Remote work lashback — it’s not all wrong

Leo Postovoit at XWP has shared a pretty thorough defense of remote work. I didn’t realize remote work was under such attack, or that Malcolm Gladwell had weighed in on the subject. (Big eyeroll and groan.) Many people seem tired of Gladwell’s explanations of so many things these days. Some of his better known work has been debunked, and he seems to specialize more in bad or unpopular takes these days. But I remember seeing him speak at the center of a packed auditorium — the keynote speaker for Edmonton’s LitFest in 2019 — and it reminds me of a lot of things I miss.

In WordPress, the importance of in-person meetups to offset the alienating effects of online-only has always been stressed and maybe now more than ever. I’m sympathetic to people who want to get together in ways that seem more endangered and rarer by the year.

So let me stick up for Malcolm — a little.

I had been a remote worker for a long time in the United States before I moved to Canada where I knew essentially nobody. That made a big difference I hadn’t felt even in previous moves to new cities and regions in the states. I’m used to being an outsider, but this was a little extra — especially after 2016.

Canadian cities are generally far less sociable than in the United States, in my experience, and this seems to be something others confirm. Add the pandemic and other really difficult circumstances like death, serious illness, or estrangement in their families, and I’m sure many others found themselves reduced in their human contact to people on a screen. I can confirm that no matter how much effort you put into it, the older you get, the harder it is to build new relationships. The statistics on that are quite sad.

That said, remote work is probably the wrong thing to blame for a loss of social interaction or more serious trends that diminish local communities and social cohesion — but it can be a kind of isolation and stress multiplier. It’s not like people don’t intensify and spread their anxieties through Slack and social media too — and in many ways it seems more concentrated and harder to manage than in the traditional workplace. (It really depends on the workplace though.)

Is any of this an employer’s job to help mitigate — for the benefit of society at large? I don’t see how that could be a good idea. Whatever makes good teams in the workplace, remote or otherwise, is probably good for the larger society, but that’s not the workplace’s main purpose.

Maybe this is a particularly western or North American view, but our employers really shouldn’t and can’t be our main social organizers. That would privatize something that is properly public. So I point my finger more at the abandonment of public space and the corruption of public speech by regular people being bad citizens, bad neighbours, and deciding their only source of friends is the workplace.

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