Working From Home Is About to Get So Much Better
Last August, three of my closest friends and I rented a converted barn in Vermont for a week.
Though we lived within just a few miles of each other in Brooklyn, we hadn't had IRL contact in nearly six months. With Covid cases plummeting and restrictions easing up, we decided it was as good a time as ever to have some safe, socially distanced fun (which admittedly sounds sanitized and not fun at all, but the White Claw helped).
After quarantining individually for two weeks and receiving negative test results, the three of us piled into the used 2001 station wagon I had purchased during the pandemic and drove six hours north to a five-bedroom barn located on a sprawling, picturesque hillside, with the kind of smooth green slopes that made me realize the Ben & Jerry's logo is based on a real place.
We arrived on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning we all readied our laptops, connected to the WiFi, and … started working. For the next three days of "work from barn," we shuffled between our bedrooms, the living room, and the kitchen, working together and apart. We mingled near the coffee pot during breaks, making small talk about our days and our meetings and our projects, not unlike a hodgepodge of colleagues clustered around the office kitchen, though none of us actually works together. Around 5 p.m., we checked in with each other about what time we'd all be wrapping things up and what we wanted for dinner. By 6 p.m., we gathered on the patio, beers in hand. By 9 p.m. we were belting our hearts out to P!NK in the basement/game room, which was stocked with a pool table, a dart board, arcade-style hoops, a ping pong table, and, of course, a karaoke machine (which the Vermonter rental owners endearingly called a "crokey" machine when they handed us the keys).
Now, imagine your working days look like this 90, 100 days of the year, but without the Covid testing, the masks, or the constant worry of an infectious airborne particle infiltrating your precious bubble.
What my friends and I didn't realize back in 2020 was that our one-off quarantine escape could actually be the future of remote work. Without the pressures of showing up in the office day in and day out, we could use our newfound freedom to maximize the time we weren't working, especially during the warmer summer months. This, I told myself, is what the rich must have felt like when they realized some millenia ago that they could get away with months-long vacations at their summer homes in the Hamptons or Palm Springs.
According to the Pew Research Center, 71% of people who have the ability to work from home are now doing so most if not all of the time. While that number of full-time remote employees will take a dip when many offices reopen this summer and fall, many companies — like Spotify, Twitter, and Dropbox — have provided their employees the option to make their work-from-home setups permanent.
According to the New York Times, some workers are even threatening to quit "unless they're allowed to work wherever and whenever they want." For those of us who don't work in an "essential" field or have the cushy savings needed to pull an Andy Sachs, a compromise between employers and employees will be a hybrid model: Working remotely two or three days per week. According to Recode, this model will be the dominant office-job arrangement, while full-time remote workers will make up 15-18% of white-collar jobs — up from the single digits pre-pandemic.
While these numbers may seem relatively low, the trends are certainly in our favor. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor who studies remote work, called the radical shift "One of the few great upsides of the pandemic," telling Recode that "we've accelerated 25 years of drift toward working from home in one year."
There are a slew of communal benefits to remote work, including greater diversity of candidates who may not desire to live in an expensive, urban center like New York or Chicago, as well as the reduction of carbon emissions thanks to far fewer commuters hitting the road every day. Mostly, though, I hope that working remotely can provide those of us on the grind a newfound source of joy in the everyday, and the chance to spend time with family and friends, not the "work family" that corporate execs are always harping about. (Not a dig at my work wives — you're all invited to the communal work day at my house.)
Togetherness is the element that has been missing during the past 14 months of working from home. When you're confined to your house or apartment for 24 hours a day and afraid to share an elevator with a neighbor, much less socialize with friends, work from home feels more like work from a jail of your own making, and that's before you consider Zoom school, caring for elder parents, or fighting with your conservative dad about wearing masks and not voting for Trump (again). But the future of work from home is a lot less literal, and that's a good thing — and not just for your productivity, though there's that, too
Writer Anne Helen Petersen explored the concept of social remote work in a recent edition of her Culture Study newsletter, in which she described a pre-pandemic gathering with her friends who, like her, had the ability to work from home. She wrote of afternoons filled with shared lunches, breaks to pick up the kids from daycare, and the comforting, familiar ambience of a best friend's patio.
"[My friends would] 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," writes Petersen.
"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," she writes. Maybe this sounds like a parallel dimension, a utopia reserved for a select few. But for many people working from home alone right now, this setup is accessible, if not already beginning to happen as more and more people receive the vaccine.
It's important to acknowledge that the jobs that allow a work-from-anywhere setup are often divided by class lines. A majority of middle- and lower-income workers say they cannot work from home, and only 23% of those without a four-year college degree say that remote work is feasible. That said, this may be the first time in history that such a large number of Americans are able to log in to the office instead of going in, and soon they can do that from anywhere they want. For the vast majority of white-collar workers who have spent the past year walking from bed to couch to bed, day after day, some version of this remote work lifestyle is around the corner.
Those cumulative hours spent commuting can be replaced with quality time with the family before you "rush" to your morning standup meeting (which you take in your kitchen). Rather than a quick lunch at your workplace's cafeteria — or worse, a desk lunch — you can remember what sunlight feels like during a walk around the block with your dog. Mid-afternoon coffee runs can feel more leisurely when you enjoy your home-brew in your front yard with a neighbor. Post-work drinks can start at 5 p.m., when you join your friends at a bar to finish up work for the day, and finally — finally — order a drink before happy hour ends. There's even room for a getaway near or far: a week at a beachside AirBnB with your crew; a month in a remote cabin in the woods with your partner; or even the stint living abroad that you'd always dreamt of, but never thought was possible in your line of work. Rather than ruin your friends vacation by doing work on actual paid time off (for the love of god, please do not be the "just checking something at work, be right there" person on my trip. I will throw your iPhone off the ski lift.), you can reimagine what it looks like to travel, and to work.
My Vermont trip wasn't a vacation, and I am in no way advocating for fewer and/or compromised PTO. But it wasn't not a vacation, either. Though we weren't able to explore the local nightlife, the four of us broke up our work days with hikes, relaxing trips to the nearby swimming hole, and rounds of cornhole in the front yard. Using only a single day of actual vacation time to catch the brightest hours of the morning for a hike, followed by the long drive home, we were able to get away, catch up, relax, and best of all, just be together. Finally.