Moving to New York a few years into the job helped, but it didn’t totally solve the problem—I was still the girl on her laptop in her bedroom, trying to make people from Twitter like me enough to meet a stranger for an after-hours drink. After you’ve left the ready-made social environment of school, an office is a natural place to look for new people who share your interests and outlook. But with no place to go to but just as many professional obligations, people working from home might have the flexibility to do everything except make new friends.
Even those who self-select into the work-from-home “lifestyle” report feeling distant from new professional opportunities, outside their companies as well as inside, Peditto told me. Deprived of desk neighbors, impromptu coffees, and any real way to, for a lack of a better term, read everyone’s vibe, she said that new hires and young people who work remotely risk remaining unknown quantities. And unknown quantities don’t become beloved colleagues, or get promoted. How you begin your working life tends to shape your professional and financial prospects for decades to come. Those who were just starting out during the financial cataclysm of 2008 and the recession that followed have had their fortunes stunted by it, and many will never recover. For recent graduates beginning work via Zoom in the twin chaos of a pandemic and a financial crisis, the impact could be even more profound.
Women—of all ages—particularly suffer when telecommuting, Berg told me, with fewer promotions and slower wage growth. Employers already tend to assume that women, and especially mothers, are less dedicated to work than their male counterparts are, no matter how hard they toil. If those same women seek permission to stay home for good—opting out of the “face time” that many of their bosses hold irrationally dear—it could encourage the assumption that they’re sitting on their couches eating SkinnyPop and watching HGTV.
Read: The coming setback for women in the workplace
Good employers can account for those biases in their work practices, and theoretically, workers can organize their colleagues to pressure management toward better accommodations, such as expansion of parental leave and greater transparency in pay. But those efforts, including forming a union, are much harder when people can’t meet face-to-face. A dispersed workforce means that employees have to go out of their way to compare experiences with one another, and that those with relatively little power have a tougher time sensing who their allies might be.
Ultimately, that might be the biggest problem of working from home in perpetuity. Workplaces are complex social ecosystems just like all other places humans inhabit, and decentralizing them can obliterate the things that make them satisfying: knowing eye contact with a co-worker when a change you’ve been begging for is finally announced. A slightly-too-long lunch break with your desk neighbor because your boss is in meetings all day. Giving a presentation to your peers and watching them receive it well. Figuring out whom you can rely on, and whom you can’t. “There’s so much unspoken that you absorb as an employee,” Peditto said. “You don’t get that right now with just a set of scripted meetings.” At home, though, you probably get better coffee.
This article appears in the October 2020 print edition with the headline “A Cubicle Never Looked So Good.”