My warm feet stung the cold wooden floor as I walked downstairs to get a glass of water. It was 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in the middle of winter. Boston winter. I was staring down the barrel of another solitary day of work in my living room.
Starting a software business by myself, in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic; loneliness owned me.
Loneliness owned a little bit of all of us during the lockdowns. Unfortunately, even after the pandemic recedes, studies show that loneliness is here to stay with 79% of young adults reportedly feeling lonely.
This at a time when digital connectivity has never been stronger and yet we are lonelier than ever. It’s clear we are craving in-person connections over digital ones.
I have a friend who just last week left her remote job to take a job for less pay and with a longer timeframe to promotion just so that she doesn’t have to work from home and can go into an office every day.
But as office leases roll over, companies will have little incentive to provide physical office space to their employees. It’s an eventuality, barring a few exceptions, that the future of work will be entirely remote. For a country dealing with deep social isolation issues, this is scary.
But it shouldn’t be scary, it should be exciting. I believe the remote work revolution will allow us to reorganize in novel ways and all but end the loneliness epidemic for young people.
Working remotely ≠ Work from home
Because of the pandemic, “working remotely” is all tied up with “working from home.”
The real revolution is that the physical workspace has been divorced from the employer. That’s the massive change. Not that we can sit on our couch alone all day with our feet up smearing Cheetos dust all over our keyboards.
We are still in the infancy of working remotely. In the future, I don’t think it will have anything to do with working from home. Not only because of the psychological toll it takes to work and live in the same space (many psychologists will later say “It’s worse than smoking a pack a day” or something, I’m sure). But more so because of the exciting potential to be with your favorite people during work hours, instead of a random smattering of individuals whose paychecks happen to come from the same business entity.
Remote work grants us Freedom of Association
It was always bizarre to me that I was forced to spend 40+ hours a week with my coworkers, the majority of whom I didn’t do any actual work with nor did I share any common interests. It’s like infinitely more time than I spend with any of my family or friends.
Freedom of association during work hours gives us the opportunity to organize offices around shared interests and friendships first, perhaps profession second, shared values, and so on. Name of Employer drops to like 6th on the list of priorities.
Loneliness costs employers billions due to stress-related absenteeism, lower productivity, and decreased performance.
It’s not hard to imagine remote companies offering a monthly allowance, say $500 month (like a car allowance) for employees to rent an office space of their choosing.
Okay, so we have our stipend, now which office environment are we going to choose?
Reorganize in physical spaces to strengthen existing friendships and develop new ones
The simplest formula would be to co-work in space with your existing social circle. But for some, perhaps this would be a little like working from home in that the psychology of mixing your leisure space and workspace is unhealthy.
Let’s assume coworking spaces will try to reorganize offices around something deeper, the essential ingredients of social connection. In order of priority, it goes something like this:
- Shared interests (confidence in shared values and therefore trust),
- Shared experience OR playing/working together with stakes (reveals true selves)
- Medium to long-term commitment to the physical space (accountability)
1. Organize around interests and shared values
The most important ingredient is having shared interests, and potentially, values too. The exact axis of organization is highly debatable. Not all interests are created equal in the eyes of potential positive social connections.
For example, a coworking space built around the brand identity “likes to watch reality TV” might not be deep enough. But, an office built around supporters of Bitcoin just might be. If you’re a diamond-hands bitcoiner, you’re probably financially literate, open to new ideas, and have a libertarian tint to your politics. These are deep values that automatically sort people just by branding an office as a “Bitcoin” coworking space, like this one in Austin.
So the “interests and shared values” axis could be anything from hobbies, political affiliation (although I don’t recommend this), profession, or potentially even which podcast, Substack, or YouTube channel you watch since these niche mediums are automatic interest sorters in and of themselves.
2. Shared work/play experiences
This could be professional or a hobby or both. If you organize around profession, there’s a good chance you might work on things together. A coworking space full of graphic designers would certainly bounce ideas off one another. Like coworking space Pentagram in NYC.
If you organize around something like a hobby, the office will need to be intentional to create play between co-workers. It’s a form of icebreaking, sure. But real connections don’t get made unless you’re working or playing with someone and there are some sort of stakes. Meaning, there is something to be won or lost depending on the outcome of the activity.
Work or play with stakes reveals our true colors. These shared experiences move us from “that person seems interesting” to “I’ve been to war with that man, I will die for him.” Something as simple as a pickup basketball game or playing music together on stage can move the needle from the former to the latter.
Once you have a meaningful shared experience with someone, you have a shared memory together. That memory becomes a little part of who you are and so too does that person.
3. Medium to long-term commitment
I’m not sure how a coworking space would do this other than having people commit to a year-long lease.
As anecdotal evidence, I can say that even when the first two boxes are checked (shared interest and meaningful shared experiences), you don’t necessarily get lasting social connections without a medium to long-term commitment to a physical space.
Traveling in Mexico during the pandemic was a great example of the first two criteria for me. Shared interests and values; we weren’t afraid of getting COVID, were adventure seekers, and had the ability to travel while working (a lot of entrepreneurs at the time).
Above the normal experiences of playing sports and partying together, we were navigating a foreign land seeking food and shelter. This carried with it some real stakes and stress revealing people’s true nature along the way.
And although this is the recipe for making new lasting friendships, I’ve lost touch with almost all of those I met in Mexico. This is due to the transient nature of nomadic living. How close can you get to someone if you’re most likely never going to see them again? What’s the point of staying in touch if I’ll only ever see your Instagram stories from now until I get too old to work my phone?
Commitment to a shared physical space makes people accountable. It also increases the likelihood that the effort required to build a new relationship will pay off in a longer-term friendship.
Remote work allows us to reorganize into optimal social settings while during work hours. Remote from our employer but in person with those that we want to be around.
This could be the antidote we’re looking for to help solve the loneliness crisis. Let’s reorganize coworking spaces around existing friendships, professions, interests, hobbies, and values. Build spaces that force work and play between patrons. Commit to a physical space so that people can build trusting, lasting relationships.
I haven’t found a coworking space in my home city of Boston that has been built around a common identity. The closest I’ve found is a cafe that’s near my gym. There are some shared interests perhaps because of the overlap in people I see in both places but not a deep enough interest to encourage real connections.
I’m curious to see what happens when coworking spaces go deeper into niches. The deeper the interest or value, the more confidence people will have to approach one another and make new social connections.