IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Front-yard happy hours to brainstorming in the park: Finding ways to beat the WFH blues

Remote workers looking to get out of the house are setting up "shadow offices" where they can meet in smaller groups to find a sense of normalcy.

After six months at home and physically isolated from colleagues, many office workers relegated to the dining table or bedroom alcove are feeling "work-from-home fatigue."

Now, some are meeting up in smaller groups in bars, coffee shops or co-working spaces to find a sense of normalcy.

Openpath, a Los Angeles-based company whose security software has been in high demand during the pandemic, offers socially distanced happy hours in the driveway of president and co-founder James Segil. The outings are an opportunity for various teams to connect and take a break from their new remote work routines.

“We're doing everything we can to balance our desire to be back in the office together with the reality and progress of the pandemic, and making sure that our goal first and foremost is the health and wellness of our staff,” Segil told NBC News.

An employee get-together held in James Segil's driveway.James Segil / Openpath

“We can work long hours and Zoom from home, but it’s not a substitute. Long-term productivity can suffer if we don’t find a way to bring our teams physically back together in some way shape or form," Segil said. "We all crave the “in-person” experience, and the balance of hard work and social interaction — whether its team building or project collaboration — is important.”

Dogpatch Labs, a co-working space down the street from the Dublin headquarters of big tech names including Facebook, Google and Twitter, has become a hub for employees with shuttered offices.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the 40,000-square-foot space offered flexible working for 500 people. Now, about 50 to 60 people are working and social distancing on any given day, according to Jake Phillips, Dogpatch Labs’ community manager.

Members are still vetted, but Dogpatch is now offering flexible, part-time memberships to meet the increasing demand from people who need an option for going into an office when their company isn’t yet open.

“About 20 percent of the companies in our ecosystem are fully remote," Phillips told NBC News. "I would say the widest portion of them would be saying, 'We know we need to work once or twice a week, but we aren’t willing to commit to an office.'”

WeWork, the largest player in the co-working rental space, is also noticing the business opportunity. In August, the company launched On Demand, a pilot program in New York City that allows new customers to book workspace or conference rooms by the hour or day. The program has experienced a 20 percent week-over-week growth since its launch, according to the company.

“People miss the human connection associated with an office, which is why we’re seeing people drawn back to these shared spaces,” said Prabhdeep Singh, WeWork's global head of marketplace.

"People miss the human connection associated with an office."

“One parent, who regularly books space through our On Demand app, comes for the private conference rooms, where he can take important calls without the distractions of home,” Singh said. “We're also seeing demand from startup employees, who use WeWork’s locations to meet in-person and collaborate on projects.”

While vacancies are up, co-working spaces are viewed as an attractive option, since many are waiving the usual annual commitments and offering more flexible packages.

Nationwide, office leasing has fallen by 53.4 percent in the second quarter of this year, according to market research data from commercial real estate firm JLL. That translates to 14 million square feet in office space losses, the steepest decline since 2009.

Chris Dyer, a remote work and company culture expert, said it makes sense that colleagues want to get together, since many remote workers are now at a point where they may be feeling “cabin fever.”

“People miss people. For anyone who is a card-carrying extrovert, this is the worst few months of our life,” he said. “I think you are seeing a lot of people who are doing their part and staying home — but they need that connection.”

In addition to co-working spaces or front yards, some workers are finding other creative ways to come together.

Chatbooks, a Provo, Utah-based photo book company that employs 140 people, closed its offices on March 12. Smaller groups of employees recently started getting together to work and catch up on the usual office small talk at a local park.

There are just two rules: Everyone must stay 6 feet apart and wear a mask.

“Beyond just being able to see our colleagues after months of 'seeing' them through the screen, we've found that park days have been great for spontaneous brainstorming,” Rachel Hofstetter, chief marketing officer of Chatbooks, said.

At a recent meetup, she said the company’s creative director talked to an iOS developer and they started brainstorming how to streamline the onboarding experience for people who download their app.

It’s the sort of serendipitous interaction that Hofstetter said might not have happened in the current remote work environment.

“With park days, team members who might not otherwise set up Zoom meetings with each other are able to spark the same creativity they previously had in the office,” she said.