Social Debt

The dark side of working from home.

Illustration by Out Of Office

Maybe you’re one of the 36 million Americans who work from home regularly1. Or maybe you’re one of the 76% who wish they could work remote full-time2. Either way, you probably think remote work is AWESOME. And it is! My company, Out Of Office, has been fully remote since day one. Beyond the obvious cost-saving and recruiting advantages, the lifestyle benefits really do live up to the hype. You can make your own schedule, skip your commute, spend more time with your dog...but hold up. This isn’t that kind of article. I’m not here to convince you that remote work is the future, or give tips on asking your boss for a WFH day. Maybe I’ll do that in another post :)

I’m here to talk about the dark side of remote work, because it doesn’t seem to be a popular topic – especially on Instagram where the #remotejobs hashtag turns up photos of people sipping poolside margaritas, dancing on the beach, and laptopping from a dock in the Maldives (literally). Sorry to break it to you, but Instagram ain’t real.

Remote work is work that happens anywhere other than company HQ, period.

Let’s start by level setting on the definition of “remote work.” We all have that one friend or cousin or ex-coworker who calls herself a “digital nomad” and can’t stop talking about how amazing Bali is. That’s not remote work, or at least for most people it’s not. Remote work is work that happens anywhere other than company HQ, period. Your company rented office space over there, and you’re working over here. It’s really that simple. “Working from home” is working remote, but so is working from Starbucks.

The problem is that pretty much all remote work happens alone. Even if your home office is the local coffee shop, chances are you don’t talk to anyone but the barista when you’re there. We went from a world where pretty much everyone spent 40 hours a week in an office, saying “good morning” to the IT guy and making small talk around the water cooler, to a world where millions of people don’t talk to a single REAL person all day.

Even people with office jobs spend most of their day behind a screen, on email, Slack, and Google Hangouts. Don’t get me wrong, these tools are great. In fact, we use all of them at Out Of Office. But humans weren’t meant to work in isolation – we’re social, tribal creatures and we need meaningful offline relationships. Notice I said “need” and not “want,” because being alone all day doesn’t just wear on your psyche. It can seriously affect your body and even life expectancy: a study by doctors at BYU showed that social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic3.

Just like financial debt, you can easily drown in social debt if you ignore the problem.

Remote workers are especially susceptible to the loneliness epidemic, because they’ve been robbed of their 40 hours a week of in-office human interaction and casual social connections. At Out Of Office we call this “social debt,” and it doesn’t take more than a few conversations with remote workers to see how real it is. I’ve interviewed more than 200 remote workers in the past year, and I’ve yet to meet a single one who says their social tank is full.

Just like financial debt, you can easily drown in social debt if you ignore the problem. But most employers – and even remote employees themselves – don’t talk about loneliness or social debt. Maybe it’s because of the general stigma surrounding mental health, or maybe it’s because remote work is viewed purely as a perk. Don’t complain about your cushy work-from-home setup, or people will call you spoiled!

We’re in the middle of a Remote Revolution that shows no signs of slowing, and we have more freedom than ever in deciding how we spend our workday.

As office rents get more expensive and hiring gets more competitive, remote work will become even more common. We’re in the middle of a Remote Revolution that shows no signs of slowing, and we have more freedom than ever in deciding how we spend our workday. Nothing beats freedom and flexibility when it comes to finding work-life balance, but as long as we keep choosing to spend our WFH days alone, our social debt will only get worse.

At Out Of Office, we’ve been thinking a lot about the social debt problem. One thing we’ve started is Work Club, a super casual way to connect with other remote workers IRL. A typical Work Club is about 4 hours long, with 3 to 6 people sharing a big table in a cool cafe or coworking space. You show up, meet your coworkers for the day, and get to work. There are plenty of opportunities to take a break and chat, but it never feels like a networking event. It’s everything you’re missing from the office, but without the office.

If you work remote like me, hopefully I’ll see you at a Work Club soon. And in the meantime, find any excuse you can to get out of the house and pay off your social debt.

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (September 24 2019). Job Flexibilities and Work Schedules Summary https://www.bls.gov/news.release/flex2.nr0.htm

2 FlexJobs. (August 13 2019). 2019 Annual Survey https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/survey-flexible-work-job-choices/

3 David Derbyshire. Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers. (July 28 2010). Loneliness Is a Killer https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1298225/Loneliness-killer-Its-bad-health-alcoholism-smoking-eating-say-scientists.html