As an introvert, I’ve been a fan of remote work & working from home for a while now. It can help level the playing field vs. extroverts, giving space for collaborating and communicating in writing vs. verbally in group meetings. It naturally provides the conditions necessary for deep focus, away from the noise and stress of an open office. And it makes it possible to speak to pretty much any number of people from the comfort of your own room, vs. actually standing in front of an audience with a microphone, and having a panic attack when you see that many faces staring at you.
With the pushback against remote culture and attempts to corral people back into the office making headlines, the common arguments in favor of office culture are really about the office itself: they say it’s easier to collaborate with and form connections with colleagues, quickly iterate with the people sitting next to you, and have those chance encounters and conversations that occur in shared spaces that lead to more creativity. And they’re not wrong.
You can try to recreate that in a remote setting with a combination of good collaboration software and work practices (e.g., communicating and working transparently, documenting meetings and decisions made, etc.). A new generation of products like Sidekick, Tandem, and Switchboard have sprouted up in an attempt to solve the “office-like collaboration” problem. But if you’ve ever worked in an office, you have to admit that you just can’t replace the raw, buzzing, kinetic energy of an office with Zoom and Google Docs.
What I’m really missing though has less to do with the office itself and less of a direct connection to productivity. Things I feel like I’m slowly losing, as I’ve worked from my apartment since March 2020. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s more about the commute than the office itself.
Commutes are, of course, effortlessly hateable. People talk about the 1-2 hours (or more!) of each work day that they’re getting back, which they can redirect into all sorts of places: getting even more work done, more meetings with people in different timezones, actually cooking a meal, or helping their kids with homework or taking them to the playground. Quality time!
But there are two important ways in which I think a commute - a real commute, not your “three steps away from the bed” commute - is actually good for you.
There’s a Seinfeld episode where George is trying to keep Relationship George and Independent George apart by excluding Susan from his social circle, where he delivers his famous “You’re killing Independent George” line:
George: You have no idea of the magnitude of this thing! If [Susan] is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him, ceases to exist! You see, right now, I have Relationship George, but there is also Independent George. That’s the George you know, the George you grew up with - Movie George, Coffee Shop George, Liar George, Bawdy George.
Jerry: I love that George.
George: Me too! And he’s dying, Jerry! If Relationship George walks through this door, he will kill Independent George! A George, divided against itself, cannot stand!
Point being, working from home is killing Professional George.
Sociologists have been exploring this idea of different personas for a while. Charles Horton Cooley coined the concept of a “looking-glass self” in 1902, which explores how and why our different selves, or personas, form, based primarily on the different social constructs we find ourselves in.
I think it’s perfectly natural to end up with different personas for home, work, extended family, school, etc. I don’t consider it inauthentic to do so - I think it gives each of us an opportunity to fix past mistakes and create better versions of ourselves. In “The Paradox of Life Affirming Death Traps”, Brian Chippendale wrote about his experience building the art collective Fort Thunder, and how creating that “zone” created a new world for them to exist in. Each persona tends to inhabit a different physical world, and like George, we prefer to keep them separate. There are virtual equivalents as well: we can and do have different personas for LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Our different personas have their own storylines, character arcs, confidence and stress levels, even their own voice and language. And when these different worlds collide, they struggle to co-exist.
At its best, a commute wakes up your brain in a way that just doesn’t happen when you’re always at home or relying on social media for stimulus. A random store signage, billboard, graffiti, or mural - not to mention the other people around you, what they’re wearing, what they’re reading - all of it can act as a creative spark. Looking out the window of a train - even being in a crowded subway car hurdling through an underground tunnel - can become a space for meditation and deep thinking.
Walking and riding a bike gives you an opportunity to see and find yourself in the real world, which is crucial for people that do creative work. It’s been demonstrated that walking outside boosts creativity.
“Walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality analogies… Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
Aside from creativity, first-hand experience and studies demonstrate that being outside - even in a concrete city - can pretty reliably improve your mood and your mental state. A (good) commute forces all of those benefits on you.
Disassociating Commutes From The Office
People are trying to solve the above in different ways. A surprising number of people with yards appear to be buying little outhouses to work in. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
You might say, “just get a desk at a coworking space”. That certainly seems better than working at home 100% of the time, but it’s expensive, and a coworking space down the street doesn’t quite solve the problem. I think commutes that force some real distance between home and work is actually better for you and provide some of the raw material you need to be creative and solve problems without burning out. I wonder if there’s an optimal distance there - I would imagine it’s a 20-25 minute walk. A study that asked 1,000 workers in SF for their ideal commute suggests it’s actually 16 minutes:
It seems that people do appreciate some separation between work and home – using the travel time as a psychological tool to decompress from the day. And it’s backed up by science. An increasing amount of research shows that “active commutes”, which involve walking or cycling, can make life better – even being as important to well-being as a marriage or a pay rise.
“Working From Home” and “Remote Working” are two different things that get lumped into the same general idea. The main reason they’re different is that one potentially involves an actual commute that forces you to leave your home, and the other involves walking a few feet from your bed.
I think the issue is that for most people, a commute implies an office - but that no longer holds true.
But maybe even more importantly, a commute creates a spacial and psychological barrier between your home world and your work world. Perhaps a coworking space and remote work life can give you the physical interaction you need to construct and maintain a true work persona, but it’s still not a real office environment (which also had its own set of very real problems, and is difficult to recreate at this point).
Are Coworking Spaces The Answer?
I think we can make working from home “work” for a few years, but as years turn into decades, I do think for most people, working from home isn’t sustainable - it’s going to take a real mental and physical toll on us, unless we force time outdoors and now aimless walks into our daily schedules. But how many people are going to actually do that and stick to it over time?
I wonder if there is too heavy an association of coworking spaces with WeWork, with all of its drama and controversy, as if that means that the coworking space business model is inherently broken. But the WeWork model is just the standard VC-backed startup on steroids. We can and should find a slow-growth model that works for the public benefit first.
For example, consider what would happen if city, state, even federal governments did more to encourage and subsidize coworking spaces, or if more companies sponsored them. Many companies have been reimbursing employees for coworking space memberships for years - that should be the norm. Gitlab for example reimburses up to $700/month for coworking space rental. As the debate continues about what to do with all of the unused office space in cities, it seems obvious that most of that real estate could be converted to flexible coworking spaces. For example, imagine a Citi Bike membership model applied to coworking spaces all over NYC.
Remote work is here to stay. Working from home for decades will have negative mental and physical health effects on many of us, and cities are going to continue to struggle, until we realize that replacing empty office real estate with affordable coworking space is the answer to the many socioeconomic challenges of remote work.