The Future of Work: The Water Cooler and the Fridge

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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An empty office is a lonely office. (Photo: BPTU/Shutterstock)

An empty office is a lonely office. (Photo: BPTU/Shutterstock)

Just about any full-time faculty member will admit that among the best perks of the job, especially when one is not forced to teach during the summer, is the option to work from home. Late each spring, the minute the very last student has flung her cap in the air for graduation, I exercise this option gleefully. Working at home, alone, in long blocks of time, allows me to concentrate while writing or doing research in ways I find difficult in the flurry of meetings, phone calls, and repeated interruptions typical of today’s offices. The rise in remote work, available to white-collar workers across a growing variety of occupations, must be one of the most beloved consequences of the online revolution.

Mario L. Small, the Grafstein Family Professor at Harvard University, is writing a book on networks and social support.

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Yet every year, but a few weeks into the summer, I inevitably find myself crawling back to the office, at first one or two days and eventually most days of the week. Well before the Fourth of July holiday, I commute to the office almost as regularly as a punch-clock worker. The reason is isolation. While many have commented on the advantages and disadvantages to worker productivity that stem from telecommuting, few have taken note that regular work outside the home remains the most important way, outside the family, of ensuring social interaction. If the rapid growth of online technology does indeed usher a new era of widespread telecommuting, we are likely to witness important transformations in how people ensure the ordinary social interactions that are essential to mental health.

Remote work is a reality for an increasing portion of the workforce. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that whereas 34 percent of employers offered a remote work option in 2005 the number had risen to 63 percent by 2013. Accounts of the number of remote workers vary widely, because analysts differ in whether they include those who work remotely only some days a week, those who work in companies with no physical office, and those who are self-employed. Still, between 17 percent and 24 percent of United States workers clearly do some or a lot of their work remotely.

Many have written on whether remote work undermines productivity. The lack of direct monitoring may encourage some workers to linger. The distractions of the Internet—NYTimes, YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, Houzz, HuffPost, Drudge Report, mommy blogs, sports columns, political commentary, and on and on—are easier to succumb to when there is no danger of a boss peeking over one’s shoulder. It is not surprising that those who work from home seem to work longer hours. Yet working from home eliminates a different set of distractions—those associated with office interruptions, nagging co-workers, and endless meetings. Whether remote work heightens or diminishes productivity probably depends on the kind of worker, the kind of work, and the kind of workspace.

But the office is not merely a place for productivity; it is also a place for social contact. A defined physical space with a set of loosely connected people working toward a common goal, the office contains the most consistent set of individuals the average white-collar worker will encounter regularly outside family. (It is also, for many, the only escape from the family.) And because employers must pay for real estate, they will pack as many as is practical into as small a space as possible. Avoiding social contact is all but impossible; making at least some friends, inevitable. I recently conducted an online study of about 2,000 adults with traits representative of the U.S. population and asked them who were the most important people in their lives, those who mattered most. One in eight named a co-worker.

But the most important benefit of office social contact is not necessarily making best friends; it is, simply, talking. For many of the ordinary but necessary, small scale but often consequential needs of everyday life—to get an opinion, to complain, to find empathy, to share good news, to check a fact quickly—what people need is not a best friend, a family member, or a therapist, but someone who is available and not a total stranger. That description fits modern co-workers perfectly. Among their greatest benefit is that they are there. For the aforementioned study I conducted, respondents were asked to recall the last time they had talked about something important to them. When I asked why they approached whomever they approached, 15 percent explained it was not because the person was especially trustworthy or knowledgeable but because they were available.

The simple opportunity to run into others may be one of the most overlooked privileges of modern work life, and the one aspect of the office that work from home can rarely replicate. The water cooler chat became ubiquitous in the workplace because talk, as water, sustains life. One cannot run into colleagues on the way to one’s refrigerator.

The Internet and mobile technology have surely changed how people relate to one another, removing the need to be in the presence of others to maintain friendships, much as the telephone did several generations earlier. Facebook, Google Chat, email, Instagram, and texting have made co-presence unnecessary for many aspects of relationships. But casually running into others online is almost impossible, and such contacts are essential for sociability, for maintaining a set of relations that, rather than being instrumental, simply are. It is not surprising that some wonder whether Facebook is making us lonely.

Recently, the CEO of Yahoo made news by terminating the company’s telecommuting program and requiring all employees to work from the office. Shortly thereafter, the Best Buy CEO drastically reduced the liberties employees could take under its own program, now expecting employees to be at work and requiring them to consult with managers if they hoped for flexibility. Months later, in an even more dramatic decision, the CEO of Reddit announced that all of its employees, once scattered across a number of cities, would be required to either relocate to San Francisco or receive a severance package. The three companies argued that interaction among workers was important to creativity and new ideas.

Critics rightly pointed out that remote work allowed people to manage today’s difficult schedules, saved thousands on transportation costs, and helped those whose family obligations involve primary care for children, elders, or the ill maintain full-time employment. Telecommuting is here to stay. Its benefits are too great and too important for too many for the trend to cease its forward march.

But these technology companies may be on to something. Telecommuting undermined the role of work as a place of social interaction, the kind that Internet and mobile technology probably will never fully replace. Consider that, well over 100 years after the invention of the telephone made talking across hundreds of miles possible, people still feel the need to meet in person.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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