On a recent podcast, the author Malcolm Gladwell recently lectured the American workforce about the importance of returning to the office. Two and half years into a pandemic, working from home is not, he said, in people’s best interest.

“If you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? We want you to have a feeling of belonging, and to feel necessary.”

Gladwell, who does not work in an office, is not alone in his insistence that people need to return to the office to experience the psychological and emotional benefits of in-person contact with colleagues and supervisors. As companies attempt to return the pre-pandemic “normal,” it’s an argument that has been made in many quarters.

So many that it seems important to point out that the office, and all the congregational workplaces that term stands for, was not created to benefit anyone psychologically or emotionally. It was created for people to do work in the most efficient and least expensive way possible.

Most efficient and least expensive for employers, that is.

Obviously, employers are entitled to make things efficient and inexpensive – and once upon a time, not that long ago, that usually meant keeping the majority of their staff in one place. Meetings had to be held in person because they were called “meetings” and there was no other means to exchange ideas in real-time.


Initially, even advanced technology demanded congregation – early computers existed on closed systems that I do not understand though I do know the monitors and keyboards were too big to lug around. Phones had to be dialed, even when accessing your voicemail; work was often still done on paper with pens and pencils. I am old and have been working for a long, long time.

Even when technology increasingly made it possible for people to do work off-site, the argument was not “You should come into the office because you will feel better about yourself and your place in the universe” but “You should come into the office because it is more efficient for your boss to know exactly where you are during the work day.”

The pandemic forced that to change. In a matter of a few very scary weeks in the spring of 2020, office-based businesses had to come up with ways to operate remotely or die. Most, though not all, figured it out. At this point in time, the argument that the once office-bound masses cannot do their work remotely is ridiculous.

I say this as someone who absolutely and very deeply misses being in the office, surrounded by my colleagues and the chattering energy of the newsroom. The Times has been very careful in its policies regarding the pandemic; no one is required to be back, and social distancing remains a priority.

I recently went in for a few hours and the silence was heavenly. (My house was, at the time, filled with two kids, two dogs, a husband who can’t remember passcodes and people doing work on our floors.) It was also deeply sad. I missed, and continue to miss, my co-workers and all the urgent, idle, inspirational, gossipy, irritating, informative conversations I had with them in meetings and in passing.

When I walked into the building, I felt the exquisite reminder that I belonged someplace other than my home, that I was part of something larger than myself, and it was wonderful.


It also took me 60 minutes to get there and 90 minutes to get home, which reminded me of the years of frenzied day care drop-offs and pickups.

And as much as I miss all those in-person conversations, I also remember many evenings when my husband would try to speak to me after work and I would hold up my hand, explaining that if one more adult said one more word to me, I would shatter into a million pieces.

So I both long for the days when everyone was in the office and realize that it is, at best, not always ideal and, at worst, unsustainable. I realize I am speaking from my own experience and that there is no one-size-fits-all answer here. Which is precisely the point.

After years of being forced to abandon their offices, some people do feel unmoored and lonely, or exhausted by attempts to balance work and family literally every five minutes in a limited space. Others cannot imagine returning to a life that requires them to be boxed away for eight-plus of their waking hours five or more days a week, or forced to engage in lengthy meetings or conversations about problems that could be solved with a two-sentence email.

If Gladwell and others are truly concerned about the psychological state of the workforce, they would do well to remember that everyone’s needs are different, and those needs often change.

Frankly, it’s a little late in the day for employers to be expressing concern about people’s existential state. Worry more about providing day care, health care and a living wage, employers; if we miss our colleagues, or the comfort of the office environment, we’ll come in.

As long as we’re getting the job done, what do you care if we’re wearing our pajamas?

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