A Cubicle Never Looked So Good
The Atlantic|October 2020
What we lose when we have to work from home
By Amanda Mull

To have a job without a workplace, you must build an office of the mind. Structure, routine, focus, socialization, networking, stress relief—their creation is almost entirely up to you, alone in a spare bedroom or on your couch, where your laptop might vie for attention at any given moment with your pets or kids. If the coffeepot runs dry, there is no one to blame but yourself.

The first time I undertook this construction process was in 2009, and it was an abject failure. I was nine months out of college and had already been laid off from my first full-time job, thanks to Wall Street’s evisceration of the American economy. A woman I knew only from an internet message board hired me to write blog posts for her fashion website, a stroke of luck that turned me nocturnal within six weeks. I lived like a 13-year-old on perpetual summer break—no gods, no masters, no parents, no bedtime. It took two years for me to meet my co-workers in person, and I often fantasized about eating lunch with a live human being, or even just bumping into one on the way to the bathroom. What would it be like to have “work clothes” again? I had never expected to miss driving 45 minutes to sit at a desk in a makeshift office above a country- club pro shop, where, in my first full-time job, I’d done menial tasks in the marketing department.

At first, I assumed my setup would soon be common, and therefore somehow better— we’d all build our internal offices together. “There’s no stopping it,” a Reuters writer proclaimed a few months after I began my blogging gig. “The work force that fuels tomorrow’s small businesses may largely be a stay-at-home crowd.” Laptop prices were shrinking, and more employers were issuing them to their workers. Smartphones started to fill Americans’ pockets. Skype was well established as an early leader in videochat, and co-workers silently traded jokes on GChat. The Great Recession would force a reckoning in how stuffy old companies operated, and offices would soon be obsolete.

Then it just didn’t happen. In fact, something like the opposite happened: Co-working spaces sprang up for people without traditional offices, and the concept attracted hundreds of millions of investment dollars and, for a couple of years, my patronage. In 2018, I finally got a regular job. I sometimes ate lunch with my new colleagues. I bought a fancy water bottle for my desk. After a few months of commuting, I understood the allure of podcasts.

YOUNG PEOPLE WHO WORK REMOTELY RISK REMAINING UNKNOWN QUANTITIES. AND UNKNOWN QUANTITIES DON’T BECOME BELOVED COLLEAGUES, OR GET PROMOTED.

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