Despite me writing a newsletter about it on Friday, what feels like 30 people have now sent me the New York Times article about how “a silent majority of American workers want to get back to the office. The half-assed, one-sided reporting was resoundingly stomped upon, but a few people have raised a good point about what going to work has taken the place of. Raechel Anne Jolie had a good point too:
The New York Times @nytimesA silent majority of American workers do want to get back to the office, at least for a few days a week. As coronavirus cases rise and companies keep workplaces closed, these frustrated employees can’t wait to return to their cubicles. https://t.co/ele90OIqRB
I have had a few people respond to me recently that the problem is that if they don’t go to work, they basically stay home all day, they don’t get any exercise walking places, they eat the same things and they have the same routines because their home becomes their work. They only have a little bit of space in their homes to dedicate to a remote space, because they moved to a place specifically so they could access the office and be around their work. Work and work events are where we meet our friends, the area around our work is where we drink and eat, we grow our routines and our lives entirely around work - because we’ve had to.
The problem isn’t so much that the office replaces these things entirely, but that the living situations created by there simply being more people in the world have created a kind of gargantuan loneliness to living. Growing up in London, I didn’t meet many of my neighbors, and the older I got the less likely I was to know anyone who wasn’t at school or at work. An alarming amount of British people claim to not know their neighbors, and similarly, a third of Americans say they’ve never interacted with them.
We simply spend more time working, or commuting to work, living in places that are convenient for work, so that we can go to work and do work. Whatever we considered a community to be - a collection of neighbors and local businesses - has become dissolved through a combination of big chains eating up local mom ‘n’ pop stores and the vast, ever-increasing cost of real estate. This all becomes compounded with the fact that there are simply more people than there used to be. More people want to buy a house, meaning more competition to buy a house (not including big corporations), meaning that people are having to move more (either to be closer to work or because their rent is too high), which means less consistency in the community, which means a community never really forms.
This isn’t to say that a community - especially a multi-generational one - is always a perfect thing, or that it doesn’t have inherent problems - it’s just been that much harder (at least in my life) to meet people outside of the office and work events. Work has naturally stepped in as a replacement for community, and the entire “we’re a family” mantra takes it a step further - work becomes your world, your family, your community, it is where you live and what you are, and as I’ve written before, this can lead to people being entirely consumed by what they do rather than who they are.
While I don’t think this is a conscious conspiracy to trap workers at the office in all cases, I do think that offices have cottoned on that people feel a lack of connection with the world around them, and that providing the basic facets of community - people to meet, things to eat, services that you need - are a way to keep people at a company. The vast GooglePlex or Apple’s spaceship are examples of where companies have taken it a step further and have literally built a community's infrastructure at their place of work.
It is possible to make friends outside of work, but it is not easy, and it’s easier to make friends at work, or around work events, or around your work community. Similarly, while it’s possible to step outside and go for a walk, it’s that much easier when you physically have to if you want to get paid. There are other ways to make friends, other reasons to go out. Still, the convenience of the workplace makes it natural - and we have become dependent on work as a place to make friends, per a study from Future Workplace that says 70% of people say that friends at work are the most crucial element to a happy work life.
So many dependencies are attached to work (other than our pay) - our health insurance, our social group and our reason to go outside. In some cases, we may even rely on companies for gym memberships, our lunch, our childcare - all in the service of enriching the corporation in relatively inexpensive ways compared to actually paying people more. Because we’re working more, we’re meeting new people less, and young people entering office environments, in particular in a new city, may find their friendships predominantly through work.
I will add that work being the place we meet people is not new, but it is going to be a conversation point around remote work. When we’re remote, we no longer have the forced socialization of sitting in a room with other people, people experiencing the same problems we have in roughly the same timeline, people that may have similar interests or at least be the kind of folks that we could grab a beer with. We may talk to them over Slack and offer to go get drinks. Still, that transformation of a relationship from a digital to a physical one is a little bit harder, and that’s if they live anywhere near you - it’s just that much easier to finish work and go grab a beer.
These are not reasons to go back to the office, but they are things that will require more analysis as more people go remote. We may see the growth of apps like Bumble (where my wife met a good friend of hers, and I’ve become close friends with her friend’s husband), or maybe everybody will become more like me - a weirdo that has made many close friends online, people that I have just one day decided to say “hey I’m in town, wanna grab a drink” and they haven’t murdered me, not even once.
The problem is that we, as Raechel said, are craving community - we want to be around people, we want to make new friends, and thus people want to go back to the office because that’s where they see people - that’s how they socialize. When I was single and remote, I’d hang out with people I knew from work, and made friends predominantly through friends I already have, which I’d…predominantly made online. And that took a level of daring to go from “you’re fun to talk to on Twitter” to “let’s meet in real life,” which has worked out well, but I can imagine might be a little weird for a lot of people.
Or perhaps not! Perhaps the younger generation is more open to making digital friendships. In any case, it’s something that I think will become a larger, more complicated debate as more companies go remote.
Deep down, though, this shouldn’t be a function of a company you work for, because you go to work to make money. If friendships grow that’s a bonus, but shouldn’t be something that you rely on work to foster, even if society has made it one of the most convenient and simple ways to make friends. I’m not even against work-based friendships - I’m just saying that “it’s where I make friends” is not a justification for a company to force you into the office. On some level, it’s free labor - it costs the company nothing extra to put you both in the same room, and if you go out and make friends, that’s just another way that the company can keep you without having to pay for it.
The majority of companies are definitely not going to start funding happy hours between geographically distributed people. It also won’t surprise me a bit if a lot of other office perks - free food, free gym, free childcare - don’t transfer to remote, as they were always things built to keep you in the office as long as possible rather than things that compensated you for work. Otherwise, Google wouldn’t have yelled at people for trying to expense food or fitness activities.
These perks were never there to make people’s lives better, or to compensate them for their hard work, but were a means of making these people dependent on the company to live.