A desk workspace in New York, Feb. 25, 2021. A year without our work friends shows what the absence of day-to-day connections showed about how we spent our days. (Margeaux Walter/The New York Times)
Since 2014, I have travelled almost constantly — touring the country and, sometimes, the world. It was pretty exciting. I had a day job as a creative-writing professor for most of that time, but I was on campus only one or two days a week, and I did the rest of my work remotely. My last office was a desperately grim room that was filthy when I moved in. There were some old, bent bookshelves, a desk from the 1960s and a filing cabinet. I never found the right chair.
I did, however, have my work friend Brian Leung, a wonderful writer and person. We would talk about the program where we both taught and which he chaired; our own writing; campus politics; and the challenges of living in the Indiana city of Lafayette (pop. 72,000) as openly queer people of color. We also talked about things that had nothing to do with work: travel, his garden, a great restaurant that recently opened and small-town festivals we stumbled upon. A good work friend can be a saving grace, and Brian certainly was that for me.
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Being on the road was fairly solitary, but the routine of travel became familiar over the years. I developed systems and coping strategies. I got to know the airline employees who worked at the airport and the crews that worked flights from Indianapolis to various destinations. They were always so kind, and we had this thing in common — too much time in airports — which made us friends, in a way, who saw each other every three weeks and could joke about that. It was the sort of casual but generous connection with strangers that we’ve lost to the pandemic.
I worked when I could, on planes, in cars on long drives to events in far-flung places, in hotel rooms late at night, while watching pay-per-view movies. Last March, when travel became nearly impossible, my entire working life changed. My events were all cancelled. Just like that, most of my income disappeared, but still, I had writing to do and some of that work is this column.
I can only answer six to eight letters a month as your work friend, and I receive a great many more. Pandemic or not, a whole lot of people are desperately unhappy at work. They have overbearing or cruel or petty or incompetent bosses. They have overbearing or cruel or petty or incompetent co-workers. They are overworked and underpaid. They are being asked to return to the office even though it doesn’t feel safe. They want advice on how to get a raise. They want to know how to get their company to reimburse them for work-from-home expenses. They want advice on how to not feel like they live at work even though, when you think about it, they do, whether they are in a cramped studio apartment or a four-bedroom house.
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They are asking different versions of the same questions many people have been asking this past year: What are we putting up with? And why? This forced period of slowing down, distanced from everything we once knew, has been a chance to find out.
After three weeks or so last spring, I had already been in the same place for longer than I had been at any point in the past six years. Instead of having to figure out how to work from wherever I found myself, I had to figure out how to get work done in my home. I had to figure out how to be still.
At first, I thought I would be writing thousands of words a day because finally, I had no distractions. But I was consumed with watching the news and scrolling through social media. This was not a wise decision because the news was overwhelming. It filled me with anxiety, and I started having panic attacks because cable news networks made it seem like we were all a droplet away from death. I got a prescription for Ativan, and suddenly, everything became more manageable.
Once a week, my wife and I would leave the house, wrapping ourselves in bootleg protective gear to go grocery shopping and find toilet paper and water, see the sun, and breathe fresh air. My wife became my work friend, the person I casually banter with, the person I have lunch with, the only person I spent time with all day, every day. Where once there were all kinds of people around, now there was one.
My office at home is pretty well equipped. I have a desktop computer and a printer and whiteboards I installed with the ambitious idea that I would use them to map out projects. There are shelves holding various editions of my books, some of which I can’t read because I don’t speak Hebrew or Farsi or Turkish or Polish. There are shelves with reference books and galleys and other books related to various projects. I have a home studio for recording “Hear to Slay,” the podcast I host with Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Most days are spent staring at people in little squares on my computer monitor because now that everyone is at home, people have found all kinds of excuses to have meetings. I have ring lights for events and television appearances because there isn’t much going to studios anymore. Also, vanity. Once in a while, a hard case of audio-visual equipment is shipped to my house with a laminated instruction card providing the necessary direction for using the equipment. Once in a while, a camera crew comes to the house wearing their protective gear. They stand 6 feet away, and I peer into a video monitor, talking to a producer somewhere else.
Almost every day, I marvel at how the world has adapted to the pandemic. I thought I was done doing public events, but at some point during last summer, events moved online and now I am back to doing several events a week, sometimes in places that would not otherwise be able to bring me to their school or town. I enjoy live events, but doing them virtually is not the same. When I walk onstage and see a thousand people cheering, the energy is absolutely electric and unexpected. It’s surreal because I’m just a writer. It’s magical because I know that we will have an experience that can’t be replicated.
And I miss the signing line, where I could spend a few minutes with readers, hearing about their lives, seeing that my work mattered maybe a little. Now, I make myself presentable from the waist up, and sit at my desk in basketball shorts, and when the event is over, that’s that.
Most of my friends with more traditional jobs are working from home, too. They’ve created office spaces in their houses. They hang out with their pets, their children, their partners. They get their work done, just as well as they did before. And a surprising number of these friends don’t seem to want to return to the office. For those without school-age children, there is time to handle the business of running a home while handling the business of doing a job. They can bake and run errands and garden between work tasks. There is no dressing up in work drag. Bras and pants with buttons and ties and high heels and a full face of makeup have been abandoned. There is no more commuting — all that time in a car, clenching the steering wheel, inching along. There is no more trying to get work done while being interrupted every 10 minutes or listening to a co-worker yammering endlessly.
But a lot has been lost, too. For all the faults of the workplace, there is a certain camaraderie that comes with life in an office. A good meeting can be energizing in a way that is hard to replicate over Zoom. We can’t head over to our favourite work friend’s office for some coffee and gossip when we need a break. It’s all Slack chats and emails and phone calls and then, whatever happens at home after work, without any distance. The work-life balance has imploded for better and worse. In many of the Work Friend letters I receive, I can see how that implosion has changed how people feel about their work.
There is a lot of unfulfillment — people who are bored in their jobs or who simply hate what they do or they hate the people they work with but cannot see a way out. A lot of women deal with condescending bosses, pay disparities and a lack of accommodations for motherhood. A lot of men are trying to figure out how to navigate the workplace as cultural norms change. People from all walks of life want to know how they can make their companies more inclusive and how to address institutional racism, or they resent these efforts because they feel wrongly implicated.
More than half of the letters I receive are from people who are looking for permission to leave their jobs. They are scared they won’t find another. They know the state of the economy and feel as though they should be grateful for terrible jobs because so many people are out of work or underemployed. They have families to take care of. They need the health insurance. They need to pay rent or mortgages. They have so few choices.
Having a job should not be this hard. It should not make people this unhappy. A terrible job, a truly terrible job, is not something we should be grateful for. It has been a year since the pandemic began. Life has changed drastically. But now, there is a vaccine. By the fall, it will be safer to get back to normal.
But it is time to reconsider what normal should be in our work lives. I am ready to get back on the road. I miss it. But I am not ready to be away from home and my little family four or five days a week, every week.
I know what I want my work life to look like — more writing, less travel, less jumping through hoops, fewer meetings that could have been phone calls. I am not sure how I can make it happen, but I am fortunate to have the flexibility to at least try. Too many people do not, which means it is time for real change around how we understand work and how we can create workplace cultures that value the workers as much as the work. There are many lessons from the past year. I hope, for the sake of everyone seeking a work friend that we are learning.
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