Maybe we don't have to go back after all
Sans commute, we can devote (a lot) more time to other pursuits, like running
A little over a year ago, I fretted with you about going back to the office. Just the idea of it made me shudder, especially after the year or so of relative freedom I’d been given due to the pandemic — from commuting, from office politics, from having to navigate around the huge boulders of time my job consumed from my life.
Working from home made it possible to dip in and out of work like it was a social media feed; I’d work on a project for an hour or two here, then step out for a walk with our golden retriever Twix. Later, I’d work on a different project for half an hour to an hour, then run an errand or hop over to the grocery store. And after that, I’d be here when my son got off the school bus, and could run on the treadmill for 30 minutes or so before checking off a few last items for the day.
The prospect of going back to the office threatened to end all of that. Gone would be getting together for lunch with my old college friend Jim on Fridays, as would heading over to the Chattahoochee River park for a run at lunch when the weather was nice. Instead, I’d be stuck in a hermetically-sealed glass and steel tower again for hours on end every day, aching with melancholy as I stared out the window.
(And I’d be lucky to be near a window for part of the day, at least; much of the rest of my time would be spent in windowless conference rooms, the glare of fluorescent lights overhead.)
I was certain it was going to happen. Even after I changed jobs in mid-summer last year — with a promise that we’d work from home and return to the office only on a hybrid schedule, with just a couple of days a week in-office — I doubted my new company would be able to resist asking (requiring?) everyone to come back full-time.
At some point, I told myself, the fairy tale had to end.
Well, here’s the thing: so far, it hasn’t. And what’s more (where I work at least), the framework of spending a little time in the office and a lot more out of it seems to be sticking.
Even now, more than a year into my new job, it’s still hard for me to believe it can last. I worked for so long in offices, that some days I feel like I’m going to wake up Dorothy-style back in a black-and-white world again, telling Auntie Em what it was like in the before times.
This all coalesced in my mind this week as I read a recent post from a new Substack newsletter I’ve just discovered called House of Strauss, which is written by a sportswriter named Ethan Strauss, who himself started working from home full-time last summer.
The post, titled “Work From Home Is Good,” digs into plentiful detail about how remote work has transformed the office since Covid first appeared back in 2020. (In fact, it’s made the “office” more of a concept than an actual, physical place, when you think about it.)
He brings lots of stats to his argument — especially some eye-popping numbers compiled back in June by the blue-chip consulting firm McKinsey, which found that 58 percent of job-holders in America can work from home full or part-time, and 87 percent (!!!) want to. “When offered, almost everyone takes the opportunity to work flexibly,” their report says.
Why even make an argument, you might ask, when the good things about working from home seem so self-evident? Well, Strauss points out, there are some big names with big megaphones out there trying to undo it.
You may have heard about the one he highlights most prominently: Malcolm Gladwell, an author who’s books and podcasts I’ve enjoyed immensely, gave an interview earlier this month in which he trashed the very idea of remote work:
“It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected,” the Canadian writer said.
“As we face the battle that all organizations are facing now in getting people back into the office, it’s really hard to explain this core psychological truth, which is we want you to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary.”
“And we want you to join our team,” Gladwell continued. “And if you’re not here it’s really hard to do that.”
“It’s not in your best interest to work at home,” he said. “I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?”
“Don’t you want to feel part of something?”
Gladwell added: “I’m really getting very frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to explain this effectively to their employees.”
“If we don’t feel like we’re part of something important, what’s the point?” he said. “If it’s just a paycheck, then it’s like what have you reduced your life to?”
As much respect as I have for Gladwell’s work, I couldn’t disagree with him more on this. Why? Because I’ve worked in the past for companies with precisely the kind of culture he’s describing: ones that prized belonging and commitment, and expected employees to demonstrate it — largely by clocking hours way beyond 40 hours a week.
I don’t have anything against working hard (though, of course, it’s not my preference 😉). It’s fun to be part of a team of people who feel a sense of mission about what they’re doing and care tremendously about doing it well, even when it means sacrificing time we’d spend with friends and family.
But I’ve also had experiences in which that sense of dedication has been abused, as I’m sure you have. Employers sometimes ask too much. And because most of us aren’t named Musk or Gates or Bezos, we’ve felt we had to suck it up, so our commitment won’t be questioned.
Recently, I spoke with a friend of mine who also was a colleague twenty years ago, when we worked for a company that asked for the kind of total commitment I’m describing. Yes, there were times when it was exhilarating. But it’s also really intense, and we both agreed we just don’t have room for that kind of intensity anymore. Not for relationships outside our families, anyway. It’s just too much. We don’t want to go back.
Remote work, of course, changes this whole equation. And because it’s become so widespread now these past couple of years — a change that feels permanent, as best I can tell — we’re seeing people like Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary say things like this:
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with running? Actually quite a lot.
I’ve talked with many of you recently in replies to emails, in the comments and in our mobile app Threads about goal races and distances you’re training for in the upcoming months. And I’m hearing about some pretty ambitious goals, from marathons to 50-kilometer races, and even distances beyond that.
Those are… ambitious goals, to say the least! They require that a runner set aside a lot of time from her everyday life, many hours every week. Hours that, before the pandemic, were hard to come by if you had a full-time job (and even harder if you had a family and a full-time job).
But now, if you’re lucky enough to work from home, they’re suddenly easier to find. You don’t have to run at 9 or 10 o’clock at night. You can run in the middle of the day. Instead of limiting your run to 2 to 3 miles because you have to leave early for work, you can run 5 or 6 or 7 miles.
Goals that once might have seemed out of reach, now are plausible. You really can train for the really long distance you’ve always wanted to run, or simply spend more time out on the trails. You are freer to pursue dreams and goals that aren’t connected to your career — you have the time to pursue avocations, not just your vocation.
Back in the 90s, I remember stumbling across an obituary that I’ve never forgotten. It told the story of a man who lived here in Atlanta where I live, who had started a business and sold it. He also loved wine, and kept a wine cellar in his home with dozens of bottles of all different vintages. He also loved traveling, and took frequent trips around the world with his wife. He had children and grandchildren, and spent time traveling to see them.
What struck me about him is that his life was so multi-faceted; he wasn’t defined by a single thing he did, be it his career or a single accomplishment. Rather, he looked at his life like a garden he tended, in which there were many plants growing. Some bloomed at one time, others at another time. He spent some time tending to them all, and it seemed like a full, rich way to live a life.
That’s what I hope we all get to enjoy, as much as possible, from the changed landscape that flexible, remote work seems to have brought us.
What about you? Do you work at home, either full or part time? Has it made it more possible for you to run more, or aim for a goal you might not have otherwise? I’d love to hear how you’re taking advantage of a more flexible schedule — or any other thoughts you have!
As always, keep in touch and let me know how it’s going.
Last week we began piloting a fun new community offering called Threads, which is kind of like a giant group chat for The Half Marathoner. It’s free and available to anyone with an iOS smartphone or tablet. To join us, get the app below!