Emily Articulated: Remote but not isolated

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

When I moved to Idaho, I left behind my stucco-walled office with a windowsill of plants I couldn’t kill, and returned to the age-old profession of bartending. Between the instantaneous pocket money and fast-paced shifts, slinging drinks was a job that always served me in my times of transition. No matter where I lived, I could always support myself through the simple act of knowing how to put booze in a shaker and beer in a glass.

Emily Erickson.

The most valuable aspect of having bartending in my back pocket was one that I didn’t quite understand in its entirety until after I “retired” from the industry. When muddling limes and popping beer tops, a social exchange was happening. The currency of smiles and stories was just as important as the money slapped onto the counter and deposited into the register.

Since leaving bartending and working exclusively from my computer to run a small business, the hurdles to success haven’t been the ones I expected. Instead of stressing about acquiring clients or preparing for taxes, I struggle to navigate the isolation and loss of social currency in my days. I didn’t anticipate how much the reduction in face-to-face interaction would affect me.

I’m not alone in learning to navigate this isolation. Remote freelance work, rather than the traditional 9-to-5 office job, has been steadily growing for more than a decade, changing the way we understand the workplace and employee-employer interactions. Millennials and, to a lesser extent, Gen Xers, have driven the trend since the turn of the century, putting greater emphasis on telecommuting, working from a computer and spending more time behind a screen than previous generations.

In a 2018 USA Today article, Charisse Jones wrote, “More Millennials want freelancing work than full time jobs. … Four of every 10 Millennials intend to leave their full-time employers to work as a freelancer in five years. Only 23% of Gen Xers and 13% of Boomers had the same goal.”

Even among those workers who are merely “curious” about remote freelancing, Millennials lead the pack. According to the USA Today piece: 74% of Millennials say they are interested in freelancing, compared to 57% of Gen Xers and 43% of Baby Boomers.

The benefits seem immediately apparent. Freelance and remote jobs save individuals, employers and employees money in basic costs like office space and gas spent on commuting, and in practical ways like child care and improved time management. 

According to a 2018 piece for The Harvard Business Review, writer Jennifer Moss explained the appeal of this shift: “Flexible and remote work policies are becoming increasingly popular with employees … [and] increased gratitude significantly. It also increased job satisfaction and decreased stress, particularly for parents with children at home.”

In small resort towns like Sandpoint, growing access to remote jobs can fill in the occupational gaps for people trying to live in more expensive locales. Instead of relying solely on the iffy availability of high-paying jobs in brick-and-mortar businesses, remote workers can reap the benefits of good wages without sacrificing a love of where they live.

But, based on my own experience and the current research on remote workers, all of these benefits might come at a cost.

As Moss wrote in HBR, burnout is an unexpected risk for some remote workers, who channel their gratitude toward flexible employers into over-performing: “That feeling of indebtedness can lead some remote employees to keep their foot on the gas until they run out of fuel.”  

Loneliness and social isolation, too, rank high on the list of drawbacks to working solo from home. Moss’ article cited dire research findings that suggest chronic feelings of loneliness can contribute to premature death, “and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said one researcher quoted by Moss.

All of this has me considering new ways to reap the benefits of social capital while combating the isolation inherent in remote work.

Creating opportunities for people working online to connect in the “real world” should become a focal point of the work-life discussion. Ideas like coworking spaces, coffee-shop days dedicated to remote workers and an investment in “third spaces” designed specifically for interaction are already here. In thinking about how we can keep baking connection into the new workplace equation, we can continue to grow in our careers, without growing apart.

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