Battling the Loneliness Ogre: One Man’s Journey in the Remote Work Era

When Benjamin Schwartz, 25, moved from New Jersey to New York City in 2021, he felt  lonely. He was working from home as an advisor for Deloitte, and his days would often start with him crawling out of bed to get his computer and then returning to do the work from his bed. Schwartz didn’t meet many people or take regular lunch breaks, and this lifestyle started to take a toll on him. “This sucks,” he thought. “Maybe this isn’t the way life is supposed to work.”


He tried going to coffee shops and libraries and renting a desk at a coworking space. But even though he was surrounded by people, he still felt alone. 


As Schwartz, a soft-spoken young man who takes a pause before he answers every question about his business, found out, he wasn’t the only remote worker experiencing loneliness. Remote work became increasingly necessary when the Covid-19 pandemic started, and many who continue to work remotely feel pangs of isolation.


Earlier this year, Schwartz quit his advisor job and started a one-person events company that aims to solve the isolation problem, albeit on a small scale. It’s called The Tavern, with the name meant to evoke the idea of a central place where digital nomads can convene. 


Since starting the company, Schwartz has hosted a few events for specific communities of remote workers. They meet in a restaurant, work in the same space, have lunch together and discuss challenges they face professionally, with the hope of finding a group solution. They then finish the day with a happy hour.


When the social isolation started to get to him during the pandemic, Schwartz thought: “What could I do for my community to fix this?” 


With his friends Daniel Maron and Anna Kaplan, he started a pilot program at the Jewish Center synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last December. They brought together a group of a dozen people from different professions, and they worked together for a few afternoons. It was successful, and Schwartz decided to take the idea further. 


He wasn’t interested in opening a regular coworking space where people rent out desks. He wanted to build a community, and that’s what Schwartz is now selling to his customers. He kicked off the first event, geared toward young professional women, in a Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood. Eight women showed up the first time and fewer the next. But Schwartz didn’t give up. He decided to step back, gather some data and reach out to others for advice. When he hosted the next event in early May at the coincidentally named restaurant Hudson Yards Tavern, the 25 slots he had available filled up.


“We had some learning moments, but now we’re ready,” Schwartz said, referring to shifts in his marketing strategy. He focuses more on reaching out to people through Instagram and TikTok than before, and that seems to be successful.


The event at Hudson Yards was open to people in their 20s. They filled the back of the restaurant, worked on their laptops and occasionally chatted. 


Amrit Subramanian, an independent software engineer, was one of them. He’s been working remotely for two and a half years. He sometimes feels trapped in his apartment and finds it hard to disconnect from work.


“I think people have gotten too used to feeling isolated, and they are craving real-life experiences,” said Subramanian, who is working on an app to connect people with similar interests. “That’s why I decided to come out today.” 


Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, declared in May that loneliness and isolation are part of a new health epidemic in the United States. 


Many of the attendees at the Tavern’s May event have felt that epidemic. Janna Safran, who works in international public health, is one of them. She works in a hybrid model and had been to the office that morning. But she found it almost empty. 


“There’s not a lot of overlap, and most of my colleagues are international, so I really appreciate coming into a space where I can see people,” Safran said. “It’s been very hard to connect with other people, so I was very grateful for this.”


Even though the attendees had tried coworking spaces and attended multiple networking events, mixers at bars often had loud music, so they found the Tavern’s event unique.


“It’s cool to be networking while still getting work done,” said Richard Damas, a hybrid worker who works in professional development for financial advisors at CitiBank.


Schwartz is starting small, with monthly events, but he hopes to expand to multiple times a week, with different communities of people each time. One of the groups he wants to reach out to is recent college graduates, and the reason for that is personal.


“I had a very hard transition when I moved to New York City, even though I’m from half an hour away,” Schwartz said. “I was right out of college, I came from a very close network of people, and I was just alone in this huge city.”


Each guest pays $10 to attend an event and is expected to purchase a meal and a drink at the restaurant. Because the Tavern brings customers to Manhattan restaurants during slow hours, more common after the pandemic, Schwartz gets the space for free in return.


People who work from home tend to have this disposable income, too. With fewer days at the office, people are spending much less money on restaurants and other services near their work, data from The Working From Home Research Project shows. Last year, annual spending per person surveyed decreased by $4,661 from the pre-pandemic year of 2019.


Babu Chow, one of the owners of the Hudson Yards Tavern, has felt this loss and was happy when Schwartz reached out to him with the idea of bringing in a group of coworking people. 


“In this area, we need these kinds of things,” Chow said.  


Schwartz is tapping into a big market, which grew tremendously during the pandemic. Even though many people have returned to the office, a significant portion of the American workforce remains at home, hybrid, or flexible on the terms, and many only come into the office a few times a week.


Research from the Partnership of New York City, a nonprofit group of CEOs from corporate, investment and entrepreneurial firms, shows that as of late January, only 9% of the borough’s office employees came into the office five days a week. Further, Manhattan employees who the organization talked to predict that the new normal average of daily occupancy of the borough’s offices will be 56%. 


Schwartz isn’t the only one targeting this remote market. Other businesses targeting the remote and hybrid worker have launched, including The Wing, a women’s coworking club that shut down last fall. But Schwartz doesn’t worry about the competition. 


“Coworking is thought of as real estate, but I see it as event planning and marketing, which is just totally different,” he said.


Schwartz is self-funding the company so far and has spent around $10,000, mostly on marketing and consulting. He’s hoping to make money through ticket sales, taking some percentage of the food and drink sold, and selling advertisements distributed during the events. He compares the advertising model to social media, where ads are directed at specific communities of people. By advertising with the Tavern, Schwartz said, companies can do precisely that, reach the targeted community that attends each event. 


Schwartz sees a future for this business, especially when he mentions the Tavern ten years from now and speculates about the company’s growth. Still, he feels lonely sometimes. 


I think I’ve tapped into something in myself that’s very mission-driven,” Schwartz said.

About the author(s)

Ragnhildur Thrastardottir is a journalist currently pursuing an M.S. degree in journalism at Columbia University.