Three remote workers share how they’ve found more freedom, perspective, and happiness despite the chaos of the last year.
You’re probably very familiar with your colleague’s kitchen table office by now, and they’ve seen your laundry hanging up to dry behind you more than once. Many workers have spent over a year peering more deeply inside the lives of the people they work with than ever expected. For some, it’s had a humanizing effect that’s trickled down past funny meme territory and into entirely new work-life mindsets. Kids and pets eclipsing the frame of video calls is part of life now, and having to leave early or flex your hours to focus on life has been an adjustment most have been more than happy to make for themselves (and each other). In fact, for many, the concept of reorganizing work around life (and not the other way around) has been a revelation.
According to these three people, working remotely has made life better (for the most part) for that very reason. Of course, a new approach to work/life balance is a mere silver lining in an otherwise difficult period, but maybe that’s what has made these changes so meaningful to focus on. If anything, remote work has definitively been a catalyst for transformation, and for some, it was a surprisingly positive one.
The mom of two who used to race to daycare pickup
Before COVID, I was working as a senior content strategist and my husband was working at a big financial company downtown. Our daycare pickup was six o'clock and you’d pay a dollar for every minute that you were late. So every day, as soon as we can possibly sneak out at five o'clock, we were racing to get from downtown over to pick up our kids. There would be so many nights when I would text him from the streetcar like, “I'm not going to make it.” Then to get home, to do dinner, bath time, to get him into bed on time—it was just pure, utter chaos. And looking back on it, I really don't know how we managed to make that happen; particularly when I was pregnant. I really don't know how we got through.
There were so many nights when I’d be caught up in a conversation with my boss and it's past five o'clock—and so many times that's when the “real work” gets done—and when I’d have to cut that short it’s like, okay, well, is this going to affect that promotion I want? It sucks. You feel like you can't be a great parent and you can't be a great coworker and employee, and you just kind of feel like you can’t win.
Then I was laid off, about two weeks after they shut everything down, with me six months pregnant. It ended up being okay because that solved the problem of childcare. I started freelancing because I was on maternity leave and baby #2 was, blessedly, a great napper. I was able to do a lot—not work full-time hours, but work pretty decent part-time hours while she was napping.
I’ve built it up now to the point where I wouldn’t need to go back to full-time office work.
We are fortunate to have them both in daycare right now. It gave us so much more flexibility in how we wanted to plan things, which was really helpful because there's so little that you can control right now. That took a lot of the stress out of the equation. I honestly don't know how people, without those things are doing it and have managed this year. They deserve so much more support than they're given.
For many, the concept of reorganizing work around life (and not the other way around) has been a revelation.
I can be more productive with the time that I have and then we have, say, healthier meals because we're able to walk down and get fresh food the day of, or prep dinner while we're on a call—and that's great. But it's also really hard because taking care of your kids all day is exhausting. Daycare workers deserve 10 times what they're making right now because it’s a hard job. And I think people are going really hard on the heartwarming stories of people who get to spend more time with their kids when, yes, that's true, but it also comes with so many other challenges and difficulties. And my heart breaks for single parents, who are struggling the most out of this. I really worry that people are already slipping away from being understanding.
While I'm very social and really miss working in person, I think this just works so much better for us until our kids are older and more self-sustaining. I'm grateful that we have the option, even if I don't like the way it was given to us. We get to figure out what's best for our kids and what's best for us. And then we're able to fit work in on top of that. It's just a different way to rearrange the puzzle. It's been very freeing.
The couple who didn’t have to choose between their relationship and their careers
During the pandemic, my partner's work situation changed quite a bit. His company funding was cut, leading to a lot of uncertainty in terms of his job. So when a recruiter reached out for an opportunity in another city, that led to a big discussion about how we were going to move forward. I knew that he wanted to relocate for the success of his career, but I wasn't ready to leave the company I'm at right now. I was doing well in my career, but I also wanted to allow my partner to pursue his dreams at the same time. We had just been living together for about a year and it felt like we had to decide what was more important to us: the life that we had built together or our individual careers.
We’d had discussions about what it would mean for us and our relationship if he switched jobs, and what was even possible. I think without the pandemic, it would have been a lot harder to leave our established lives. We had friends, we had family, and I had a career that was strongly rooted. The pandemic changed a lot of those interactions. It started not to matter where I was.
I was very concerned about what my manager’s reaction was going to be to me asking to leave the city, and concerned about losing my position in the company. To my pleasant surprise, my bosses were okay with it. When I said, “What are your thoughts on me working remotely from another city?” The senior VP of my company said, “How do I know you're not there already?” And that one quote was the key to unlocking this opportunity for me.
At a time when so many people were struggling to maintain work, this situation—the ability to work remotely permanently—was a huge relief. Knowing that they trust me, and knowing that when I really need them they're going to stand up and support me and my work-life balance, built a lot of trust and increased my loyalty towards the company.
When I said, “What are your thoughts on me working remotely from another city?” The senior VP said, “How do I know you're not there already?”
Without the pandemic or my partner's job opportunity I don't know if I would have ever relocated to a new city. I had this home base. My friends, family, work—it was all ironed out. To be able to explore a new city and maintain my work life has been amazing. It was a reset for me.
It has meant the world to me that I haven't had to sacrifice my own career growth to follow my partner's dreams. I am able to be a more supportive partner. I am able to maintain my own independence. I am able to continue to pursue my career goals all while building a life that works for the both of us. Not having to sacrifice one for the other—I don't think that you can trade that in for anything.
The curator who got evicted and moved to Europe
My office didn't have windows. I was commuting up to an hour and a half, one way. But I loved being in the gallery. I was exhausted for many different reasons—mainly working a full-time job with various side projects going. And when all of that changed with the pandemic, it was just really nice to figure out my own rhythm—like what time I like to eat breakfast, for example, which is actually a lot later than when I'm forced to wake up early to take transit.
Then my contract ended, and my landlords sent me an email saying they wanted to be able to turn my unit into a home office. They gave me 60-days notice. At that point I decided to move in with my sister, who happens to live in Italy, and work remotely.
I immediately knew that it would be the best decision for me. I was struggling for many reasons. I had been in complete solitude for the entirety of the pandemic. I was just sitting in my apartment alone everyday working. It was definitely daunting to pack and move and travel in the middle of a global pandemic winter, but it made sense to be with family. When have we ever had the opportunity to work remotely like this?
I found the transition really expansive. After being in isolation for so long, it felt like a step towards opening up my world a little. In Europe, remote work is so much more normalized than in North America: in Italy they call it #SmartWorking; In Croatia, where I am now, they call it being a digital nomad. There are really affordable, unique coworking spaces here. It was really interesting to see that people just do this here. It just seems more achievable.
For a lot of us, especially in the arts, 9-5 doesn't make any sense—it never made sense in a gallery. It feels really nice to be able to set the tone of my own day. I feel like I have more access to nature out here, too. I went from working in a windowless office to being by the sea.
The way work was originally set up, it wasn’t sustainable. What the pandemic has really illuminated are these fissures. It feels like a collective observation that everybody was really already exhausted. I think we're still trying to find balance, but working remotely has definitely helped open my mind to all the possibilities for creative ways of working. I like being untethered. I like working from different cities and countries. I wanted to have a global curatorial practice before all this happened, so this has been really an interesting foray into that.
If I'm being honest, working remotely has really facilitated a lot of healing that would not have happened while I was in the grind. The grind has not stopped for many essential workers or people on the front lines, but in my case, being able to slow down has been invaluable in more ways than one.