Confessions of a Freelancer: I Miss the Office Water Cooler
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because as much as we complain about commutes and cubicles, at our core, even freelancers are social beings.
My first real job was in the Time & Life Building, on Sixth Avenue just north of Rockefeller Center. I was 23 — this was before you had to endure decade-long internship jeremiads before getting a job as an assistant somewhere — and had landed at InStyle.
It was hard, thrilling work, where my duties at times scared me, like being in charge of a gabillion dollars’ worth of wedding-issue jewelry every time it came out of the magazine’s industrial-sized safe. In those early months, my more seasoned friend, who worked for GQ, would listen to my harried voice on the phone (usually during some crisis, like getting a celeb’s age wrong) and say, “My god, Anna. You sound like you work for Condoleezza Rice.”
But I was part of something. And not just a big-deal magazine, when magazines were still king, but an office family. My peers became lifelong friends. My boss came to my wedding. I learned how to dress (sort of), though professional-looking hair still eludes me. The office ecosystem, with its subtle alliances and setbacks, seasoned me in a way that college didn’t, and like most of my friends in their 20s, gave me a sense of identity.
In San Francisco, you can’t throw a compostable coffee cup without hitting some chic, working-alone-while-together office hub.
Plus, I was much better at working than I was at dating in New York City. After a series of dismal breakups, I figured I’d probably never get married. I would just marry my job.
Things turned out differently than I expected. I met my husband, moved to San Francisco, changed jobs, had a kid. It came as the shock of my life when, returning to my hour-plus commute after maternity leave, I began to seriously consider going freelance.
You could argue the timing was pretty good. After all, this is the dawn of the freelance/telecommuting age, where we can all stay connected from anywhere. And in San Francisco, you can’t throw a compostable coffee cup without hitting some chic, working-alone-while-together office hub with Wi-Fi and Blue Bottle lattes.
Not everybody’s on board, though. Marissa Mayer started a mini-firestorm when she called her employees back to the office, but for Yahoo, there’s a case to be made that the office culture was broken, and to fix it, you need people to be physically present in the same building. After almost a year of freelancing, I think she might’ve been onto something.
As we all know, a thousand emails usually aren’t worth one 15-minute face-to-face conversation. And while we pretend not to be during our commutes to work, earbuds in place and eyes fixed on our smartphone screens, we are social beings at our core.
When I left my magazine job, I knew I’d miss my colleagues and the collaborative process. I didn’t expect to miss everything else: The pointless meetings, the occasional pettiness, the IM’ing with editors when we sat 3 feet from one another. The water cooler talk of bad dates and good parties and who’s probably pregnant.
Now, before this starts to sound like some pity party about how I get to work from home, let me state the obvious: I know how lucky I am to go freelance and work flexible hours. But my recent experience has revealed a very American truth: For most of us, our office is our second family.
There is both a loneliness and strange intensity to working alone that’s unlike an office — you can feel busy and bored at the same time.
Romanticizing the workplace is a particular American quirk — I’m going to go out on a limb here and say there’s no European equivalent to the Mary Tyler Moore show. In fact, for every American TV program that revolves around family, there’s another that orbits around the workplace: Mad Men, HBO’s new Silicon Valley, even Breaking Bad and its mobile meth lab. And jobs often yield more long-lasting relationships than the home — on Mad Men, for instance, Don and Joan are still going strong, while Don and Meghan are heading to kaputsville.
Freelancing has also made me think about how our minds work when we are alone. In some ways, you can be more decisive and stick relentlessly to your vision — there’s no one to naysay you. It makes sense that some of our greatest innovators were loners.
But while I find that working alone makes you more focused and productive in some ways, it also makes you less creative. So when I’m feeling stumped, I leave my home office and go to La Boulange, since I’m not cool enough for some hipster office incubator in the Mission District.
Not only is there no Wi-Fi there, which forces me to hit my deadlines instead of reading online recaps of Game of Thrones, but being surrounded by techies talking about seed funding and moms rating their pediatricians gets my thinking out of a rut. (As a side career, I’m thinking of starting a ”Stuff I Hear at La Boulange” Twitter feed, sort of the working-from-home mom equivalent of @GSElevator, except not made up.)
Basically, we all need to brush against a little humanity every day. And at a time when telecommuting is often hailed as a cost saver, companies do need to confront a cold hard truth: Not all of us have the temperament to work alone.
Emily Dickinson certainly did; I’m not sure I do. There is both a loneliness and strange intensity to working alone that’s unlike an office — you can feel busy and bored at the same time.
Which all goes to say, it’s great to be able to take my toddler to music class instead of eating a salad in a cubicle, but eventually, I’ll need to get back to an office. And I’ll take it all: not just the colleagues and the collaboration, but the politics, the wildly inefficient meetings, and yes, of course, the gossip, too.