‘You can’t choose your family, so, make your friends your family’. I heard this phrase repeatedly as a child (thanks mum), and as I live and observe the relationships I’ve formed through work, travel, hobbies and happenstance, the phrase is never far from my mind.
However, growing older and watching the world spin faster and faster and become more connected and expansive, I also watch the nature of families and relationships shift, and I wonder if this new age of speed and technology is bringing us closer together or pushing us further apart.
“I still join the family supper on Christmas Eve, ‘seated’ at the table somewhere between the carp and the pierogi, being displayed on the screen of a phone.” Agata Nowicka was born in Poland, studied in London and now spends vast chunks of her year exploring tropical paradises in countries ranging from Portugal to Indonesia. She doesn’t refer herself as a digital nomad as such, in that she didn’t structure her career with that label in mind but it does describe her lifestyle.
“I’ve been travelling on and off for the past two years, meaning I’m away for a few months, and when I return home for some unspecified amount of time, I embark on, what I like to call, an intense fam-jam.” This new generation of travellers with no fixed work (or home) address and an enviable Instagram feed of exotic destinations also comes with new faces and connections for every city visited, but how many of these faces become and remain lasting friends, or even, family? For Agata, there’s a line, “we can treat close friends just like family members… thanks to travelling, I’ve been lucky enough to meet amazing people with whom I’ve shared many great moments, tears and good laughs, I like to call them soul mates. The notion of family I keep to my parents and brother.”
While Agata separates the relationship she has with her family from those she meets on the road (whether that be surfing on working in a cafe), what about those of us who spend countless working hours in an office, surrounded by the same people day in and day out? The proximity principle can easily account for work wives and work husbands who become real-life spouses. However, freelancing and the new economy is contributing to different kinds of ‘work families’ and dynamics.
Co-working spaces are typically populated with people working on multiple and different projects in various fields, which means that while the common element of ‘work’ is bringing them to the space, they are more likely to be dressing as themselves and behaving as themselves, instead of conforming to an existing company culture. (Apart from the culture of freelancing and laptops and endless cups of coffee, that is. ) This non-conformist culture has and is creating a community of its own, and is one that resembles family, more than that of traditional office environments.
The co-working manifesto (yes, a real thing) reads as aspirational and some might say, fluffy, but also inclusive - “collaboration over competition, community over agendas” - an attitude not always present in traditional office spaces, where top-down enforced pressure, peer-to-peer rivalry and obligatory social events often triumph over support, care, community and choice. WeWork’s mission statement furthers this thinking and moves it into the personal, describing “a place where we’re redefining success measured by personal fulfillment, not just the bottom line.”
It’s no coincidence that these physical work spaces and the accompanying warm, community co-working culture is rising in time with our growing online networks. When Facebook first started in 2004, its mission was to connect people through social networks (at colleges) - in 2017, Facebook wants to bring the world closer together, with Zuckerberg being quoted as wanting “to help one billion people join meaningful communities”, but it would seem that people still want communities they can interact with face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh in real time.
There is mounting scientific evidence pointing to the connection between close relationships and good health, and it is these meaningful bonds that we rely on and crave. While the allure of thousands of followers on social media remains, so does the need for deep human connection, whether that be through blood relatives, trusted friends or a family that you’ve created yourself. As Agata said: “To me, family is my comfort and safety zone, a place I can always go back to. Especially when I return home from my trips, with no plan for tomorrow.”