03 / 06 / 2020

The Misery of Working from Home (or We Have to Stop Meeting Like This)

For people who enjoy the spontaneous collaboration of the workplace, being confined to working from home because of the coronavirus is a little like living in The Twilight Zone.

Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian

In early May, at approximately week seven of our confinement — but who’s counting? — articles started to appear suggesting that most people who have been working from home actually prefer it. As a devout contrarian, I feel obligated to proffer my dissent: Are you f—ing kidding me?

I have never felt less productive in my life. I’d even go so far as to say mildly unhinged, like the guy in that Twilight Zone episode, “Where is Everybody,” who’s walking around an empty town where there have GOT to be other people because the coffee is still brewing in the diner. It may eventually turn out that I’m in an isolation booth testing my mettle to be the latest SpaceX volunteer, but that’s small consolation since right now the disembodied voices on the phone and Zoom avatars that are happening do nothing to reassure me that there’s really anybody out there.

See, what’s most frustrating is that despite all the extra phone calls, additional clarifying emails and time-lagged video chats now required in order to stay in touch, I’ve never felt less connected to the people I work with. At the same time, I’ve never been busier — not in a good way, but in a way that leaves me feeling drained and bleary-eyed, as if I’ve done nothing but watch TV and eat Swedish Fish all day.

Beyond the three square meals, what I really need are face-to-face meetings. They don’t even have to be around a conference table. I’ll be happy when I can again discuss a stack of résumés with a colleague in the brisk 30 minutes it used to take. Working from home, it takes at least twice as long by email and feels even longer. And I can’t wait until we can again have impromptu gatherings around a desk and bounce ideas off each other in real time, because it’s in those casual conversations that some of the best connections are made.

As it is now, by the time an idea is bounced back to me online, I’ve often moved on to a different one. What were we talking about? Oh yeah.

And I, for one, am looking forward to the day when the whole office — all 12 of us — can get together around the table for a good old-fashioned meeting, complete with bananas, coffee and everything else we used to take for granted. I know some people disparage meetings as time sinks that interfere with getting work done. But, to me, meetings are the most stimulating part of the workday, and the place where I feel people are most productive. I miss ‘em, dammit. (And while I’m at it, I miss my open-office plan, too, so don’t even talk to me about replacing it with walls.)

I’ve heard the arguments in favor of working from home:  no commute, less traffic, fewer interruptions from people wanting to talk about their dog. Though it might work for some people in a few types of jobs, it doesn’t work for me. I did it once, years ago, and quickly realized that my days were spent trying to get people’s attention from a distance — a constant poke, poke, poke. What I may have gained in terms of being organized was far outweighed by the lack of face-to-face human interaction.

I need the hustle and bustle of the office. It keeps me motivated. It’s the lubricant that keeps my wheels turning and, as strange as it sounds, makes me feel most at home while I’m at work. I can’t wait to get back.