Rachel Carlsen hated working from home. Each day, she sat alone at a desk at the foot of her bed, staring at a screen. It was utterly depressing, she told her best friend, Lily Andrules, as they shared a bottle of wine one Saturday night in May.
Immediately, Andrules devised a solution: Carlsen should come over to her (much larger) apartment every day, she said.
They could work together.
Two days later, Carlsen showed up with the entire contents of her desk — a monitor, a tape dispenser, a potted plant — piled into the back of a car. The friends quickly fell into a routine. Carlsen arrived every morning a few minutes before 9, opening the door with her own key. In between meetings, Andrules would call upstairs to Carlsen’s makeshift office: “Need a cup of tea?”
As coronavirus case numbers soar with the rise of the delta variant, many employers are delaying their return-to-office dates. And while that’s welcome news for a lot of people, some are dreading a stretch of colder months that could look a lot like last year: endless days spent inside, with human contact relegated to screens.
Across the country, friends are devising another way forward. Now vaccinated, they are meeting up in each other’s homes and at coffee shops and co-working spaces. They are watching each other nail the important meeting and wrangle that stressful conversation with their boss. They are learning the names of their friends’ favorite (and least favorite) colleagues. These friends have discovered the ultimate pandemic life hack: Working remotely need not mean working alone.
“Your options are not ‘in the office, with other people, 9 to 6 every day’ or ‘miserable and alone in my small apartment,'” journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote in April. There is a third option, she writes, where she finds her “version of a full life.”
When Katie Chiou started her first job after college, in August 2020, she worked out of a tiny New York City apartment she shared with a roommate she didn’t know very well, putting in between 70 and 80 hours a week as an investment banker. “I was either at my desk or I was sleeping,” she said. Her bed and her desk were less than 10 feet apart.
She’d expected the long hours when she took the job in 2019, she said. But back then, she thought she’d have a cohort: a group of other people her age, available to commiserate around the coffee machine at 10 p.m. Alone in her apartment, she said, her mental health took a major hit. Whenever she walked farther than a half mile from her house, she said, she’d “freak out,” afraid she’d miss something important.
After she got vaccinated, Chiou said, she texted three of her closest friends to see if they would want to work in the same space. They started congregating two or three times a week, always imposing on the friend with the biggest apartment.
There are a lot of benefits to working with friends, said Beth Schinoff, a professor at the Boston College Carroll School of Management who specializes in work relationships. Especially at toxic workplaces, she said, it can be easy to go down a “negative rabbit hole,” where you internalize criticism and start feeling bad about your work. A friend can be a “buffer” between you and your negative thoughts, she said, who can help keep things in perspective.
When you work with a friend, she said, “there’s a glimmer of hope sitting next to you.”
For the two months Andrules worked at home with Carlsen, her friend was her “moral compass,” she said. They would often come talk to each other during the work day, she said, especially when they needed advice. Working remotely, Andrules said, she’d often wonder whether she was misinterpreting something someone said on Slack or in a Zoom meeting. In those moments, she said, she’d wander up to Carlsen’s office in the attic and ask her: “Can you tell me how you see this?”
A coworking partner can also make you far more productive, said Schinoff: If you’re sitting next to someone else who is working, you’re less likely to waste 20 minutes on Instagram.
“Even if you’re working on two totally different things, you’re keeping each other in check,” she said. “It may prompt deeper flow states,” helping you to become more thoroughly immersed in your task.
These kinds of coworking partnerships have the potential to deepen friendships, said Schinoff, inviting friends into a part of our lives they never experienced before. At her house, Andrules worked on the floor directly below Carlsen, and could often hear her through the walls. When she heard her speaking on an important meeting, she said, she’d feel “a sense of pride.”
“You’re like, oh, she’s being professional. I love it. You got this.”
These friend coworking situations won’t always work out, said Schinoff. When you are working with someone you love, she said, it’s easy to get distracted. You might end up talking when you should be working. And while that might be fine for a few days, she said, it’s not sustainable.
There can be logistical difficulties, too, said Andrea Valeria, a remote work specialist based in Mexico City. If everyone is on meetings simultaneously, there might not be enough rooms to accommodate the different conversations. You have to think about the number of available workspaces and outlets, she said — and the strength of the Wi-Fi.
How to make it work
To cowork successfully, the first step is to pick the right friend. Not all friends should be coworkers, said Chiou. When considering which of her friends to ask to work remotely, she asked herself: Am I close enough with this person to set boundaries? If she had to put on her headphones and work super-intensely for an hour without speaking, would that be OK?
Whenever she had a particularly busy work day ahead, Chiou said, she would text friends in advance to let them know.
Schinoff recommends setting guidelines ahead of time. Friends could even make a “coworking contract,” she said, covering important issues like Zoom etiquette (do you go into another room?) and interruptions (when are they allowed?). Friends might consider creating their own code for when it’s OK to talk and when it’s not. Headphones, she suggests, could be a do-not-disturb signal.
When Andrules wanted to talk to Carlsen, she said, she would walk up the stairs and slowly open the door. If Carlsen said, “Hi,” the coast was clear: She could go inside and chat.
Carlsen’s office reopened in July. She went back full time for a few weeks, but recently started splitting her time: a few days at work, a few days with Andrules.
Sitting in an overly air-conditioned office, she said, she missed her friend.