Workwise, I find myself in an odd place. I have never been happier than I am now, working from home. Yet I am desperately sorry for young people who have to work from home.
The fluffy sort of news—by which I mean anything that does not include death counts, death threats, or the imminent death of democracy—is full of enthusiasm for the practice, poll after poll showing a decided preference for working from home. On social media, meanwhile, commerce is racing to solve the attendant problems.
An app called Working Den helps people stretch and exercise, shows them calming nature videos, offers background noise playlists, mental health assessment quizzes, and timed breaks. There is also an avatar that looks like you, reacts like you, and can stand in for you during Zoom meetings, making the connectivity more efficient. Deduction: About half of those working from home have slid into the relaxed and flexible lifestyle with relief, and the other half are weeping in the shower or riding their Pelotons like crazed gerbils.
Boston Consulting Group calls the pandemic’s push toward remote work “the world’s biggest-ever workplace experiment.” So far, productivity is soaring for independent tasks but a little shaky for collaborative tasks. “Perhaps most challenging, but with the highest payback, will be figuring out how to maximize the social connectivity that takes place in the office,” the consultants write. “When employees are working remotely, it is hard to replicate the spontaneity of the ‘water cooler moment’ or the camaraderie created by an impromptu lunch, a hallway conversation, or even a fire drill.”
On the bright side, appearance (attractiveness, sophistication, wardrobe, skin color, body shape, age) and personality quirks may begin to matter less. Work is becoming far more attainable and congenial for people with disabilities, long commutes, and caretaking responsibilities at home. We can all relax into our real selves—just as we lose the chance to share those selves.
Does anybody mind? In a survey by IPSOS, a market research company, those over fifty-five were far more likely to miss their colleagues (fifty-five percent compared to the thirty-six percent average). I keep wanting to tap somebody in their twenties on the shoulder and say, “Do y’all not like each other?”
A physical workplace socializes you. It teaches you to get along with people wildly unlike yourself. How to dress appropriately (even below the waist). How to negotiate with different management styles, giving the micromanagers plenty of data and staying loose with the slackers. How to decode unwritten rules and diagram power; carve out a safe space in an office fridge stuffed with rotting leftovers; monitor the eye-rolls and exchanged glances at meetings. It is all so much richer in drama and subterfuge than Zoom can be.
What I would miss most, if I were half my age, is the shared craziness. I remember simultaneously running three printers to get layouts cranked out while our young assistant art director yelled, “Sweet Jeannette, can we fuck with quotes?” and I yelled back, “No, we cannot fuck with quotes!” and the production manager hurled her (rotary) phone at the floor in exasperation and we all dissolved into manic laughter. Or propping my feet on a friend’s desk, hers up on the other side, and guzzling the beer left over from a photoshoot because we had just worked seven consecutive twelve-hour days. Or gathering everybody in the conference room for an emergency all-hands-on-deck rip-up-the-cover-feature-and-redo-it-in-a-day meeting. Teamwork is messagey now, all that Slacking, but I miss the physicality of the pressure and the zany release, the skunky waft of bodies under stress, the yelled-out lunch orders when somebody offered to bring back, the pulse of a group of people tackling something together—in real time.
Will college be the last time young people learn under a shared roof? Because in college, you do not learn from each other in the same way. Maybe you get a little tutoring from your boyfriend or you finish your best friend’s paper for her, but mainly you are on your own, commiserating at best.
How are we going to learn to cooperate in an emergency?
A friend, Tim Fox, worked remotely before COVID. His employer is a national consulting company that shifted to remote work two decades ago; its CEO has even written a book about online work culture. Tim has learned to be “very mindful about connecting with people on different levels,” he says. “If I see some goofy little thing that reminds me of a coworker, I’ll buy it and drop it in the mail to them.”
His deliberate kindness reminds me why “mindfulness” and “intentional” have come to be so important in our abstract era. You have to make a concerted effort even to think about these things. There is no easy word-of-mouth, like there was before a coworker staggered into my office carrying a huge basket stuffed with booze and candy and a soft pillow and books everybody contributed because I was about to have neck surgery and terrified I would emerge from it paralyzed.
Tim’s company encourages building in five or ten minutes before a meeting so everyone can catch up. One of BCG’s leaders maintains that the serendipity of impromptu hallway or cafeteria-style meetings can be recreated by randomly FaceTiming team members to ask how they are doing. But what I remember is the constant rude banter that flew (as did rubber bands and spitballs) across cubicles. The gossip. The way everybody knew when you dressed up (“Getting laid tonight?”) or took a call in the hallway (“It’s either love or a job interview.”). My cynical colleague’s response when I said I was getting married: “That’s optimistic of you.” Banter works well on Slack, but no one can tack a bright red Wonderbra outside your cubicle and take bets on whether you are too spacy to notice it.
Before online team meetings, Tim’s company has fifteen-minute activities, fun questions to answer, icebreakers, ways for people to get to know each other. Clevertech, a software company, encourages its employees to play videogames that simulate a collaborative environment and enable complex problems to be solved by the group. I sigh, reminded of the Morale Corral (yes, they called it that) that once tried to force us to play happily together. What worked was the day free food showed up and somebody yelled to quit early and come to the kitchen. As for bonding, nothing beats walking in on somebody who is sobbing in the loo. Or the zingy feel of going to a conference together, like a big field trip, everybody looking at once familiar and new in this larger context, banding together to explore and compare notes.
And what about the practical jokes, I wail. “We actually do quite a bit of that,” Tim says, giving examples like scavenger hunts and game shows, chances to be goofy. Sweet, organized fun, in other words. But I am talking meanspirited, diabolical, take-no-prisoners pranks, the kind people are still snorting about ten years later.
He emphasizes the need to be honest, open, and vulnerable with coworkers online, offering the very human example of a toddler announcing, “Dad, I have to poop!” in the middle of a formal presentation. What I am remembering, though, is the boss who was going through a divorce and menopause simultaneously and used to nap on a futon in the supply closet. If a higher-up came calling, one of us raced to wake her while another mounted a distraction until she could go out the suite’s back door and come in the front, alert and smiling, to greet her visitor.
And there was the day a bunch of us helped a fired coworker carry about a thousand books to his car—what is the Slack emoji for bittersweet, raging but resigned, fond but exasperated compassion? Larger question: How do you bond without going through hell together, witnessing each other’s pain and fury and ambition at close hand, wrapping an arm around somebody’s shoulders, getting exhausted, drunk, or slaphappy together?
Proximity allows spontaneity. And intimacy. And no, I do not mean that sort, although there is nothing hotter than an office crush. I mean intimacy with people you might never otherwise choose to know. It is far more fun figuring them out in person—and far less risky than cobbling together abstract patterns and possible clues you could be wildly misinterpreting, sitting there safe in your jammies scrolling through their emails.
Granted, I do not recommend working with someone who goes off her meds and turns paranoid before your eyes. Or with a bipolar, bisexual boss who will hit on you half the time. What I learned from these experiences I would have preferred to read in a textbook. But aberration is part of the mix, and that is the most useful lesson of all.
After three decades, I lost patience with the drama, and I do not yearn to return. What puzzles me is why people who have barely experienced it agree with me.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.