The new loneliness of the remote worker

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I’m a fully remote human being. I’ve always been a bit remote from others. Ask any friend or family member and I’m sure they will tell you that even as I child I kept my distance. I never wanted to be too tied up in other peoples’ business. I kept myself to myself.

And so I have remained in work environments. I’m friendly and I make friends at work, but they are just “work buddies,” not close friends. And they easily disappear from my life as soon as we move on to new jobs or different departments. C’est la vie.

At the same time, the workplace has acted as a sort of stand in for community for me. There has always been a group of people I knew I would see on work days. We would share little updates on our lives, photos of pets and kids, in-jokes about workplace foibles. We passed around birthday cards, and went out for team happy hours.

And then, like everyone, we all suddenly found ourselves working remotely in 2020 and lost all of those small moments of human connection. For some people, this was a real trauma, and the mental health struggles have been widespread. But not for me. I was weirdly ready for this.

The resilience of an only child

I spent a lot of time alone as a child. As an only child with somewhat absent parents, I stayed with my grandparents most of the time. And I was expected to entertain myself…so I did.

I made art. I typed poems on an old typewriter. I swung myself to great heights on my custom-built swing. I made up elaborate dramas with dolls and stuffed animals. I taught myself to ride a bike by rolling down a small hill to get enough momentum to balance.

I never sought out other children. In fact, when my younger cousin came around I did my best to hide from him. He begged me to play together, but I had no interest in other kids. I was most comfortable on my own.

When it came time to go to school, I felt unprepared for the social ease of the other children. They all fell into easy play or innocent tussles on the playground, while I tried to disappear into a corner of the schoolyard, weeping quietly. I was fine in the classroom, where I understood the rules. But the chaos of unstructured social environments totally overwhelmed and confused me.

Eventually, a kind teacher cajoled some other kids to befriend me, and I played along with their games. I came out of my stunned silence and started bonding with a few of my peers. While I never became a totally socially creature, I adapted and landed somewhere in the middle of the social scale. I still prefer my own company, but I can function in social situations. The problem is, I no longer have access to social situations.

Remote work isolation

I knew I preferred working from home even before the pandemic came along. I would take WFH days as often as seemed reasonable, especially when I had focused or creative work to get done. Once I was sent home in March, 2020, I realized I never really wanted to commute to an office again.

I collaborate well virtually. Written communication is my jam, and I actually find a Zoom meeting a bit more manageable than a room full of people. So I took a fully remote job in 2021 and have been working with a team on the other side of the country ever since.

I have gained a lot of flexibility in my day, which has helped me to focus on healthy habits. I take walks around the neighborhood and do short workouts in the middle of my afternoons. But what I don’t do is interact with others, outside of Zoom meetings.

I could spend part of my workday at a coffee shop or library, but is that really human interaction? I feel much more connected to my colleagues on the other side of the country than I do to any random barista.

I miss the random hallway chats, team lunches, and and even the desk vultures. You know, those people who wander the corridors and swoop into cubicles to ask random questions or get the latest gossip. Yes, they drove me nuts when I worked in an office. But now I kind of miss them.

Slack is not real life

My current day job is my first real foray into Slack as a communication tool. I’d used it before for sundry online groups and classes, but never for work. My first day at my new job I was inundated with a barrage of “karma points” and animated emojis that sent me into a mild fugue state. WTF is this?

It’s not real life, that’s for sure. As a fully remote worker I feel the pull to be present on there, replying to threads and adding my own animated emojis to express my feelings. Is that who I really am, though? Do we really know each other through Slack, or is it just frenetic reactivity we have been trained into by social media?

On quiet days, when there are few posts and no one DMs me, I feel the loneliness descend. At least in an office I can look around and see my colleagues working. On Slack, they simply disappear, and I am left alone in my house having inane conversations with my parrot.

I am not alone in being alone

Our sense of community is broken—in the United States, and largely the entire developed world. The pandemic showed us that for most people work is the only connection to people who don’t live in their house.

Some people (lucky extroverts) join clubs and sports teams and book clubs and neighborhood associations. I haven’t done any research on this, but I would guess that those lucky extroverts are in the minority. Unless you happen to go to church or AA meetings, you likely rely on your spouse, partner, roommate, or kids to provide your sense of connection.

I lived alone for fifteen years, between husband one and husband two. I was suited for living alone, given my low need for human interaction. But even I can’t imagine what that would be like during lockdown. I guess I probably would have spent a lot of time on the internet, trying to find a sense of human connection through YouTube, or something.

Now I am realizing that my husband and I have formed a sort of hermit lifestyle, even before we were locked in the house together for three years. We each felt the other was enough. But we were wrong.

The Surgeon General of the United States calls loneliness a public health crisis. The human body was evolved to be in community, and it starts sending stress signals when other people are not around. That chronic stress adds up to chronic inflammation, which then triggers all manner of serious illness, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s.

The only way to fix this is to go back to basics. To build community around shared interests and interdependency. To go back to extended families and village life, even in cities, and even if the extended family is totally devoid of relatives. We need to replace church with something better, and we need to be together in spaces where it feels safe to be our full selves.

Don’t make the introverts figure this out. I recognize the problem, but it is the people who are good at social connection that need to build the solutions. Otherwise, we will just end up with endless book clubs that never lead to real communities.

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