WFH is not working: I traded a car payment for an office lease — and I have no regrets
Why I’m paying for an office outside of my apartment
I did something last week that was financially unwise in this COVID-shaken world. I signed a lease for an office.
I am neither an entrepreneur nor an independent freelancer. I’m a full-time reporter here at this newspaper and my salary is modest enough that I’ve never entertained leasing anything other than a small apartment. I don’t even like paying extra for guacamole.
Now, I’m committed to paying several hundred dollars per month. My conscience tells me it’s money I should put toward student loans, retirement or savings for my growing family. Instead, I bought access to a private room where I can work. It has a door, a printer and a wastebasket. There’s a microwave where I can reheat my coffee.
After months of working from home, this feels like an unreasonable luxury.
When I told my friends and family, some balked. Really? Should you be paying for that? Isn’t it easier just to keep working from home? Well ... yes.
I had penny-pinched the whole prior year to pay off my car and my last credit card, only to replace that monthly payment with an office expense.
But desperation had set in. It’s become increasingly clear that my colleagues and I cannot return to the newsroom, as the pandemic shows no sign of abating. I, along with many white-collar workers in San Diego and beyond, will be working from home for the rest of the year. Maybe longer, if that’s what our companies decide.
What was supposed to be a few strange weeks in lockdown had already turned into nearly five months of working 2 feet from where I slept. Five months of sweating through heat waves in an old stucco apartment with no air conditioning, while pounding out stories on an overheating laptop. Five months of trying to hide my prenatal vitamins and pregnancy books before live-streaming video podcasts from my bedroom.
I know that many people love working from home. It’s a beautiful freedom for the right person, the right house, or the right time. But with this new reality, I was devastated.
Every day, I missed the cool hum of the newsroom. I missed the flashing televisions broadcasting breaking news from every corner of the office. I missed the hubbub of editors as they gathered each morning to discuss our stories.
But most of all, I missed the daily structure and rhythm that brought meaning to my world. I missed the phases of my day, the mental cues that work was beginning or ending. No more packing my lunches or rushing out the door. No more commute podcasts. No daily walks to grab my morning coffee.
Life became groundhog day from sunup to sundown in one room where I both slept and worked. And it wasn’t good.
After spending the first 10 hours of my day indoors, I became determined to escape at night. I started picking up take-out meals just for a reason to see a new neighborhood or speak to a stranger. A pizza here, some noodles there. Five months later I felt addicted to junk food and resentful of my own kitchen.
Daily walks and bike rides around my neighborhood felt mind-numbingly repetitive. I stopped doing them.
My body began to ache from inactivity; my brain ached for stimulation. But I couldn’t bring myself to do much about it.
I realize this is not how everyone handled their work-from-home lives. While reporting on the topic, I learned of an entrepreneurial guy who had lost 10 pounds due to his healthier eating habits at home. I interviewed a tech worker who walked his neighborhood during every work call to reach his daily step target. My colleague, Matthew Hall, has listened to 25 audiobooks this year while walking an average of 62 hours a month. That’s more than two hours a day.
“I had a lot of stress to walk off,” he told Twitter.
But I am not these men.
I was mad about how COVID-19 had upturned my life. I didn’t choose this apartment as my work setting — as my 24-hours-a-day environment — and it felt impossible to influence that fact. A global pandemic, it turns out, is beyond my control.
I also felt the need to reject those thoughts (or at the very least, keep them to myself). It felt wrong to be unhappy in my position because I have not suffered through the sickness myself. I have not lost a dearly loved relative, either. I still have my job and my paycheck, while many go unemployed.
Most shameful of all, I have the privilege to work from home where I am safer from the virus. There are those who cannot.
I should feel lucky. But in the throes of my angst, my brain doesn’t compare my life to someone else’s. It compares what I have to what I had. And I was deeply unhappy with how my life had changed.
When I began my hunt for office space, I quickly learned the commercial real estate market is in a state of turmoil. With companies large and small abandoning their buildings, there’s an abundance of square-footage available for sublease. Coworking buildings — some of which have suffered huge declines in occupancy — are open to negotiation for private room rentals and flexible terms. Some brokers and office managers shared that I’m not the first WFH-burnout to show up at their door.
The night I signed a lease for my own office space, I cried tears of relief in my living room. I immediately dismantled my home desk and packed my office belongings back into crates.
When I was done, I felt a sense of normalcy return. Tomorrow, I would pack my lunch. I would listen to my favorite podcast while driving down Interstate-15. Tomorrow, I would leave my apartment for the office.
It’s been one week since I moved into my little work-away-from-home sanctuary. A heatwave has come and gone and I’ve barely noticed as I sit in this cool, fluorescent room. Work has taken on a structure that I enjoy — a building with walls; a time period with boundaries. Home is just home, and I can once again relax into evening meals from my cozy kitchen.
In the days since signing my lease, several peers and friends have confided that they, too, have fantasized about renting an office space. But not everyone is in a position to do so. Some murmur about sharing the cost among a group of friends who all work for different employers — a haphazard coworking space during times when coworking should be dead.
The first time I heard the phrase “the new normal,” I rolled my eyes and expected the old normal would soon resurface. In no time, it would deliver us from the dystopian novel in which we are currently living. I was wrong.
This week, I planned to wrangle my old routine back by brute force. But it’s a different road I take into a different office. When the elevator opens, the humming newsroom isn’t there to greet me.
It’s a new normal. And I’m working on being OK with that.
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