Remotely Working: Dealing with social isolation

Social isolation. Feeling alone. These are heavy topics, that I usually keep for my long-form essays. But this past week I bumped into many discussions around this topic in various forums. Facebook groups, hacker news discussions, and indie hackers.

It’s important to note that remote work on Corona days is different from any other day. The anxiety of a global pandemic and economic crash is intensified due to social distancing and closures that put hurdles on the already hard social life management.

What I’ll talk about though is true for remote work regardless of the pandemic, and is completely my opinion and experience from years of working remotely. I’ll try to keep it short, so excuse me for not stating obvious exceptions for some of my statements.

The office should not provide you with a social life

We are so used to socializing in the office that we forget it isn’t its purpose. Transitioning to remote work may reveal how reliant we were on a personal level to the social life provided in the office.

It might be the happy-hours, beers after work, game nights, barbecues on weekends, etc. For many, the office social life creeps into the after-work hours, leaving no time for any other social life.

At one point in my career, I found myself in a position where all my friends were from work. And I didn’t think much of it.

For the employer it’s great. We had a great connection as a team, we wanted to spend more time at work because this was where our friends were, and we never wanted to leave this work. Leaving work meant leaving friends. This was great for employee retention.

But for me? And my colleagues? I turned down great opportunities because it was no longer just about a career, this is social life. I didn’t want to start over. This would hurt me and my colleagues in the future - we basically froze our progress.

Eventually, the “family” had issues. People were let go, teams shuffled.

That’s when you realize you’ll start over anyway. And friends you used to see every day in the work context rarely stay. Making friends at work is a high-risk, low-return investment. You can do it, but you better not - for your own well being.

(Of course, there are exceptions. There are great friendships that start at work. That’s the “high-risk” part. It might happen, but why risk it when you can do something else?)

Create a social life with hobbies

When you work remotely, the option for a social life in the office is taken away from you anyway. The part above is just to let you know that it might not be such a bad thing.

But we do need a social life. My idea of how to create it, which worked consistently for years, is by having a hobby. It can be anything you like. Whatever it might be, there is a community out there. Preferably, a local community.

I found that the friendships I made through hobbies after work last much longer than work friendships. My thesis is that having to initiate talks from the day you met and having control over the place of usual meetings make it more stable.

At work, you are forced to be in the office, so when someone leaves, after years of meeting on a daily basis without any initiation from either of you, trying to initiate it yourself is weird and hard.

The hobby, by the way, might be your work. I’m a programmer, and I was part of programmers communities in the past where I met great people I’m in contact with for over 10+ years.

It’s the part of doing it unrelated to your work-day that is important.

In recent years I really got into dancing. I’m attaching a picture from one of our friends’ meetups, in hope that we’ll get over the COVID-19 situation fast enough for the meetups to come back. In the mean time, we meet in zoom calls.