Grab a friend – working from home doesn’t have to be lonely

After 17 months of working from home, it can feel a bit lonely. But it doesn’t have to, Caroline Kitchener writes about the people that decided to work with friends

Sunday 29 August 2021 00:00
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Rachel Carlsen hated working from home. For 10 hours a day, she sat alone at a desk at the foot of her bed, staring at a screen. It was utterly depressing, she told her best friend, Lily Andrules, as they shared a bottle of wine one Saturday night in May.

Immediately, Andrules devised a solution: Carlsen should come over to her (much larger) apartment every day, she says.

They could work together.

Two days later, Carlsen showed up with the entire contents of her desk – a monitor, a tape dispenser, a potted plant – piled into the back of a car. The friends quickly fell into a routine. Carlsen arrived every morning a few minutes before nine, opening the door with her own key. In between meetings, Andrules would call upstairs to Carlsen’s makeshift office: “Need a cup of tea?”

As coronavirus case numbers soar with the rise of the Delta variant, many employers are delaying their return-to-office dates. And while that’s welcome news for a lot of people, some are dreading a stretch of colder months that could look a lot like last year: endless days spent inside, speaking only to people on screens.

Across the country, friends are devising another way forward. Now that they’re vaccinated, they are meeting up in each other’s houses, coffee shops and co-working spaces. They are watching each other nail the important meeting and weather that stressful conversation with their boss. They are learning the names of their friends’ favourite (and least favourite) co-workers. These friends have discovered the ultimate pandemic life hack: working remotely doesn’t have to mean working alone.

“Your options are not ‘in the office, with other people, 9 to 6 every day’ or ‘miserable and alone in my small apartment,’” journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote in April. There is a third option, she writes, where she finds her “version of a full life”.

When Katie Chiou started her first job after college in August 2020, she worked out of a tiny New York City apartment she shared with a roommate she didn’t know very well, putting in between 70 and 80 hours a week as an investment banker. “I was either at my desk or I was sleeping,” she says. Her bed and her desk were less than 10 feet apart.

She’d expected the long hours when she took accepted the job offer in 2019, she says. But back then, she thought she’d have a cohort: a group of other people her age, available to commiserate around the coffee machine at 10pm. Alone in her apartment, she says, her mental health took a major hit. Whenever she walked farther than a half mile from her house, she says, she’d “freak out”, afraid she’d miss something important.

After she got vaccinated, Chiou says, she texted three of her closest friends to see if they would want to work in the same space. They started congregating two or three times a week, always imposing on the friend with the biggest apartment.

There are a lot of benefits to working with friends, says Beth Schinoff, a professor at the Boston College Carroll School of Management who specialises in work relationships. Especially at toxic workplaces, she says, it can be easy to go down a “negative rabbit hole” where you internalise criticism and start feeling bad about your work. A friend can be a “buffer” between you and your negative thoughts, she says, who can help keep things in perspective.

Friends might consider creating their own code for when it’s okay to talk and when it’s not. Headphones, she suggests, could be a do-not-disturb signal

When you work with a friend, she says, “there’s a glimmer of hope sitting next to you”.

For the two months Andrules worked at home with Carlsen, her friend was her “moral compass”, she says. They would often come talk to each other during the work day, she says, especially when they needed advice. Working remotely, Andrules says, she’d often wonder whether she was misinterpreting something someone says on Slack or in a Zoom meeting. In those moments, she says, she’d wander up to Carlsen’s office in the attic and ask her: “Can you tell me how you see this?”

A co-working partner can also make you far more productive, says Schinoff: If you’re sitting next to someone else who is working, you’re less likely to waste 20 minutes on Instagram.

“Even if you’re working on two totally different things, you’re keeping each other in check,” she says. “It may prompt deeper flow states,” helping you to become more thoroughly immersed in your task.

These kinds of co-working partnerships have the potential to deepen friendships, says Schinoff, inviting friends into a part of our lives they never got to experience before. At her house, Andrules worked on the floor directly below Carlsen, and could often hear her through the walls. When she heard her speaking on an important meeting, she says, she’d feel “a sense of pride”.

“You’re like, oh, she’s being professional. I love it. You got this.”

These friend co-working situations won’t always work out, says Schinoff. When you are working with someone you love, she says, it’s easy to get distracted. You might end up talking when you should be working. And while that might be fine for a few days, she says, it’s not sustainable.

There can be logistical difficulties, too, says Andrea Valeria, a remote work specialist based in Mexico City. If everyone is on meetings at once, you might not have enough rooms to accommodate all the different conversations. You have to think about the number of available workspaces and outlets, she says – and the strength of the wifi.

To merge work lives successfully, the first step is to pick the right friend. Not all friends should be your co-workers, says Chiou. When she was considering which of her friends to ask to work remotely, she asked herself: am I close enough with this person to set boundaries? If she had to put on her headphones and work super-intensely for an hour without speaking, would that be okay? Whenever she had a particularly busy work day ahead, Chiou says, she would text friends in advance to let them know.

Schinoff recommends setting guidelines ahead of time. Friends could even make a “co-working contract” over a glass of wine, she says, covering important issues like Zoom etiquette (do you go into another room?) and interruptions (when are they allowed?). Friends might consider creating their own code for when it’s okay to talk and when it’s not. Headphones, she suggests, could be a do-not-disturb signal.

When Andrules wanted to talk to Carlsen, she says, she would walk up the stairs and slowly open the door. If Carlsen says, “Hi”, the coast was clear: she could go inside and chat.

Carlsen’s office reopened in July. She went back full time for a few weeks, but recently started splitting her time: a few days at work, a few days with Andrules.

Sitting in an overly air-conditioned office, she says, she missed her friend.

© The Washington Post

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