Remote Work and co-working spaces: A mental health story

(This post is going to be a bit unusual for the Remotely Awesome Blog, as it's quite personal.)

I've been working remotely for about eight years now. I started off working for a small startup (which only lasted a few months before they ran out of funding), freelanced for a bit with several clients, and have worked for a couple companies since then. Contrary to what you might think, cultural differences among different remote jobs can vary a lot, even though you might be working in the same physical location for all of them. Some companies are chatty over Slack, while others are nearly silent. They may differ on how often you see your colleagues face to face. One job may be for a fast-paced startup with crazy deadlines and changing priorities while another might be a stuffy enterprise with lots of conference calls.


I've struggled with clinical depression for years. I've been through many different medications and therapy to keep it in check. I try to stay fit, eat well, and make lifestyle choices with hope that I can keep it under control. Nevertheless, depression is a fickle thing, and it's hard to tell when or why it will rear its head to inflict its misery.

I recently left a high-intensity job at a startup that I loved. I poured myself into it and personally created large parts of the technology that ran the company. I fell into the startup culture, believing we would change the world. Like most startups, things got a bit less rosy as time wore on. This wasn't because anything was wrong with that particular company. For me, it's just really hard to sustain the needed optimism for several years while you toil away trying to hit the jackpot.

When I made the decision to was time to move on, I decided that I wanted to do something different for my next position. I chose to go back to agency work, and went into an area I didn't have a lot of expertise in to learn some new skills. 


The new company I work for is great. The people are fun, super-smart, and the benefits are fantastic. My first client is a large corporate enterprise with processes and policies and many layers of management. It was initially a culture shock, but I've adjusted to it. However, something wasn't quite right. The dark cloud of depression was threatening from the horizon. I tried to fend it off: I re-discovered my old running habit, adjusted my diet a bit, reduced my alcohol intake, but I wasn't able to stop it.

Eventually I realized that the new job had something to do with it. I noticed my mood got a lot worse after the kids' summer vacation ended. My worst point of the day was usually right after the house emptied when the kids left for school and my wife went to work. I had trouble doing basic tasks and focusing, often until the afternoon. It was probably no coincidence that I got better when people started coming home from school and work.

Why would this suddenly be a problem? As I said earlier, I've been working remotely for eight years. I recalled one other job where I got like this, during my freelancing era. The only commonality is that in both my new job and that job, I rarely get to physically see my colleagues. The jobs where I was happiest had (roughly) monthly visits where I'd see my co-workers or clients. So it was simple - I was just lonely.

A frequent topic of remote work discussion is isolation. Working all by yourself for days on end can lead to loneliness, even if you think of yourself as a "loner." I didn't really think that isolation applied to me, but it did, I just didn't recognize it.

To be honest, this was a disappointing realization. Being a remote worker is a huge part of my personal identity (heck, I built this site). I didn't want to have a problem with it.

Enter Co-Working

My wife suggested I should try co-working out. The idea honestly seems a little ridiculous. I have the luxury of being able to avoid working in an office. Why the heck would I pay money to commute to a place that lacks the comforts of home?

It turns out humans are social creatures. Everyone is different, but some of us don't do so great without seeing their "tribe" on a recurring basis. I'm now an official member of Think Tank Portland. Co-working is a pretty recent change for me, but so far I feel a lot better. I haven't met a lot of the people here yet, but that doesn't seem to matter. And should I decide to return to freelancing someday, being part of a co-working community promises to yield some connections and provide meeting spaces I'll need. 

So why not just go to a coffee shop? I've done that, and there are a few things that make it less than ideal. It's not really a coffeeshop's job to be the perfect workplace - their job is to sell you coffee. The WiFi can be unreliable and slow. It can get noisy. The chairs and tables weren't designed to be ergonomic workspaces. It can be awkward to have a videoconference in a coffeeshop. Co-working spaces can provide rooms for video conferences, free coffee, proper work spaces, printers, and a sense of community in its members. A co-working space's entire business model revolves around making a comfy, hip environment to get stuff done in.

Will I keep doing this? Time will tell. Maybe this latest bout with depression will resolve itself and I won't need to be here. Maybe the nature of my job will change. But for now, it's working. If you're a solo remote worker and feeling a little down, consider trying co-working out.