Malcolm Gladwell’s comments about why more workers should be returning to the office rather than working from home riled up the industry last week. Tamara Littleton, chief executive officer and founder of The Social Element, explains her feelings.
As chief exec and founder of a company that has been fully remote for 20 years, hearing Malcolm Gladwell’s take on WFH on The Diary of a CEO podcast was... disappointing. In fact, it made me angry.
The idea that we need to be in an office for eight hours a day and five days a week, leaving little time for the other things in life that make us happy, is outdated. His argument that people need to feel a sense of belonging at work otherwise ‘what’s the point?’ makes me wonder – why do we still assume people can only feel a sense of purpose and belonging at work when they leave their homes?
The aftermath of the pandemic has shown us that employees want access to hybrid or fully remote working models, and rightly so. This isn’t because they want to work in their pajamas (this is an outdated view and simply not true for our agency and the myriad of people I know who work from home), it’s because they want choice and flexibility.
What people actually do is work in a way that suits them, as different people with varying needs. I think it’s time for companies to recognize the days of persuading employees to work overtime in return for free beer and pizza are long gone. This doesn’t make them feel valued or part of a team – these are issues that need to be addressed systematically, via strong employee support, commitment to a positive culture and help to create work-life boundaries.
The benefits of having a remote work option are huge. It’s allowed us at The Social Element to have access to a wider talent pool, and employ people who can’t come into an office for whatever reason. It’s also given us the ability to provide expertise to our clients in multiple countries while having a fully connected team.
We’ve been able to employ parents who need the flexibility to work and also be there to collect their kids from school and swimming lessons. We’ve been able to hire neurodiverse employees who prefer to work in a familiar and peaceful environment. Recognizing everyone’s preferred methods and styles of working is what creates real belonging and purpose in the workplace. It makes employees feel seen, heard and – most importantly – understood.
After 20 years of having a remote model, we’ve learned how to ensure people feel part of a team, as we know that working from home can lead to isolation. That’s why we were committed to crafting the processes and communication to combat this, so that people feel truly connected, which has led to a lower than industry average churn rate. This comes from a variety of measures, like ‘hub’ meet-ups in different cities that occur regularly, or working groups that bring together advocates for groups, such as working parents or our LGBTQ+ community, to help us foster an inclusive environment.
While it is important, as humans, to have face-to-face time and acknowledge in-person social cues, it doesn’t have to be every day. Video calls and online chats can work just as well if used correctly, and allow the build of intimacy and trust.
It’s still possible to have a remote-first culture combined with in-person meetings and collaboration on an as-needed basis. We need to adapt as times change, and understand that there are so many reasons people may not want to be in an office five days a week.
Companies that stick to the outdated philosophy that we need to be in an office to feel a sense of purpose will be the Blockbusters of the past when we all look back.