Thoughts on Going Un-Remote

My first job out of college was an on-site support gig in my hometown. I worked 2-10pm, which was an excellent shift for that season in my life, and allowed me to avoid rush hour traffic. Then I moved to my first-and-a-half job, for my previous employer’s sister company. This meant a pay bump, a move to 9-5, and a new location in the nicer of the company’s two buildings. After a year, I was burned out on the commute, on office culture, on waking up early. I moved on to my second-ish job: working remotely for my current company, which meant no commute and also no real need to wear pants or talk to humans all that regularly.

On the one hand, it was awesome. Stretchy pants and no makeup and waking up 10 minutes before work were all enjoyable for many months. On the other hand, after about a year, I realized that I was getting to the point where I was walking maybe 200 steps a day, and that not ever brushing my hair or talking to someone who wasn’t serving me coffee may not have made for the most dignified work day.

This is a very small part of why I moved to New York. But very small isn’t “none.” After a year of cocooning into my house, I was ready to have an office again.

(It helps that my current office, which I had visited a few times while working remote, is cool as heck.)

Now that it’s been a few weeks, I can safely say that I’ve drawn a few conclusions about the somewhat-unusual un-remoting process.

The first is that being in an office makes you way more visible to your colleagues, even if you work (like I do) in a company that makes strong efforts to be remote-first. Simply by being near my coworkers and having ears/eyes, I learn all sorts of non-work things about them: who comes in to work early, who’s competing with me for the Fresca supply in the mini-fridge, who takes naps at their desk in such a way that I worried that they’d died the first time I saw it.

Very little of this is immediately related to work, but it absolutely helps build a social buffer that helps when colleagues are doing something confusing or frustrating, or when I’m doing something frustrating or confusing for my colleagues. It’s not quantifiable, but it’s important.

It’s to my company’s credit that they work to establish this buffer with/for remotes, as well—but that has to be a conscious choice, where some of that buffer happens without thinking in a functional in-person workplace.

There’s an institutional knowledge consequence of physical presence, as well: the other day I overheard a sales conversation about a feature for which I’d recently written documentation. I was able to ping the person who was talking, and send the documentation over. This isn’t life-changing, but I’m curious to see if the change has a larger impact over time. (It may not—many of the people leading those conversations are themselves remote, and so their communication has to be intentional.)

Beyond that, going unremote feels a bit like I just moved in with a bunch of penpals. My home office, because it’s in New York, leans a little younger than the overall company population. Folks at the office tend to hang out there, or with each other outside of the office. One of my coworkers lives in my building and I ran into her on the stairs the other day.

It is, frankly, very weird to have what were previously a bunch of internet-work-friends become physically present. Their personalities are, of course, the same (we have enough social chatter channels on our work Slack that I got a decent read on folks) but it is still slightly dumbfounding to me that I can occasionally see work folks in social contexts. It’s good, ultimately, but still takes some getting used to. If nothing else, it’s made the transition feel much less lonely.

I’m interested to reflect back on how I’ll feel about this in six months or a year. Right now, because of the context of my move, work is the core of what I’m doing with my social energies. (Also, I just got back from our big remote/un-remote whole-office retreat in Puerto Rico, and that was three days of INTENSE SOCIALIZATION with a lot of really wonderful people who I don’t see that often.) But that won’t be true forever, and it may not even be true in half a year.

For right now, I am glad I made the change, and glad that I have to put on pants each day, and only slightly less glad during the sweaty train portion of the morning commute. It was a good choice.

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