When the walls close in: pursuing health and happiness in a flexible work world
While in London recently, I had breakfast with a group of people who work in customer service. They get together weekly at a neighborhood café or restaurant—it's informal and anyone is welcome to drop by. Although they are employed by different companies, they work together one morning a week—to enjoy a little social interaction and occasionally share a bit of advice with each other. The founder of Breakfast Driven, like most in the group, works almost exclusively from home (or alone in a coffee shop). This is his way of escaping the loneliness of being a remote worker.
Several weeks later I hop out of a taxi in downtown Dublin looking for a place called TCube. It’s one of the city’s growing number of coworking spaces. I’m steps away from three iconic Dublin sights: Trinity College at my back, the Liffey river to my right (this is where the water in your Guinness comes from, they say), and before me Temple St., which no Dublin tourist has failed to trod in search of a little trad music, a souvenir rugby shirt (god they love rugby here), and the pint. As usual, traffic is heavy on the narrow roads and sidewalks, the pace is brisk, cyclists weave and brake and fall into a rhythm they can’t control, and like the rest of us, are all off to school or work on a typical Dublin summer morning, under a leaden sky and braced for a chill.
From home to hot desk
I’ve rented a hot desk for the morning to see what it feels like to relocate one of my remote working days to a room full of strangers; from my small but comfortable home office where my aging blonde Labrador lies beside me on her pillow dreaming, to what is (I assume) merely a decent enough tabletop and chair and a fast wifi connection. When I work from home it’s for a reason; I like the solitude and I get more done. So why give that up? What’s the attraction of a coworking space and what impact might it have on my health and happiness?
Coworking spaces are rapidly appearing because technology makes remote work on a large scale possible, because more people want to work remotely—at least part of the time—and because more businesses are supporting it.
Barry Alistair, the owner, buzzes me up and we meet at the top of the stairs. He’s a British Dubliner of medium height and build, short hair, and a big inviting smile. Thin black sleeve garters are pushed up his striped dress shirt just above the elbows. He points out the conference room just inside the door, the Nespresso machine on the tall reception desk sitting next to several rows of robin’s egg blue mugs, and then into the main room where the hot desks are located. It’s an old building with typically high ceilings. Two sash windows face Westmoreland St. and are partially open. Morning air and a little street noise flow in. Daylight spills across the wooden floor.
The room reminds me of most of the offices I inhabited when I worked in San Francisco. A big communal space, people at their desks staring at their laptop screens, earbuds in place, and the occasional overheard phone conversation or deskside chatter with a coworker. Familiar and immediately comfortable. Thankfully, unlike a San Francisco startup, the desks are not repurposed banquet tables and no one is sporting a trilby.
“I was working from home for quite some time and you know eventually those walls close in on you and you want somewhere else to go,” Barry told me as we later sat in the conference room chatting. I see that he was lonely working from home full-time. “I set up TCube purely and simply because I thought, ‘Well if I’m working at home and feeling isolated, I’m sure that there are lots of other people working at home feeling isolated as well.’” This was three years ago when there were no other coworking spaces in Dublin, so it was also good timing.
“I thought well if I’m working at home and feeling isolated, I’m sure that there are lots of other people working at home feeling isolated as well.” - Barry Alistair
A better kind of workplace happiness
Loneliness, clearly, is a side effect of full-time remote work, which means that flexible work arrangements may not be suited for everyone’s personality. You really have to be self-motivated to make it work. You have to fight off the bouts of uncertainty and self-doubt that can bring on the imposter syndrome, you have to stay connected with your coworkers and engaged in the work, and you also need to alleviate the isolation (at least part of the time) because it may actually be your biggest concern.
A recent New Yorker article called A Better Kind of Happiness explores the link between feeling isolated and unhappy and how that can affect your health. Perhaps to be expected, loneliness can be pretty unhealthy. Studies show that it can adversely affect how your genome functions, increasing your risk for life-threatening inflammatory diseases.
To combat loneliness, we seek social interaction and we pursue the activities that result in happy experiences, but there’s a particular type of happiness that makes us healthier. It’s a happiness built on doing something meaningful and feeling a strong sense of purpose. This is what Aristotle referred to as eudaemonic happiness. It’s a bigger, more long-term investment in the pursuit of happiness, and it takes effort. You’ve got to find your mission, or missions, in life to achieve it.
A workplace is not just about the work
In Barry’s case, one of his missions is to provide a space where people can escape the isolation of remote work and be surrounded by other people. But there’s more to it than that. He also wants to help others take a more empowered approach to their careers so that they can avoid spending years of their lives doing jobs that don’t align with their values. “What’s the point of working in organizations where you just feel stressed or not happy? Or where your values are not aligned. Perhaps a company is focused only on making money whereas you might be more focused on helping people. You’re driven to produce all the time for the wrong reasons.”
To empower people to find work that aligns with their aspirations and values, he helps them network and build communities—hosting evening meetups and other software development related events (that’s his focus), and by offering a mentor program connecting beginners with people who have more experience and expertise to share. All of this leading to enhanced skills and knowledge and new career opportunities.
The future of telework
According to data provided by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, “80% to 90% of the US workforce says they would like to telework at least part time.” There is also evidence to suggest that it makes them happier and more productive, which is why many businesses allow their employees to work from home at least one day a week. It’s a perk for employees and a good business move.
That’s the part-time remote work aspect of this, but the number of full-time remote employees is growing rapidly and many companies are being built entirely with remote workers. Some examples from the Tech industry are Automattic (the creators of Wordpress), Upwork, InVision, GitHub, and Zapier. Automattic for example currently employs 479 remote workers in 45 countries.
A recent London School of Business survey indicates that the full-time remote worker trend will continue to grow, and that by 2020, 50 percent of the workforce may be working remotely. Technology enables it by making it easier to do, and employees want it, but it also has a positive impact on the bottom-line because it lowers the overhead of having employees sitting together in an office. Given the high cost of real estate and office space in cities such as London, New York, and San Francisco, its attraction is obvious. But are that many of us ready for full-time remote work, both as workers and as managers?
The health and happiness connection
When you talk to organizations that are deeply committed to the distributed team model, they tell you that the important aspects of doing it right are over-communicating, building trust between team members, appreciating each other’s accomplishments, and occasionally getting together in-person to bond. Combined, these help to build culture among people who don’t normally interact with each other face-to-face.
It’s necessary for remote workers to find ways to connect with other people to banish loneliness, but to also lock in on what provides them with purpose and meaning. Why? Remote workers typically take on more responsibility for themselves to begin with, and have the additional challenge of keeping themselves happy and healthy in their isolation.
It’s necessary for remote workers to find ways to connect with other people to banish loneliness, but to also lock in on what provides them with purpose and meaning.
Back to the home office, for now
I’ve only rented my hot desk for half the day and it’s nearing noon so I start stuffing my shoulder bag with my things to leave. By this time, the room is almost filled. At the immediately adjoining desks are two young guys; one from Italy and the other from Argentina (Barry introduced me to both of them when they came in). Both are coders and both full-time remote workers for some big names in Tech. Are they already, or will they or any of the other people in this room become friends? I assume that like every other office setting, relationships will happen organically; built on common interests, shared experiences, and our desire for coffee and companionship. It’s probably no different here.
Barry, who’s been sitting about 10 feet away from me with well-used headphones over his ears, when not greeting and chatting with his customers, has already email-introduced me to a handful of people in the coworking space industry. My morning here has been well-spent.
If projections are accurate and half the workforce is going to be remote in a just a few years, those of us who take this path are going to want to be—sometimes at least—around other people during the hours we set aside for work. If coworking spaces become the places where we go to do that, we will encounter more Barrys—people who want us to have happy careers and can hook us up with other opportunities, which means that companies may need to work harder to retain their remote employees.
Whether you telework or not, it’s going to be a big part of your workplace experience. As a whole, we need to expand our current definition of ‘coworker’ and better understand what provides us with career fulfillment and life happiness outside of the traditional office.
Anton de Young is the Director of Relate Education and co-author of Practical Zendesk Administration (2nd Edition) by O’Reilly Media. He enjoys punctuation, stuff that comes in bottles, and the smell of wet dogs. Find him on Twitter: @antondeyoung.