An unexpected benefit of the office: better mental health

“I just wasn’t meant not to work around people,” says one engineer who visits WeWork for a much-needed outlet

Erik Barbara found WeWork 600 Congress Ave in Austin to be perfect in helping achieve better work-life balance. Photographs courtesy of Erik Barbara 

The ways we work have fundamentally changed. People no longer seek just work-life balance. They want the power to choose when, where, and how they work. They want the freedom to create their own schedules, to do work they find meaningful, and to be in a space that suits their unique needs. Gone are the days of a one-size-fits-all nine to five. In All the Ways You Work, WeWork members share how they’re reimagining their professional lives and thriving in this new world of work.

Prior to the pandemic, very few of us chose our houses based on whether or not we would enjoy working out of them. Erik Barbara certainly didn’t. He and his wife chose their place in Austin because they loved the location and there was just enough room for the couple and their two small children. But then the pandemic hit, and Barbara was home all the time. By month seven, he had severe cabin fever.

“I was starting to feel the effects of working from home on my health and how I interacted with my family,” Barbara says. He would finish a difficult work call at 5:30 and then immediately be with his family at the dinner table. 

“My mind would still be on my work problem because there was no separation. It’s fun to hear your kids giggle and laugh during the day, but when they cry and scream and have a meltdown I couldn’t concentrate, and I started to feel like I wasn’t doing a good enough job at work,” he says.

At first Barbara worked out of the family’s garage. There was no other space in the house where he wouldn’t be tripping over the kids. It was fun and exciting, new and novel. Then, when it looked like the new normal wouldn’t be ending anytime soon, Barbara bought a desk. But the only place to put it was in his bedroom, which further blurred the lines between personal and professional space. 

“I had all the psychic weight of the pandemic—which was a lot—and then I’d literally roll out of bed into my desk,” Barbara says. “It became hard to transition from work to home by just walking downstairs. I’d be at the dinner table with my family while still thinking about the issue I had been triaging minutes ago on my laptop upstairs.”

Barbara is an engineer for a late-stage startup called DataGrail. They help organizations automate their compliance with evolving privacy regulations. His team is distributed across time zones. He’s in the Central time zone in Austin and has to coordinate with software engineers in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and even a digital nomad based in Mexico right now. The ability to concentrate is paramount to keep all the balls in the air. 

By October he decided that he had to make a change in order to preserve his mental health. At first he thought he would just do a WeWork All Access trial to be able to work out of WeWork 600 Congress Ave in Austin. He figured it would shake things up a little bit, and then he could cancel and get back to the same old routine. 

Before 2020, many of us probably wouldn’t have said we would miss our commutes. But once commutes disappeared, many of us reconsidered. Barbara certainly did. The commute became so much more important than just travel time. It became a break, a delineation between work and home life. 

Barbara’s 15-minute bike commute to a great office space in downtown Austin was such a welcome change.

Barbara enjoying the outdoor terrace at WeWork 600 Congress Ave in Austin.

“In the morning I would get a little bit of exercise, which had been hard in the pandemic, and the commute gave me a nice separation between the two worlds,” Barbara says. “I can go into work mode and then come home and leave my backpack in the closet. Work is work and home is home again.” 

He decided to continue his WeWork All Access membership after the trial period was over. 

“Better mental health is the biggest benefit I am getting out of my WeWork All Access plan—and it is one that wasn’t advertised, that I didn’t expect,” he says. “I just wasn’t meant not to work around people.”

Now Barbara splits his day between a hot desk, where he coordinates activities for his engineering team, reviews codes, and sends emails, and a phone booth for Zoom calls and team meetings. 

His company has been providing a $250 a month stipend for coworking, and Barbara pays the remainder out of pocket. “It’s completely worth it,” he says. “Working out of WeWork and away from home has a tangible effect on my mental health, easily justifying the cost of membership.”

And even though social interactions in the office are still fewer than they used to be due to pandemic restrictions, there is something comforting about being around strangers out in the world again.

“It’s nice to remember that the world is full of serendipitous connections. Just seeing other people reminds me that there is more to life than Zoom calls,” Barbara says. “The ability to connect with people outside your immediate circles reminds you this is temporary, that the world will return to having these social collisions again soon.”

Jo Piazza is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author, digital strategist, and podcast host.

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