A Year Without Our Work Friends

My office at home is pretty well equipped. I have a desktop computer and a printer and whiteboards I installed with the ambitious idea that I would use them to map out projects. There are shelves holding various editions of my books, some of which I can’t read because I don’t speak Hebrew or Farsi or Turkish or Polish. There are shelves with reference books and galleys and other books related to various projects. I have a home studio for recording “Hear to Slay,” the podcast I host with Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Most days are spent staring at people in little squares on my computer monitor because now that everyone is at home, people have found all kinds of excuses to have meetings. I have ring lights for events and television appearances because there isn’t much going to studios anymore. Also, vanity. Once in a while, a hard case of audiovisual equipment is shipped to my house with a laminated instruction card providing the necessary direction for using the equipment. Once in a while a camera crew comes to the house wearing their protective gear. They stand six feet away and I peer into a video monitor, talking to a producer somewhere else.

Almost every day I marvel at how the world has adapted to the pandemic. I thought I was done doing public events, but at some point during the summer of 2020, events moved online and now I am back to doing several events a week, sometimes in places that would not otherwise be able to bring me to their school or town. I enjoy live events, but doing them virtually is not the same. When I walk out onstage and see a thousand people cheering, the energy is absolutely electric and unexpected. It’s surreal because I’m just a writer. It’s magical because I know that we will have an experience that can’t be replicated.

And I miss the signing line, where I could spend a few minutes with readers, hearing about their lives, seeing that my work mattered maybe a little. Now, I make myself presentable from the waist up, and sit at my desk in basketball shorts, and when the event is over, that’s that.

Most of my friends with more traditional jobs are working from home, too. They’ve created office spaces in their houses. They hang out with their pets, their children, their partners. They get their work done, just as well as they did before. And a surprising number of these friends don’t seem to want to return to the office. For those without school age children, there is time to handle the business of running a home while handling the business of doing a job. They can bake and run errands and garden between work tasks. There is no dressing up in work drag. Bras and pants with buttons and ties and high heels and a full face of makeup have been abandoned. There is no more commuting — all that time in a car, clenching the steering wheel, inching along. There is no more trying to get work done while being interrupted every 10 minutes or listening to a co-worker yammering endlessly.

But a lot has been lost, too. For all the faults of the workplace, there is a certain camaraderie that comes with life in an office. A good meeting can be energizing in a way that is hard to replicate over Zoom. We can’t head over to our favorite work friend’s office for some coffee and gossip when we need a break. It’s all Slack chats and emails and phone calls and then, whatever happens at home after work, without any distance. The work-life balance has imploded for better and worse. In many of the Work Friend letters I receive, I can see how that implosion has changed how people feel about their work.

There is a lot of unfulfillment — people who are bored in their jobs or who simply hate what they do or they hate the people they work with but cannot see a way out. A lot of women deal with condescending bosses, pay disparities and a lack of accommodations for motherhood. A lot of men are trying to figure out how to navigate the workplace as cultural norms change. People from all walks of life want to know how they can make their companies more inclusive and how to address institutional racism, or they resent these efforts because they feel wrongly implicated.