In Praise of the Water Cooler

| March-April 2009

Telecommuting advocates paint a picture of workers liberated from commutes and cubes. They ought to add lonely and unmotivated to the canvas. “As shocking as it may sound, we may actually need the office, despite its reputation as a soul-sucking pit,” reports Mother Jones (Jan. 2008). Recent data analysis has revealed a robust connection between social contact at work and job satisfaction and productivity. What’s more, the trend has grown stronger over the past 40 years—suggesting that, more than ever, we depend on our colleagues (even the insufferable ones) for social connection.

Recognizing the communal benefits of work has spurred a recent surge of “coworking” spaces: communal facilities where telecommuters, freelancers, and the self-employed rent desks. Online universities are experimenting with similar concepts, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 24, 2008). Like office-free laborers, virtual students miss out on productive pleasures like impromptu brainstorming or asking a quick, clarifying question. Brick-and-mortar student centers—replete with tutors, Internet access, even free coffee—remedy the disadvantage.