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The Loneliness of Remote Work

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines, and author of two self-published titles on Amazon.

Snack breaks at work had a way of bringing people together.

Snack breaks at work had a way of bringing people together.

Three in the afternoon hits, and I remind myself to make a cup of coffee. Instant coffee has become the go-to in my work-from-home routine, but I long to be able to leave the apartment just to grab a cup of the overpriced stuff. Being unsatisfied with and tired of homemade, instant coffee is such a good problem to have.

But I’m not annoyed by the fact that cheap coffee has become the norm. Rather, it is the fact that I have to set a personal reminder for myself to get coffee at 3 p.m. Back when I worked in an office, not even a digital reminder was necessary. We didn’t even need to look at the clock for us to know that it was time for an afternoon coffee break.

Back then, a phone call courtesy of the company's internal communication system would signal that a snack break was waiting for us. Fresh pandesal had arrived at the pantry—bring your mug and maybe a stick of instant coffee.

See, instant coffee was a thing in the old normal, too—don’t ever forget that. We weren’t all about lining up at Starbucks when it was payday or waiting for our order number to be called at McDonald’s if money was tight.

The snack breaks of the old normal remind us how different our world has become. Congregation was secretly encouraged, and social distancing was only for those who owed a coworker some money.

Three in the afternoon was such an ideal time to come together and stop whatever it was that we were doing. It was a mutual acquiescence that whatever important work that was left to do was either done or now became tomorrow’s problem. Remembering those afternoon coffee breaks, I don’t think we ever talked about work. Work talk seemed off-limits and was reserved for morning standups or post-lunch chatter.

Breaking the Monotony

Under the new normal, how do we break the monotony? As a remote worker, it seems like there are now a bunch of ways to take an afternoon break that were inaccessible back when I worked in person in an office. Whether it’s as onerous as doing a little bit of laundry, or as gratuitous as watching an episode of Modern Family, a work-from-home employee can break the boredom in so many ways. But somehow, it’s not the same, or it’s way short of producing the desired effect.

Work, for many, can be repetitive, routine, unsurprising, bland, unemotional, boring . . . I’m running out of adjectives. Accountants can look at spreadsheets all day. Lawyers can read cases and draft pleadings day in and day out. Consulting physicians can examine patients as if they come in and out of a revolving door. The point is, at some point, we all have a breaking point. But we prevent ourselves from breaking apart and burning out by pacing ourselves. We are able to break work into chunks by having breaks in between sessions of focus.

At home, my cup of coffee is sitting lukewarm and half-empty. I’m not sure when my snack break began, and I’m not sure if it will ever end. Being at home gives me limitless and unashamed access to my fridge and carb closet. Carb closet is my fancy name for my repository of potato chips loaded with MSG, as well as mass-produced mini cupcakes sealed in plastic. The office vending machine used to have a seemingly perpetual stock of quick bites, but the controlling factor was the loose change I had in my pocket.

What does a snack break in the new normal look like for you?

What does a snack break in the new normal look like for you?

Breaking Professional Barriers

When work is done, are your coworkers your friends? It must be harder for newer hires who work remotely to answer this question. Onboarding for remote roles is a challenge all its own. But finding work friends when you are new to a company seems a near-impossible task these days unless you’ve found yourself in a situation where team members go out of their way to be more than just your workmates.

Unmasking in the old normal was easier. Professional barriers became thin and almost transparent during snack breaks. Snack breaks were a time to pass along stories, and quick ones at tha—you had to develop a skill of not wasting anybody’s time with a badly told story. You had to share something funny, or compelling, or important that happened to you or your alleged friend (which, let’s face it, ends up being just you when you’re too embarrassed to let everyone know that it happened to you) and tell it within a bite-sized time frame. Your story had to be short and concise enough to cover in the amount of time it took for the listener to finish half their cup of coffee.

Removing the veil of being professionals, at least for a snack break’s duration, has a way of benefiting work relationships. Inside jokes begin to be incorporated into the work. References might be made to a story you told everyone when you had some coffee at the break room one time. Sadly, our compartments are tighter in this new age of remote work. We can’t just all walk into a room together and swap stories.

Breaking in the New Normal

All I’ve said so far may give the impression that I’m fully remote—but that is not the case. The office is still open, and snack breaks do still happen. But these are snack breaks exercised with caution. These are snack breaks that are timed to ensure that I didn’t stay in a common area for more than fifteen minutes (to observe COVID-19 protocols). These are snack breaks that compel me to put my mask back on when I’m done chewing on bread.

Taking a snack break in the workplace under this new normal has been robotic thus far. The break room has lost its soul. The outdoors are a more preferred idle time destination. Luckily for me, the workplace is surrounded by greenery and strategic spots to take snack breaks. A walk around the gated ecozone reminds me that there still is hope that we will reclaim our lost snack breaks.

If and when the pandemic dies down, and if and when in-person work becomes the norm once again, I look forward to the next three o’clock coffee break. And I don’t care if it will be vending machine coffee, Starbucks, McDonald’s coffee, Dunkin Donuts, or instant 3-in-1—what matters is that stories will be swapped again and that they will no longer be about the pandemic.

Sharing stories over coffee and bread is an old normal thing that we lost and took for granted. When snack breaks at work become a thing again, I’ll look back on today and remember how it sucks to take an endless snack break at home with my fridge and carb closet just a few steps away.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on September 24, 2021:

This pandemic has affected us in ways we are yet to discover. To a certain extent I am embracing the new routines. it's quite difficult but life goes on. We simply need to evolve.

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