Within a matter of days, I found myself among many people doing the same thing I have for the last two years: working from home. Except instead of by choice, many are doing it out of caution over the coronavirus pandemic.
Which is probably I reacted defensively the morning of March 10 when I first read the title of a New York Times column by Kevin Roose, titled, “Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated.” I might have sounded too defensive: “Not for people who want to work in states where there aren’t as many journalism opportunities!” I tweeted in response.
But then again, I forgot in that moment where I was when I first started working remotely: in a suburb north of Boston, where I was becoming depressed and lonely in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment.
It would take roughly a year for me to figure things out and find my happy place, which is why I feel strongly that, under the right circumstances, working from home can be transformative, if not for work but life, which, in turn, made me better at work.
A little over two years ago, I took a job as an associate editor at CRN because the idea of covering technology — and specifically semiconductor companies and the Internet of Things from a national perspective — was too good to pass up. I also got a good offer.
But just as importantly, the job was being offered as a remote position, even though I lived in the same state as my employer’s main office. The idea of not having to take a 50-minute commute on the subway (which I previously did) sounded super attractive, and I didn’t have a car at the time, so I didn’t need to worry about getting to the office, which could take up to an hour-and-a-half for a one-way commute on the highway.
The problem, as I learned in my first several months on the job, was that working from home by yourself can be a very lonely experience. My wife, Stephanie, worked in downtown Boston, so I would go from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or even 7 until I saw another human being again. It was just me and my two cats, who are lovely but also a bit cheeky. There wasn’t even a good coffee shop within reasonable walking distance.
Stephanie and I knew that we wanted to move back to our home state of Maine eventually, but we didn’t know how we could pull that off with her current job. Most of our best friends were still in Greater Portland, and most of our family was in Maine too.
I only had a couple of friends in the Boston area, including my brother, who saved me from being completely lonely. But the problem with metropolitan areas is that they can be so spread out that getting together with people can feel like a major task. It’s difficult enough to make friends as adults. Distance just makes it worse.
The Turning Point
We initially projected it would take years for us to move back to Maine, but then during the holiday break in December 2018, Stephanie had enough. While we were enjoying a stroll in Portland with my family one night, she pulled me aside and whispered, “we’re moving back to Maine next year.”
We were both prepared to find new jobs — and for me, a new career if it came to that — so we could move back to Maine. It was less of a problem for me; at the time, Maine wasn’t included in the list of states my employer allowed remote work from. But after my wife asked permission from her employer and I asked permission from mine, we were suddenly clear to move back to our home state two months into 2019.
Moving back to Maine was a happy occasion, but it was tinged with sadness. The day we looked at the apartment we ended up with, my grandfather died after a short bout of illness. Less than a week after we moved into the apartment, my other grandfather died. But it was bittersweet, because while my family lost two wonderful people, at least Stephanie and I were living closer to them when they needed us the most.
And that’s one of the main reasons I love living in Maine: being closer to my family and my friends. It gives me peace of mind knowing that I can see my grandmother, my mother and her boyfriend or my father and stepmother on fairly short notice. I have also been able to reconnect with people I’ve been friends with since at least high school, and those friendships have bloomed again into something deeply meaningful.
There are a couple other things I also love about Maine: it is small in terms of population density, and it’s beautiful. Those two things combined means that I don’t need to get stuck in traffic to go to the beach. Or go to a park. Or go to a harbor. Or go for a hike. It also means that nowhere ever feels too crowded, even during peak tourist months.
I may not have some of the benefits of working in an office, like the serendipitous “collisions” with co-workers that can lead to sparks of creativity. But being able to work a job I like in the place I want to live means my employer gets to keep me for far longer. And most importantly, I’m happy here, which I bring to work with me every day.
The conversations around working from home, especially right now, seems to be mostly focused around how to make remote employees more productive and creative. But what’s missing from that conversation is how giving employees the choice of where they live can make them happier, which, in my experience, has made me a better employee as a result. There’s also something to be said for letting employees live in areas that aren’t nearly as expensive as Boston, New York or San Francisco.
Now, I don’t want to make working from home sound like the cure-all. For one, some people do prefer working in an office environment, which can be beneficial not just for productivity but also keeping work matters separate from personal lives. There are also those who already work where they want to live and don’t need a home office as a result. And I cannot forget all of those who have jobs that cannot be done remotely.
But with certain fields, like technology, being concentrated in metropolitan areas, there is an opportunity to more evenly distribute opportunities and give people more choice with where they want to live.