When I quit my job to freelance write full-time, I was most worried about money, obviously. But in very close running for second place was the fear that working from home would officially transform me into a hermit, and that it might erode my already-somewhat-shaky social skills. But here I am, almost six months into full-time WFH, and I feel … fine? The feelings of isolation and loneliness I dreaded never really materialized.
Working from home is becoming more common — in 2016, 43 percent of Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely — and the research shows that people who work from home at least part-time are happier than their full-time in-office counterparts. “Happiness” is a fairly abstract thing to measure, but Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, persuasively argues that the single best measure in this case is a company’s retention rate. In a 2015 study, Bloom found that a Chinese travel agency was able to reduce its turnover rate from 50 percent (a rate which Bloom calls fairly standard in the U.S.) to 25 percent, just by allowing employees to work from home up to four days a week. This may be great news from employers and employees alike, but what about life outside of work? What does working from home full-time — or even part-time — potentially do to our social lives, and our relationships with people in and outside the workplace?
Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever sat next to an at-work nail clipper, most people don’t seem to mind not seeing their co-workers in person. Studies show there is “no difference in relationships with co-workers, and some improvement in overall relationships with supervisors,” says Jeffrey Stanton, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University. The somewhat obvious reason for this, he explains, is that communication tools “have gotten so much better that it’s not hard now to keep a relationship going with someone you depend on, even if they’re not physically located in the same spot you are.” But Stanton suspects much of our greater satisfaction in working from home is due to autonomy, and perhaps these communication tools — like Slack and Google Hangouts — allow us to maintain relationships with the co-workers we actually want relationships with, while granting us greater freedom to ignore those we don’t. Slack allows you to create private chat rooms, which (while potentially risky from a security perspective) may encourage friendly co-workers to talk more openly, and personally, with one another. And if you don’t want to participate on the miles-long email thread about the company softball outing? You can just mute it.
Likewise, most employees feel better about their relationships with their managers when they’re allowed to work from home at least part of the time. Maintaining a manager/report relationship may, in fact, be easier on both parties, at least emotionally, when done remotely — communicating primarily over email, Slack, or Google Hangout allows the report to set boundaries that may not be possible in person, like deciding when she is and is not available to chat, and may allow managers to convey feedback more precisely (and with less fear of how it will be received). Managers who allow their reports to work from home are displaying their trust in those employees, which may make those employees more likely to want to please their managers. Plus, it’s just nice not to feel watched all the time. “A supervisor would have a harder time micromanaging a remote employee because of the relative lack of visibility into the remote worker’s moment-by-moment activities,” adds Stanton.
It’s not just work relationships that benefit from working from home, either: “Telecommuting seems to reduce work-family conflict,” says Stanton. Parents who work from home can often be more available to their children, and the same is true of partners in long-term relationships. As far as one’s relationships with those who live outside one’s actual home, Stanton suspects that working from home may make people more aware of the need to strengthen external social bonds. Someone who attends in-person meetings and makes office small talk all day may feel too exhausted for extra socializing when the workday is done, whereas someone who spent the day alone may feel extra motivated to seek it out. “A lot of people get at least part of their social circle from work,” says Stanton. “Remote workers might respond to this dilemma by strengthening their ties with local friends.”
For people embarking on a full-time work-from-home career (or maybe for those who’ve gotten a bit too used to it), Stanton suggests the same sort of things your mom might suggest you do when you complain about being single: Explore a hobby, join a club, volunteer. Making friends gets harder as you get older, and working from home may reduce your opportunities to do so organically. The good news is that it will likely make you try harder to meet and spend time with people you do care about, and that’s at least half the battle.