Work

Do I Really Need to Come to the Office?

What I learned about work at my first (partially!) in-person internship.

Person working from home on laptop
Christin Hume on Unsplash

My first day at Slate, I thought I had made a mistake.

It had nothing to do with the role or the company. I’d long admired Slate and was excited to be able to grow my science journalism skills interning at a place that values accuracy, newsiness, and voice. But, having graduated from college less than two weeks prior—and most of that time I was in bed with COVID-19—I was, suffice it to say, overwhelmed at the thought of jumping into a 9-5 office job in person.

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I’d made the decision to move to Brooklyn for the summer, even though Slate offers interns the option to work remotely. All of my professional experiences so far had happened online, thanks to the pandemic, and I didn’t want another virtual internship experience. I also wanted the opportunity to meet with my colleagues—especially the editor I would be working closely with—in person. But as the start date got closer, I started to doubt myself. Could I really justify spending almost my entire income on rent? Were other people going to be coming into the office? And what do people even wear to work these days?

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That first morning, my fears were exacerbated when I got to the office right at 10 a.m. and didn’t see anyone there (I later learned that almost no one actually shows up right on time). As people started filing in that day and I realized that some people do still actually come into the office, I began feeling more confident in my decision.

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But I also quickly realized that so much of the working world still occurs through screens. Many meetings were held over Zoom, and although sometimes those of us in the office would grab a conference room to dial in together, most of the time I’d take calls from “moon booths” (soundproof phone booths, with a stool and small desk). Slack was the primary form of communication, even when the person I was messaging with was at a desk a few feet away. Articles were edited through Word or Google Docs (though I take it magazines haven’t used red pens to slash through first drafts in decades). Not to mention, the other intern was working from across the country, in California. As I subway-ed to downtown Brooklyn each day, the question started to nag at me—did I actually need to be there to get my work done?

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It seemed like many of my colleagues had also pondered this question, and come up with their own solutions. Many of my fellow Brooklyn-based Slatesters would come into the office a few days a week, and spend the rest working from home. Even my editor—who prides herself as an “office person”—would edit from her apartment if she had a doctor’s appointment or other commitment that made it easier to just not come in. I’d also learned that many, during the pandemic, had moved out of the city and would be permanently remote. So I experimented with remote work at Slate myself, skipping the office when I had a doctor’s appointment to go to, and staying home to work the day after Roe v. Wade was overturned to have space to process my emotions. It seemed that, to answer my own question, I didn’t really need to be there.

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As I thought ahead about what August would look like—a month notably slow for both work and the news—I couldn’t help but think that it wouldn’t make sense for me to keep coming in. I’d only agreed to sublet an apartment in Crown Heights for June and July. And after observing what “office” work looked like in the virtual era, I knew working remotely would still provide a rich experience. And although I hadn’t loved virtual internships, I realized I mostly didn’t like the fact I had never met my co-workers face to face. I figured I may as well give the virtual work life a try again. With the permission of my editor, I decided to leave New York and take my work with me wherever I went—which became a number of places.

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Transitioning to remote work had its own challenges. I was giving up the little bit of interaction I did have with my colleagues, from run-ins in the kitchen to happy hours and coffee chats. Switching time zones also proved to be a little bit confusing. And just like texting with friends or family, it’s hard to tell tone over Slack messages or emails (if only I’d thought to introduce my colleagues to voice memos).

I’ve also struggled with the internal pressure to continuously be “doing work.” Occasionally, I’ve beaten myself up for not being productive for every minute of the day. I have to remember in the office, no one was breathing down my neck to get stuff done. And although I turned work notifications off after hours, I found it a lot harder to stick to working within designated hours, oftentimes putting in more time because my computer was right there and what was 20 more minutes of plugging away at a draft? (I definitely encourage those who are doing remote internships to set limits around how many hours you work, especially if you won’t be paid for anything outside of a certain number).

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But I hope editors and managers everywhere will trust that interns can figure this stuff out, and continue to allow interns to work remotely. Media internships just do not pay that much, and not everyone can afford to relocate just for a summer, especially to a city like New York; it’s a small step, but remote internships stand to increase the diversity of newsrooms. The ideal might be a hybrid internship model, with a short, concentrated block of time spent in the office at the start. Companies can make this happen: Defector Media, for example, let their summer 2022 interns live anywhere, but offered to host them in New York for a week to get some face time with their new colleagues.

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For me, remote work provided the flexibility I yearned for, especially for my first summer out of college. I could travel to Highland Park to stay with my grandparents, and use the trip as a way to process the aftermath of the July Fourth shootings. I could pay a visit to my beloved summer camp, where I’d spend almost every summer prior. I could spend time with my whole family, and celebrate my mom’s birthday in August, which I’d missed almost every other year because I’d been moving into school. During it all, as long as I had a stable Wi-Fi connection, I could do my work. I could even occasionally work from a plane—a perk I am taking advantage of as I type this.

I don’t regret my decision to spend two months in person at all. Meeting people “IRL” made working remotely so much easier. But my untraditional hybrid experience was just what I needed for a first office job, especially during the summer. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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