Remote Work: Building Community or Deepening Isolation?

As a purveyor of remote work resources and literature, I see people allude to the freedom of working remotely in almost countless ways. I concur: the word ‘freedom’ sums up the positives of remote work best. Freedom to relax, freedom to save money, freedom to save time, freedom to travel. You can examine remote positions through any of these lenses.

Yet out of all of the conceivable freedoms of remote work, the freedom to build one’s community appeals to me most. When I worked in-office during the short days of winter, I would leave for work before the sun came up and get home after it set! Summer days got better, but I felt the huge chunks of time missing with family, friends, and community. Remote work saves more time than just the commute: I get my work done quicker, I spend less of that working money on commuting expenses, and I can work when and how I choose. Putting this time (and this energy) back into my immediate environment is appealing.

I also love the idea of living in the countryside. Living in the D.C. area my whole life, the grass is has always been greener in the countryside! Literally greener than gray city sidewalks. Yet separating work from place permits you to live wherever you want! Sure, there are more than just work considerations (school systems for one), but it’s hard to imagine everyone else sitting through the traffic jam not sharing similar frustrations. Remote work is a tremendous privilege in and of itself, but if you’re behind a computer all day, why structure your commute, your workday, and your life so arbitrarily? The monumental discrepancies in urban-to-rural housing costs alone prove enticing.

As discussed in The Remote Work Decision Guide, remote gains in the 21st century may come to represent the opposite of the 20th, when rural populations flocked to the cities. The New York Times wrote a great article on the tragedy of the Coronavirus and urban exodus last month. How does remote work contribute? While far removed from any idyllic utopia, the chance to return to natural, holistic environment is nearly intoxicating for urbanites clustered near cities. But at the same time, American society is spending more and more time inside, plastered in front of screens. The exponential proliferation of video-streaming services in recent years is just one indicator of how we are re-distributing our free time. Yet a television, phone, or computer display is a mere abstraction of reality and our increasing dependence on these screen-induced hits of dopamine is quite troubling. (For further reading, check out this article from Forbes).

So while the freedoms associated with remote work are (I believe) an overwhelming positive under the right conditions, will we actually fall into that ideal case? Traditional, in-office jobs force considerable social interaction outside of the home. Take that away, and where do you find yourself? Free to interact with the world around you, or free to disengage even more? The answer always lies between the extremes. But where, exactly?

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