Loneliness and the Remote Office

I miss working with people, face-to-face, on the same challenge. For several years (and many times in my career) I have worked remotely. Don’t get me wrong there are great benefits too; but it is lonely.

Photo by Kewal on Unsplash

Things I love about remote working:

My time is extremely flexible. How do other people find time to do their laundry or slow cook chili? I can do that while I work (my nieces call it a “brain break”, but that is another story and shall be told at another time*).

The commute it great! Let me rephrase that: the commute is fast (and maybe a little longer would be ok). I get to spend more time with my family rather than sitting in traffic listening to NPR tell the same stories I heard during the morning drive. If not driving, I’d be sitting on the bus reading (oh, well, that’s not so bad if it’s not too long…).

Lots of focus time. No one is coming into my office to interrupt me to ask a question. Well, maybe the cats are asking for more food. Or my wife (who also works from home) is asking what I want for lunch, but I’ll take that interruption any time.

Diversity of our team. With a remote company we have the tools in place to support working with smart developers wherever they are. This has allowed us to tap different minds with different ideas and to bring in a diversity that we wouldn’t get if we were just looking at Seattle. Our Polish team really schooled me.

But there are drawbacks to working from home:

Collaborative learning is harder. We have Slack. And we do calls and video conference when needed (and scheduled). But I really miss grabbing a co-worker, a conference room, and a whiteboard and hashing out a gnarly problem. Oh, huh, I guess was I interrupting someone’s focus time when I did that. However, there are social tools to handle it: “When you’ve got a minute…”. Doing this with screen share and video conference is somehow not quite the same. (But I’m getting much better!)

There’s no time for social time. When I last worked in an office, people would gather around the proverbial water cooler (more accurately the coffee machine and microwave), and I had a chance to chat about whatever. Their life and family. My life and family. Politics, religion, money (three things my Grandmother told me not to discuss with friends). It’s really hard to do this remotely. I try to include a social “how are you” in Slack when I show up or when people show up, but often it feels forced or rote.

Getting out is harder. Or necessary. When I first worked remotely, my roommates would come home from work in the evening and I’d push to go out somewhere. They were tired and wanted to relax at home. I’d been home, alone, all day and wanted to get out and socialize. Fast forward a couple decades and these days it is harder to get out, especially in the evening. That’s a factor of my place in life, but also our society and the number of distractions we can bring into our lives at home. It’s not just remote workers who feel this way, I’m told. People with long days and long commutes order food on DoorDash so they don’t have to interact with people on the way home. And then stream Netflix and tune out.

What am I doing about this?

I want to be clear. I don’t think that either co-location or remote is the better way to work. I have no idea what the right thing is but I think it’s a combination of these (from what I hear from my friends): Some days in the office. Some days working from home.

I get out to a coffee shop once a week. This isn’t like working with people, face-to-face, on the same challenge, but it does give me a sense of being part of a community. Especially when the barista knows my drink.

I volunteer one afternoon a week as a teaching assistant. This lets me work with people, face-to-face, on the same challenge, just not that challenges that I’m working on. That’s fine. I learn a ton through this improving both my technical chops and my communication (listening, empathy) skills.

I want to mention that I have a dedicated home office that I use most of the time. (Sometimes a change of setting helps me think. Like moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer.) I find this critical to working from home and have had this nearly every time I’ve been a remote worker since the late 90’s. Shutting a door and walking away from work is really important to me. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still invade my life aboard my phone but it’s easier to say to myself, I’ll get to that when I get into the office.

I’m thinking about ways to make my work environment more collaborative. Again, I don’t have an answer here. It’s a work-in-progress. We’ll experiment and make mistakes. Hopefully we can see the errors before they are destructive and embrace the successes. (With continuous improvement, but that is another story and shall be told at another time.)

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