Peter Kowalke

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Experiments with Office Life

By on December 10, 2022

I work on planes, trains, and the couch at home. Rarely am I in a traditional office. Never, actually; you can count my lifelong office time in months. But while I’m living in Nairobi, I’m giving it a chance.

My office is a gorgeous co-working space a five-minute walk from my apartment. I can literally see Jenga Leo from the balcony at my home.

There’s all the normal amenities at this office like hot desks, free coffee, breakout rooms and plenty of likeminded people working on projects nearby. But the space also has a lively gym and a restaurant, and in many ways it resembles the Google campus more than the LinkedIn offices.

I call this adventure “experimenting” with office life because I still am not sure what I think. I’m like Mowgli in the Jungle Book as he enters civilized life. I look at office life with fresh eyes and curiosity, but also with discomfort.

What I’ve Noticed So Far:

Being around people is nice. I love going to lunch with colleagues, and seeing familiar faces each day. That’s the value proposition of an office, clearly.

Productivity goes way down. If I’m honest, my productivity is only 60% of what it would be if I did the same work from my couch. There’s a high cost for this social and dedicated “work space.”

Offices are unhealthy. I’m the only person who drinks enough water and gets up from my desk every 15 minutes. Offices discourage hydration, breaks, movement, and giving your eyes a rest.

There’s a pressure to look busy. Wasting time on nonessentials is something I’ve noticed in myself and others when I’m at the office. We want to “do” something, even when we should be reflecting.

People are less human. It is not natural to ignore other people. But I have noticed I’m one of the only people there who has trouble treating other humans as invisible. There’s an “office” mindset that I think came from school life and has extended into office life. It reflexively repulses me, and I quietly subvert it. I don’t play ball with that one.

Part-time is the right time. Full days wear me out, and I don’t get enough done at the office. So I do the deep work at home in the morning, then go into the office right before lunch. I also liberally skip days at the office and just work from home if I need it, which is about half the time. This actually is the same thing I did when I was a magazine editor in New York; I was the mysterious guy who had the big office with the windows but rarely was there, and when I was there I might be lying on the couch instead like a character in the TV show, Mad Men.

So What Do I think of Office Life?

Offices have their place, especially if you need external motivation to do your work or someone doesn’t trust you actually are working. But I work just fine at home, and being monitored frankly is inhuman.

The better way, for me at least, is what I have in Bangkok: A home office and a semi-official office-office with employees three floors down from my apt. My apartment also is close enough to the center of town that I can pop out for a lunch meeting or an evening event but then come back to work between social activities.

What works best for me is a shophouse near the center of town, basically, a place where my office is a few floors below and I can come and go as I please. Because an office has value, but I would hate be there all day, every day. That’s not good for the work, or good for me as a human being.

Peter is a relationship coach, writer/producer, and R&D monastic. He splits his time between San Francisco and Asia. Read more about Peter.