Would You Pay $40 a Month to Have Strangers Watch You Work? – The New York Times

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People still working remotely are turning to virtual co-working spaces for accountability through a Zoom screen.
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At the start of a Caveday session, gentle music plays. A facilitator welcomes the participants — a group of strangers, there to work toward their personal goals — and may share inspirational quotes. It’s not yoga class. It’s a Zoom room and the dozens of people logged on have paid to work in silence for an hour or three with people they do not know looking on.
For a monthly fee of $39.99, users can schedule unlimited sessions in Zoom “caves.” There, it’s possible to watch fellow workers furrow their brows and scratch their heads, as they work toward stated goals ranging from “brainstorm outline” to “find clarity.”
Two and a half years into working from home, many people are finding that a desk and a chair — even if it’s a really nice ergonomic one purchased with a company stipend — do not an office make.
With no clear end to remote work in sight for many white-collar employees, some are trying to import something more elusive into their home offices: the feeling of accountability (or simply guilt) that comes from being observed by others while at work.
Often referred to as “virtual co-working” platforms, a slew of tech tools allow people to be seen working — but, crucially, not by bosses who might surveil their output, or co-workers who might want something from them. The platforms are especially popular with freelancers, entrepreneurs, students and people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who are seeking structure and accountability.
Fans describe it as combining the freedom of remote work with the extra focus that comes with someone else working nearby — in the next Zoom screen over. Some workplace experts say that for people who are not working in an office, this facsimile of open-plan accountability may be a decent middle ground.
Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, said that there’s a quality of “workiness” that many find helpful in a traditional office. “You’re in a professional environment, people are getting work done and you should, too,” he said.
Virtual platforms, he added, could help recreate some of that feeling. “You’re taking part of the office experience, maybe 10 or 20 percent of it, maybe more for some people, and replicating it,” he said. “I see it as something that will have a niche appeal.”
Beck Tench, a 43-year-old doctoral candidate at the University of Washington’s Information School, logs into a platform called Focusmate four to 12 times each day. The service, which costs her $5 a month, allows her to schedule one-on-one silent work sessions with strangers around the world.
At the start of a session, each person shares what they hope to get done. Then, they get to work on their separate projects and check in again at the end.
“I was kind of apprehensive at first, because I had these visions of bad things happening with internet strangers,” she said, but “all experiences have been on the plus side of neutral.” (Taylor Jacobson, the chief executive of Focusmate, said the company had no tolerance for harassment on the platform.)
Ms. Tench’s typical workday, in the 300-square-foot home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., that she shares with her wife, begins at 6 a.m. Before the pandemic, she worked in a large shared office with about a dozen other graduate students.
“It was full of distractions,” she said. “Every person that came in, you would say hello to, and you would be thrown off.”
Now, she often works from her Volkswagen EuroVan or from the roof of her home. Anywhere but the office, which she does not anticipate returning to for the foreseeable future.
Those who find the virtual spaces appealing often use them repeatedly. Alyssa Padron, a 27-year-old who works at a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, logs into Caveday sessions three times per week (goal: work on a project management certificate). Michelle Retter, a 31-year-old tech entrepreneur in Portland, Maine, logs on from her bedroom for two or three hours on Flow Club every weekday (goal: move through her public to-do list). Maria De Maci, a 51-year-old teacher in Riverside, Calif., uses the service several times a week in the summer (goal: make progress on her novel).
Ms. Padron, Ms. Retter and Ms. De Maci have all said they have A.D.H.D., and that they have found it useful to schedule work blocks to stay accountable and on task. “I think it’s even kind of a fake sense of accountability,” Ms. Padron said. But it still helps.
These tools can also be useful for people who do not work in a traditional office environment each day. Chad Brooks, a 43-year-old pastor in Alexandria, La., has spent up to 12 hours a week on Caveday. “Sermon preparation is just deep work,” said Mr. Brooks, who also coaches other pastors and hosts a podcast. He added that he sometimes also books sessions on Preacher’s Block, a virtual co-working platform for spiritual leaders.
In June, active users logged an average of about 16 hours per week on Caveday, according to Jeremy Redleaf, a co-founder. (“Our cave ancestors only worked about three hours a day. We think it’s time to return to that!” he wrote in an email.) He declined to share the exact number of people who use Caveday, but said “it’s thousands in about 40 countries.”
Caveday, which also offers sessions for corporations, started in 2017 as an in-person event series before transitioning to online sessions. (Last year, The New York Times Company used Caveday for a series of virtual events but has since stopped using the service.)
Mr. Jacobson, of Focusmate, said that the average user logs in more that 10 times per week, and that the service has hosted more than four million sessions since its founding in 2016. Both have seen significant growth since the start of the pandemic.
Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere,” said she had not heard of people paying $40 a month for others to watch them get work done. “This is the strangest thing I’ve heard this week,” she said. “It kind of goes counter to all that we know about why people value and love remote work.”
Research, she said, shows that remote workers, in general, value autonomy and independence, and that their productivity is adversely affected when they feel surveilled by managers. But, she said, when other people are working around you, like in a coffee shop, “It signals work and is a marker of work.” Physical co-working spaces have also been drawing more people in recent months.
At the start of a Caveday session, a facilitator puts people into smaller breakout rooms to set their intentions. In a recent cave, the facilitator in the Zoom chat also shared a link to a list of three-word quotes — including “trust the process” and “branding is essential” — and invited everyone to share which one resonated most. People also updated their Zoom displays with their name, location and what task they were there to get done.
Though fans of virtual co-working often invoke productivity as a benefit, the term is not universally embraced. (Mr. Redleaf, of Caveday, said that “we’re not productivity bros, we’re about having a better relationship to work.”)
Cal Newport, who helped popularize practices including deep work and focused work blocks, wrote last year, “A growing portion of my audience was clearly fed up with ‘productivity,’ and they are not alone.” Mr. Redleaf called productivity “the P word” and compared Caveday to SoulCycle, which combines elements of wellness with fitness. Ricky Yean, the chief executive of Flow Club, has called his company “basically Peloton for co-working.” A recent email from Flow Club noted that Benjamin Franklin was a pioneer of time blocking, before Cal Newport made it popular and Flow Club made it easier.
Like in an actual office setting, users of these platforms may start to recognize the regulars, and some may start to develop relationships, both personal and professional.
Anthony Ronda, 30, a software engineer in Hillsdale, N.J. who is starting a virtual tabletop game company, joins several Focusmate sessions per day and has found value in being accountable to another person while he works. He has also experienced a more personal benefit: He met his boyfriend on Focusmate earlier this year. The two plan to meet in person for the first time later this month.
Mr. Ronda said that they kept finding each other on the other side of the camera, as they were logging onto sessions at the same time; soon, they started scheduling times to work together and exchanged Signal phone numbers. “Obviously it’s not a dating platform,” he said of Focusmate. “It just kind of happened that way.” He does not plan to return to an office anytime soon.
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