It's early afternoon on a Tuesday and I have three unread texts from friends I’ve met through my work as a writer. You see, when you’re a freelancer, the lines between networking and socializing are in no way distinct. "Hey, wanna cowork?" a message from a colleague-turned-friend reads. Another text invites me to a beer hall to meet with a friend and her friend for a working afternoon, while yet another suggests getting a “laptop pedicure” meaning we take advantage of a nail shop’s wifi while getting our toes painted.
One of the biggest perks of the growing gig economy is flexibility, the ability to work anytime from anywhere, whether for oneself or a larger corporation. That can be freeing, but also relentless. As opposed to an office job with set hours, location independent work can be completed beyond the typical business hours wherever you’re working. As a result, a day spent semi-socializing with laptops and conversations stilted by email pings is more likely to extend into a night of working before a deadline. That doesn’t just make your workday longer, it limits the types of socializing freelancers like me can do. When there is no outside of work, or off-hours, everything can quickly become work-related.
This makes me wonder, are the social interactions we have while coworking—i.e. working alongside peers on independent projects—meaningful or just weak substitutes for actual meaningful interpersonal connection? After talking to mental health and work culture experts about this, I came away thinking that getting better at compartmentalizing and planning are the keys to finding real work-life balance as a coworker in the gig economy.
Coworking spaces make the freelance life less lonely ....
Working alone has its downfalls. “Humans are inherently social creatures. Isolation and loneliness are as predictive of poor health outcomes as smoking,” says Lara Fielding, a clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up. “Inversely, when we experience stress, a healthy and healing instinct is to tend to befriend [others]u.”
So the boom in membership-based coworking spaces like WeWork, The Wing (in New York), and SoHo House (in London and Los Angeles)—which start at around $50 a day for a workspace—makes sense for freelancers who might otherwise spend the entire day holed up alone at home. But the spaces often blur the line between socializing and working by offering daytime workspaces and nighttime social events, often incorporating the same members, who may network over similar skills and interests over coffee in the morning and attend a wine mixer or learn to illustrate fruits with by night. The more recent trend of converting actual restaurants into coworking spaces during off-hours blurs the line between work and leisure even further.
“You work when you can, you socialize when you can, those boundaries get blurred. Millennials, who sometimes feel socially isolated from their peers, will have to learn how to manage that life,” says Amy Quarton, professor of Organizational Leadership at Maryville University. Joining a coworking space or community (like a coffee shop), can help with this social isolation and prevent solo workers from getting distracted at home.
From a networking and success perspective, the low pressure, social aspect of sharing a space can help self-employed professionals. “Unlike a traditional workplace, where everyone has their particular strengths and roles, a coworking space opens you up to individuals doing completely different work in different types of companies,” says Lauren McGoodwin, CEO and founder of Career Contessa. “The relationships build throughout time and create great opportunities for cross-pollination.”
... But that sense of connectedness comes at a psychological price
But can spending all your time in the place you work, even if you’re not working, can be socially damaging? “Socializing solely with colleagues may also have its drawbacks. Humans have a tendency to gather and stick close to those similar to themselves,” Fielding says. “This can contribute to groupthink or the tendency for a close group to avoid confrontation or allowance of creative thinking. When our social lives are exclusively in one group, it's easy to lose perspective and fall into rigid habit patterns.”
Are you talking about invoicing and strategizing and sharing contacts while socializing with coworking pals or are you opening up about your family and dreams and favorite dog breeds? Quarton recommends making a point of putting away your work and taking a break for a meal or a drink, temporarily powering off your phone and “designating time for relaxation.” As your own boss, you’re also responsible for your own well-being, and that means taking intentional breaks is an “essential practice,” in Quarton’s terms.
As Fielding points out, socializing with peers and superiors from work is not a new concept—dinner with the boss and office holiday parties are as old as corporate culture itself, but with tech and social media, the lines blur. With so many opportunities to “socialize” i.e. connect via social media with friends who may not be as easily accessible as people with whom you can get work done, it’s important to prioritize seeing friends who are not at all work related.
“Today, we have not really spent as much time as we used to [maintaining our outside relationships],” Fielding says. “At the end of a long workday or week, there is a huge pull to just run home and binge our favorite show and space out on our phones. Making the effort to get ourselves across town is too daunting. There are more barriers to reaching outside our social work bubble.”
How freelancers who cowork can carve out real downtime—minus the laptop
But escaping that bubble is essential for optimum mental health. Fielding recommends planning ahead (even by several weeks or months, just get those plans on the calendar!), making commitments to catching up with old friends and finding ways to make new friends outside your circle of coworkers or colleagues.
“It's tempting to wait to 'see how you feel' and 'play it by ear', but we know from [many] studies that making strong and public commitments, long in advance, leads to more likelihood of keeping them,” Fielding says. “If you really are only friends with people in your industry, arrange to make plans related to other circles. If you're in finance, schedule something in the arts. If your in entertainment, go to a lecture or cooking class. The key to avoiding the groupthink is to keep challenging yourself to reach outside your comfort zone. Be willing to be vulnerable and uncomfortable. You'll grow better for it!”
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This article originally appeared on Free US.