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Thoughts on remote work
- Erik Stockmeier
Some thoughts on remote work
Only a few weeks out from the pandemic's 2nd birthday1, I'm noticing more promoted 'how the coronavirus is changing us' content that seems relevant and new until I realize it is a year or more old. Most of these aren't new, of course, and by now we've beaten these topics into the earth: How our friendships are changing, how remote work is hard and whether it is really here to stay, from loneliness and isolation to burnout and the great resignation.
Even setting aside the children and families, the essential workers, the sick and the dying, the anti-vaxxers and maskers, these more mundane topics have maintained their clickability well beyond the recognition of the new normal. Part of me feels like I have to rank these concerns in a single hierarchy, to say working from home is something less important, but I am a professional-managerial-class computer worker. These articles were written for me, and they remain materially relevant to my life. I think I have my finger now on several ways these pieces fit together:
- As the initial novelty of social distancing and isolation wore off, so did my contact with some friends. Jackbox got old quickly, Among Us flamed out, and Zoom calls always felt like work.
- The sudden switch to working from home for so many people at once created an aggregate shift in work-life balance, effectively pushing up every person's running temperature to a point that things were guaranteed to boil over in some place or another.
- Some folks caught onto this trend in their own lives quickly and changed setting, while others stuck around and were forced to jettison other now-anchorless commitments - I lost touch with previously close friends from my climbing gym when it got too cold to do regular bike rides together and stopped showing up for Zoom Aikido.
Even as it's become easier to make plans to hang out with a close but distant friend (now via video chat), the loss of physical closeness and shared activities and need to compete with always-looming work commitments was too much. Just as many of us were experiencing the erosion of our closest relationships, work, as a constant in most lives, has always been ready to fill in the gaps. Put another way, by any given evening I have already spent hours on call with people I see every day, talking about some shared project that we both have experience in and connection to. The project is called work, and the connection we have over it is much greater than calling a friend and former belay partner sus could ever have been.
There's one more element here that has been gnawing at me. Physical separation seems to make it much harder for workers to have frank conversations with each other. There is no more stepping outside for a cup of coffee and chance to vent about a deadline without muttering or looking over our shoulders. Whether it is talking about working conditions or the direction of the company or just the chance to let one's guard down, to be a little more vulnerable and human off the clock, these things just don't translate well to zoom links or group DMs on fragmented non-company platforms2.
Other than that I don't have much to add to this. If work relationships are going to continue growing their prominence in our real-life social networks, we need to find ways to connect with our coworker-friends authentically as human beings and distinct from those relationships and tools mediated only through our employers.
By my count this all started in Brooklyn on March 15, 2020 - the first day we cancelled plans with friends. I remember in early months that for large parts of the country things were still very calm, with no hot spots or no curves to flatten. ↩
That doesn't make such conversations any less necessary, and I think finding durable patterns to keep them going will be one of the main challenges for computer workers in the new normal. ↩