Hello friends, and welcome back to Productivity, Without Privilege, where I try to explain how you can do your best work and live your best life regardless of the social baggage you may carry and the systemic issues and challenges you may face. I’m your host, and hopefully your friend, Alan Henry, and it’s my honor and privilege to write this newsletter for you. Seriously!
As always, I have to plug Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized, which I hope you’ve all purchased at this point, but if you haven’t, I would greatly appreciate it if you did! Or maybe you grab a copy for a new grad you know, or someone headed to college this fall, or someone starting a new job! But on a serious note, it’s difficult for me to believe that it’s been two months since the book came out. It feels like it was just yesterday and yet so long ago. Of course, I’m happy to say I’m still doing interviews and getting invitations to speak about the book, so clearly the message is resonating with people!
But I’m not here to just talk about the book, and neither are you. What I do want to talk about this week is an aspect of productivity that, again, is lauded as being essential for highly effective workers, but that rolls downhill to marginalized or minority workers last: The ability to work your best hours, in your best location.
Yup, I’m going to talk about that truly awful Malcolm Gladwell take in the New York Post. I’m not linking to it on purpose. Instead, I’ll link to all of the intelligent (and funny) criticism I’ve read about the piece on social media instead.
I would normally feel bad dunking on this one take so much, but first of all, it’s Malcolm Gladwell, it’s impossible for me to punch down here. Second, more than a few people have pointed out that when Gladwell himself decides that working from an office is getting in the way of his creativity, he’ll happily abandon it for a coffee shop or a home office, not unlike the work styles he’s busy decrying.
But this isn’t about him, specifically. It’s about the idea that giving up the freedom to do your work in the way that best matches your work style, in conjunction with your work environment, is the key to high performance and productivity. I refute that notion and always have, and encourage you to disabuse yourself of it as well. In fact, we have a wealth of data over the past 20 years—actual data from real organizational psychologists who are conducting real research—that hybrid work, remote work, and flexible work are better for productivity and for employee happiness and well-being than forcing people to put their butts in a company assigned seat to “prove” they’re working.
We even have experiential data from the past three-plus years that hybrid and remote work is not only possible but profitable and better for most people involved. Back at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of us were busy sharing our tips as people who do work from home about how to do so intelligently, and while maintaining smart boundaries between your work and your life. I was particularly proud to work on this piece by Jaclyn Greenberg, which lays out the case for letting people work from home forever, if they so choose.
But I say “most people” and “if they so choose” intentionally, because not everyone thrives in home offices. Some people prefer office settings, and others love the flexibility to work in one some days and remotely others. And yet, there are flexible tips for them as well—flexibility that people who work best in office environments seem to never be willing to afford their colleagues who would rather not.
What I do take issue with, however, is the sheer number of op-eds (and mind you, they are, as I’ve discussed before, almost always thinkpieces from managerial folks or business executives, and almost universally the most privileged folks at that) breathlessly claiming that we all need to pile back into our cars and onto trains and file into the office and put our butts in seats and be surveilled on our corporate laptops in order for any work to get done, usually in the name of “creativity” and “collaboration,” fuzzy office language that means different things to different people, and are almost always quantified in terms of good or bad by people in positions of power.
And that’s the crux of the issue: power, privilege, and control.
That’s why Gladwell is eager to have people in the office, and that’s why everyone you see claiming that office work is the best work is almost always the most privileged people among us—white, male, and relatively wealthy, well-off, or in senior roles at their companies. By comparison, how many op-eds have you seen decrying the end of office culture written by disabled people who have to struggle with office accessibility challenges? Or by women of color who are all too often relegated to the office housework because they’re told they need to “put in their time” before they get assignments that match their skills? Or by introverts or neurodivergent people who love their jobs but never seem to be the loudest person in the room? Put simply: how many marginalized people are desperate to go back to the offices where they’ve been marginalized?
In New York City, where I live, there’s a common belief that the reason companies want employees back in the office is because of high real estate prices. That could definitely be a complicating factor, as could be the fear of middle-level managers who are unable to actually prove that they’re managing their teams without their teams in front of them to manage. (I don’t blame them for that either—as I often say, we don’t promote people to managers because they’re good at managing, we promote them because they’re good at what they do, so we assume they must be good at managing people who do what they do, and that is and always has been a faulty assumption.)
But I think the broadest factor, the biggest reason this specific class of people is more interested in making everyone come back to work instead of even considering that people work differently and should be accommodated in different ways, is simple: without people to prey on, the people willing to marginalize you, take credit for your ideas, sideline you, and make you uncomfortable at work have no one to take advantage of. And that makes them afraid.
Case in point, have you ever left a job where you were overworked and underpaid, only to find out that once you were gone, your responsibilities were divvied out across multiple people, or that they wound up hiring two or more people to do your job? This same type of manager, executive, or even colleague, is—and rightfully should be—concerned that when they’re forced to be accountable for their own work, without the opportunity to leverage others to make them look good, they’ll be seen for their own mediocrity. That’s terrifying. And in a way, it’s sad: we should all have the flexibility to be mediocre sometimes. No one can be a rock star all the time, and no one can bring their A-game every single day, as much as we like to tell new hires and young people new to a career that that’s what they have to do in order to succeed.
And while again, there’s no way for me to truly say “do this to fix this systemic issue,” I can offer you a simple suggestion here: Work your best hours, where you work the best—if you can. And work to afford other people that same benefit whenever possible.
I think that as with many things in the workplace, this comes down to what works best for you, and what works best for the type of work that you do. If you work best at night, that obviously won’t work if you have early AM deliverables that you have to be online and awake to provide. If you do physical labor in a specific location, obviously working from home doesn’t make sense. But it might make sense for you to start looking for opportunities that line up with the way that you work instead. And if you work with people who prefer to be in the office and they have no ill intent, it’s just how they work best, give them that freedom and flexibility—simply insist that the same courtesy be afforded to you, as well. The same goes for your manager, or your company HR department, that’s insisting that everyone be back in the office, pandemic (or new pandemic, or new-er pandemic) be damned.
I have cerebral palsy and am grateful Beyoncé and Lizzo changed their lyrics. I'm still frustrated we hold Black artists to higher standards. By Keah Brown: A few newsletters ago I talked about the importance of being able to make mistakes, learn from them, and correct yourself. When I heard about Beyonce and Lizzo changing some of their lyrics because people reached out to them to point out that some of the things they had been saying were problematic, I was happy to see that such powerful figures were happy to make amends, but I also thought about how many other musicians would double down and push back against any criticism at all, in the name of “their art.” I also wondered how a similarly wealthy white musician, filmmaker, or another artist would react. I’m glad that Keah Brown tackled the topic, and pointed out that yes, yet again, even when it comes to making mistakes and making amends, marginalized groups are held to a standard that we would love to see everyone held to—but the people who need to be accountable the most always find ways to eschew that accountability.
Food Is Identity. For Korean Chefs Who Were Adopted, It’s Complicated. By Elyse Inamine: I’ve always been interested in the food journey of Korean people, including Korean Americans who have been adopted—often by white families—in the United States. Part of it is that yes, I absolutely adore Korean food, but I also think very deeply about the way Korean culture has been impacted, both directly and indirectly, by war, and specifically by the United States. This story isn’t really about that though, it’s about the Korean chefs who are finding ways to claim their history and heritage and birthright, and are also putting their own mark on it, which I think is a wonderful thing.
Kids Are Back in Classrooms and Laptops Are Still Spying on Them, by Pia Ceres: When my colleague Pia published this story she’d been working on for…weeks? Months? I dropped everything to read it, and sure enough, it’s the picture of exceptional tech journalism. Just one alarming tidbit from the piece: when students, using school-issued laptops with extremely invasive monitoring software on it (which I would normally call malware, but I’m willing to bet the company responsible for the software wouldn’t like that one bit,) plugged in their phones to charge, the software would also surveil their phones and report back to school administrators who they were texting, what they were sending, and other information that you would think should be confidential. All without informed consent really, of any kind. And I’m sure the kids and parents have to agree to something in order to get the laptop in the first place, but unless all of this is in the print, I don’t know if you can truly call it “informed” consent. The whole expose is terrifying, and sadly common practice with school-issued hardware in schools today, which is even more unnerving.
I’ve been watching America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston on PBS, and as someone who lives in a big city, and frankly has lived in urban or suburban areas for most of his life, it’s been incredible for me. Part of the beauty of the series is, of course, those gorgeous drone-powered shots of sweeping vistas and landscapes that are right here in the United States, often a modest drive or short flight away from where you may be sitting right now, no passport required. But the real beauty of the series is the people that Thurston meets along the way, the lessons they have to share, and the care and concern the show takes to shift the focus away from “outdoors as an American plaything” to “outdoors as American heritage and birthright,” with exceptional consideration for Native Americans and their ancestral connection to—and ownership of—the land we live on today.
From a dizzying array of landscapes in Idaho to the diversity of the Appalachian Trail, it’s a bit of a mental reset just to sit down and watch as he goes places that I probably don’t have the stamina or energy to visit, especially juxtaposed against the sirens and sounds of the city outside my apartment window. Give it a watch if you can, you won’t regret it.
Now then, I’ll see you back here in two.