Back when I started my first business, I used to joke with friends that I was living in what I referred to as my echo. I was bootstrapping the business, and starting with barely any clients, and as a result I was barely able to pay myself and had absolutely zero disposable income. However, I’d been reasonably well paid before going out on my own, so I still had a lot of nice things. When I’d had disposable income, I’d bought nice clothes, nice furniture, a nice car. Nothing fancy - that’s not who I am - but nice. I had paid my rent for my nice apartment in advance to ensure I could stay there whilst I got things off the ground. The material things in my life really didn’t change a great deal, despite my income drastically reducing. Everything was still nice. This was my echo. The income was no longer incoming - but the echo of the income could still be felt. If you were to only look at how I was living without the context of how it was supported, you would conclude that it was possible to have lots of nice things even when earning less than minimum wage.
Gradually though, those nice things became less nice. The car needed maintenance. The clothes began to fade and lose their shape. Things would be damaged or break entirely. Without the disposable income to repair or replace these things, my nice things slowly dwindled away, and my life began to more accurately reflect the reality of my financial situation. The echo got quieter and quieter, until eventually I was living the exact life my current salary could support. Without my echo, zero disposable income was a far less sustainable situation.
When it comes to remote working, I think we might all be living in an echo.
I have been working from home for several years, and until recently I have loved it. However, the social structures that have augmented my working from home experience were recently taken away from me. A couple of months after Covid hit and working from home became the norm for everyone, most of my friends were given the option of making home working permanent. Their employers adjusted to the new way of working, and didn’t see the point of forcing a return to the old way. When given the freedom to live and work anywhere they wanted, many of my friends - most of whom had come to London primarily for the career opportunities - decided this was no longer the place they wanted to be.
As a result, my social groups have disbanded and scattered across the globe. And I have realised that I have been living in another echo, because although I have worked from home for several years, I formed all those relationships either directly or indirectly through going to work. I don’t do that anymore, so I’m kind of on my own now. I have no way of meeting new people. The reality of my working from home situation is, finally, being laid bare.
Almost everyone I know fits into one of these categories:
As it turns out, when you take going to the office out of the equation, you shut down almost my entire social ecosystem. The fact that people work for the same company isn’t enough. I don’t form social connections in Zoom meetings. I form them incidentally, while other things are going on. I used to form them in the after work drinks that most of us only agreed to go to reluctantly, but often ended up enjoying. I formed them in the random lunch times we shared together. I formed them in passing conversations when we happened to be in the kitchen at the same time. I formed them, in short, in situations that I would not have actively chosen to place myself in. And working from home will never recreate these situations for me.
I met one of my closest friends, Carla, at work. Although our friendship grew whilst working together, it grew through conversations completely unrelated to that work. It grew in conversations that would never have happened on Zoom calls. We couldn’t have become friends without sitting next to each other every day. The benefit of this friendship was not just personal. Our professional relationship was made immeasurably stronger by the fact we became good friends. We went on to achieve some really good things together in an extremely challenging professional situation. The company undoubtedly benefited from our friendship in many ways. We produced better work together as a result of it, certainly, but that’s not even the start of it - the company was only able to retain us at all because of our friendship. I don’t believe either of us would have stayed with the company for very long if we hadn’t had each other to depend on. When the work was tough and draining, we pulled each other through it. I would have quit that job long before I achieved anything useful if it hadn’t been for my friendship with Carla. But in the parallel world where Covid was around when we began working together, we would never have become friends, so we’d never have had one another to lean on. Consquently, we would never have achieved any of the things we achieved for the company or for ourselves. Everyone would have been worse off.
As I’ve thought more about what this new normal really means, I’ve realised that the people most keen on beckoning it in are probably the people who will suffer the most from it: the introverts.
I’m an introvert. Sometimes this surprises people who don’t know me well as I apparently appear quite outgoing, but the truth is that being around people I don’t know well is something I find quite stressful. I’m dreadful at making friends. There’s a barrier between me and anyone new that I have never learned how to take down, so it takes me a lot of time to form a friendship. I’m certainly not unique in this - there are a lot of us introverts around. Not surprisingly, it’s the introverts who tend to want to work from home. Taking these forced social interactions away is a relief for us. But as it happens, we are precisely the people who shouldn’t be working from home. We’re the people who need the office.
The extroverts will be fine no matter what - they’ll crave the social interactions that they naturally thrive in, so they’ll go and seek them out whether they work in an office or not. They’ll arrange to see people and put themselves in those situations. But the introverts? We’ll just be hiding away at home not meeting anyone new.
When I started to work from home, I had friends already. But these were all people who had been forced onto me at work for long enough that my barriers had come down. If everyone works from home now, and socialising is now entirely optional and not a fundamental part of how work gets done, that’s no longer going to occur. The introverts will no longer be forced to spend time with people. I’m not sure how I’ll actually make friends now. If every social interaction is a choice, I’m going to be inclined to choose not to have it.
This isn’t just relevant to my personal life. Everyone at DoThings works remotely. We’re incredibly efficient and are able to produce great things together, but a lot of us used to work in the same office together. We built relationships in person. We are able to work together remotely because of the trust and understanding we formed whilst spending time with each other. We are effective despite not being in the same location - but I think that might only be because we all worked in the same location for long enough to build the relationships necessary to make that possible.
DoThings might have a goal of allowing us all to work from home - but it was built on foundations forged in an office environment. The irony is that if we’d worked for DoThings already, we would never have got to know each other well enough to start DoThings.
I’ve spoken to a great many people since I started to wrestle with this new found discomfort of working from home, and I have found that time and time again, these people are living in their own echo. A good friend of mine absolutely loves working from home, and never wants to return to the office. When I asked him what he loves about it so much, he told me it was that he could spend more time with his wife and daughter. With no commute, and the freedom to work in the evenings when his daughter had been put to bed, his quality of life was far greater. Working from home fit with the other things in his life perfectly. It’s impossible to argue with the logic of that…
…until you ask him where he met his wife.
They met at work, when they used to have to go into work all the time. They worked in different departments in the same company, and during an after work drinks event that neither of them really wanted to go to, they happened to get talking. He wants to work from home to enjoy being with a wife and child that he wouldn’t even have if he’d always worked from home.
I know that working from home is great right now. But right now most of us still have our echo. The social groups we formed still exist. The relationships we built are still there. The connections are still strong. But what about when these relationships reach an end, or when new ones need to be formed or existing ones need to be strengthened? When the echo of our previous office based working life fades, and we’re all just working from home on our own, with no social interactions with the people we work with other than Zoom calls and Slack conversations, is it going to feel like a good idea then?
Maybe just going back to the office isn’t the answer, but I don’t think working from home is either. I never thought I would be the one to say this, misanthrope that I am, but I think I might miss people.
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