The Future of Remote Work is the Opposite of Lonely

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Before the pandemic, I’d frequently go to Seattle, where my closest friends live, and camp out in one of their guest rooms for a week. Some days I’d go work in a coffee shop for most of the day. Sometimes I’d go work in my friend’s office with her. And some days, me and some collection of those friends would work from home. We are employed in wildly different industries, but it worked.

They’d drop off their kids at preschool or daycare, and we’d sit at the kitchen table like we were back at a table in the library in college. One person could duck into another room for a call, another person (me) would explain something weird happening on Twitter, but we’d nurse our coffees through the morning and then another friend would make us ‘Family Lunch Plate’: a smorgasbord of sliced apples, chunks of cheddar, salami, Wheat Thins, cucumbers, maybe some hummus, plus some gummy candies for good measure. We’d raid the pantry for seltzers, work until around 3:30 or 4, and then go for a run and get back before kid pick-up time.

This scenario might feel like a fantasy right now. But if you’re working remotely now, it — or whatever iteration feels like your own fantasy — is what working from home can look like in the very near future. A day or two or three in the office, depending on the needs of the week. A day in your actual home. A day with friends, in one of their homes, and/or a day at a co-working space or a coffee shop or, one of my personal favorites, a bar at the end of the day, with the clatter and chatter of other people around you.

This has been the hardest thing for people who didn’t work from home before the pandemic to visualize: your current WFH scenario is not your future WFH scenario. Your options are not “in the office, with other people, 9 to 6 every day” or “miserable and alone in my small apartment.” More and more people are realizing as much, but we still have articles like this one, published this morning in The Atlantic:

“At the end of January, I went back to teaching my students in person for the first time in 10 months,” Brooks, a professor of public leadership at Harvard, writes. “It was only two days a week, and an hour and a half at a time. We were all avoiding contact and wearing masks, so normal human interaction was almost nonexistent. But for me, it was like springtime in Paris. I started sleeping better; my mood improved; I became more energetic and optimistic.”

First off: he’s a professor. As a former professor who’s watched other educators struggle with remote teaching, I really, really get it. The sort of teaching that Brooks is accustomed to depends on audience. Vocal and physical cues, the feeling of attentiveness. But when you try to transfer that to Zoom, with most of your students’ cameras off, you mutilate that experience. One of my friends recently described the feeling of completing a lecture to total silence, then quietly turning off her own camera. The worst. (There are ways to make remote instruction work, but most teachers’ courses and teaching styles haven’t shifted to that style because, well, you get it). Point is: I would also be thrilled to be back with my students.

But recall, too, that Brooks is speaking from the perspective of someone whose work life has been flexible, in some capacity, since he started in academia. You have office hours, and faculty meetings, and class times, but your time is almost entirely yours to bend and shape. [Edit: See the comments for a clarifying elaboration on Brooks’ past!] At Harvard, he presumably has a private office, and, in post-pandemic times, could write this column there, or at home, or anywhere his laptop would allow him. He might be the sort of faculty members who haunts the hallways of his building; he might have a broadly open door policy towards students. What matters is that he, like other non-contingent faculty, gets to choose the sort of environment that’s most conducive to his work and the rhythms of his day. That’s what most of us crave, in some capacity: the ability to mold our work around our lives, not our lives around our work.

Brooks cites a 2018 study, performed by HR consultancy Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse, that found that 70 percent of employees claimed friendship at their job was the most important element of a happy work life. But this line of argument is rooted in the presumption of a life spent in the office. If you’re going to the office for nine hours every day— and, like many contemporary and younger office workers, your identity is your work — then it’s easy to see how friendship with coworkers could determine your level of happiness. It’s also easy to conclude, as Brooks does, that worker loneliness leads to burnout and turnover, and that, by extension, “making workers lonely is like gradually lowering their salaries.”

But all of these arguments are built on the supposition of work as the primary, enduring locus of meaning in your life. Think of it this way: Maybe office workers feel the need to make friends at work is because they spend so much time working that there’s little time to cultivate or sustain friendship elsewhere. Maybe it’s so hard to make friends in your 30s because you’re working all the time.

What remote and hybrid works supposes — and what this book I’ve been working on these last six months with my partner, Charlie, argues — is the potential for a different posture towards work, in which, again, the work itself becomes malleable, even an accessory, to the rest of our lives. That means working more efficiently, with greater concentration, when you do work — and actually not working (as opposed to quietly checking email) when you’re not on the clock. That means cutting down the amount of time that you’re LARPing your job, aka trying to demonstrate to your coworkers and managers that you’re working hard, and actually just do what you need to do.

That also means managers figuring out how to effectively communicate standards and expectations, instead of employees flailing about, burning out, and managing astronomical amounts of anxiety trying to meet nebulous ones. And that means reacquainting ourselves with who we are outside of work, and (re)integrating with our close and extended communities. (Here’s more on the specifics of all of this, including some thoughts on how to make sure that work doesn’t spread into every corner of our lives.

Which isn't to say Brooks’ concerns aren't well intentioned — any serious conversation about post-pandemic work should interrogate isolation and loneliness, and remote work isn't a cure-all for rapid growth capitalism. There'll be plenty of shitty employers who frame hybrid schedules as perks, forcing employees to “earn it” by working constantly and further obliterating the separation between work and the rest of our lives. True flexibility depends on managers and executives, and if it’s executed poorly, it will suck in myriad ways, including increased loneliness.

Still, we should be wary of conflating the desire to get out of our houses and be in the same space as other people with the desire to be back in the office. If you love the office, great. But it's worth remembering that offices can be deeply isolating places, too — especially when ruled by an exclusionary monoculture, which can take any number of forms. (If you don’t know what the monoculture is in your office, or don’t think there is one….chances are high you’re part of it.)

So imagine: A day or two working with your friends, a day or two in the office, a day or two at home with or without my partner, or my partners, or my garden. Time, during the day, to go to the grocery store, to mail a package, to go play with a friend’s kid for an hour, to take a nap, to read a book for research in the sun, to take a work call while walking the dog. Maybe I have a lot of concentrated work on a Thursday, and then do an interview on a Friday and go ski.

I don’t see loneliness in that scenario, or the equivalent, as Brooks argues, of a reduced salary. I see my version of a full life. As Charlie puts it, “We don’t work from home because work is what matters most. We work from home to free ourselves to focus on what actually does.”

If you’re working remotely right now: what would your ideal, hybrid work week look like? And what sort of approach, and continuing conversations, would need to happen within your workplace to make it happen?

If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version. One of the perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week. This week’s Tuesday thread on “What you’re reading” has….599 comments and growing.

If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at