What’s more, for many workers, their emotional relationships with colleagues have changed because their spatial relationships with those colleagues have changed. Many white-collar companies have become virtual group chats punctuated by Zooms. This is not business as usual. Online communications can be a minefield for mutual understanding, as Bill Duane, a former Google engineer and a corporate consultant, told me. Silly office interactions, Duane says, can be “carrier waves” for productive office work. Without them, our lovable yet complicated colleagues can be reduced to annoying abstractions.
Working from home, our connection to the office weakens, and our connection to the world outside the office expands. At the kitchen counter, hunched over your computer, you are as close to the people and communities on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram as you are from the Slack messages and chats of your bosses and colleagues. By degrees, the remote experiment can weaken the bonds between workers within companies and strengthen the connections between some workers and professional networks outside the company.
As people realize that their connection to the office is virtual, more Americans may take on side gigs and even start their own companies. The very tools that co-workers use to stay connected—such as cultivating online a polished version of yourself to a group of people you don’t see particularly often—can be repurposed to go solo. Ambitious engineers, media makers, marketers, PR people, and others may be more inclined to strike out on their own, in part because they will, at some point, look around at their living room and realize: I am alone, and I might as well monetize the fact of my independence. A new era of entrepreneurship may be born in America, supercharged by a dash of social-existential angst.