conflicted over remote work
If someone had their car keys taken away from them as a teenager, it was devastating. Why? Autonomy was lost. That's how many people felt after Gladwell's anti-remote work comments. Coming from such an influential thought leader, people felt as though remote work was in jeopardy of being stripped away from them. Their autonomy was attacked.
And that should concern you because autonomy is one of the three psychological nutrients necessary for optimal human functioning. Autonomy is the agency to do things on your terms. It's the freedom from external constraints on behavior. However, autonomy does not mean being independent of other people. And that's where our brain gets conflicted because another of our primary psychological nutrients is connection.
This is the crux of the whole debate between remote versus in-person. Two of our primary psychological nutrients are in conflict like we have never experienced before. Your brain wants autonomy. Your soul needs connection.
How your brain misleads you about human connection
Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Berkeley recently teamed up to conduct experiments across trains, city buses, cabs, airports and waiting rooms to discover how people benefit from spontaneous social interaction.
Random passengers were recruited and divided into three groups, each with a specific condition. The first group was the "solitude condition," where passengers were instructed to keep to themselves, not engage with anyone and focus on the day ahead. The second group was the "control condition," where passengers were instructed to do whatever they normally did, which was typically not speaking to others. The third group was the "connection condition," where passengers were instructed to make a connection with someone else on the train and get to know something about a stranger.
The results? People reported the most positive experience in the connection condition, whether they were the initiator or receiver of the connection and whether they were introverted or extroverted. The real kicker? When people were asked before they participated in the experiment which condition they thought they would be most satisfied in, most people wrongly chose the solitude condition.
People wrongly predicted that engaging with others wouldn't be pleasant. We think a quick conversation will be awkward, too time-consuming, rejected by the other person, or not worth the effort, but those intuitions are wrong, even for shy people. Our brains mislead us, but the research is clear: connecting with others, no matter our personality type, makes us feel more satisfied.
Are you choosing remote work because you think you'll be more satisfied?
Your brain wants solitude. Your soul needs connection. Sure, you can spark and cultivate connections outside of work when working remotely. Still, if you don't have strong connections with the people you spend the most time with during your waking hours — your colleagues — you'll experience a deeper and unexpected level of disconnection. You're highly susceptible to experiencing a deeper sense of disconnection and loneliness.
The late actor and comedian Robin Williams summed it up well when he said, "I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone." Work is one of the best opportunities we have to establish consistent connections. Let's not squander it behind screens. The immediate benefits of remote work are easy to see (no commute, control over schedule, productivity, etc.), but the long-term damages are not as easy to see but are much more severe (isolation, loneliness, languishing, burnout, depression, etc.). Gladwell is right. It's in our best interest to be together. Together we're healthier. Together we're stronger. Together we belong.
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