Never be the same

Now that we’ve had 30-odd days free from locally acquired Covid infection, we’re all clear to return to our offices to work in Melbourne. That’s the theory, though it appears very few are getting anywhere close to that. There’s still some caution and uncertainty, and after working from home so long, most of us have become used to it. Tap any average Joe on the shoulder, and chances are that he’ll tell you that he’s happy to return to the office for a day a week, maybe two, but any more than that would be a return to the dark ages.

I’m much the same. I can manage two days a week at a stretch, but just the thought of anything more than that feels hard. We’ve all settled into routines working from home and found ways to make it feasible. It’s far from perfect – I’d rather meet face to face than via a screen, and managing projects with disparate groups of people is a real challenge.

But then, there’s the time saved not having to commute and the convenience of being close to home. There’s the option for parents to pick up their kids from school and to have family meals at a respectable hour. Its loosened boundaries and introduced flexibility that was unimaginable a little more than a year ago. It’s also blurred the boundaries too, but nothing is perfect.

I don’t think we’ll ever get close to the 100% target ever again. The working convention broke in this pandemic. Forced to make do and work from home, we discovered it was actually possible and liberating after generations of workers making the drear commute to and from work each day, like automatons.

Still, there has been a general drift back to the office as the circumstances have improved. In my office, we are rostered for one day a week, though it’s not mandatory. There’s an acceptance that things have changed and that it’s permanent. Logistics play into it also. It’s no small thing gearing up for a return to the office after a year away from it. I was involved in the development of a return to work app late last year. We’re now hot-desking, though that introduces disinfecting challenges. And, even if we were all made to return to the office, there’s no longer enough desks for us all.

I’ve been back to the office perhaps half a dozen times this year, most recently last Wednesday. It’s a strange feeling. We return as a team, but across a floor that could accommodate perhaps 120, no more than 10-15 sit. I visited the 18th floor on Wednesday, which is where I used to sit. This contains the call centre normally, and closer to 150 people back in the day. On Wednesday, there was not a single soul to be seen. Tumbleweeds drifted down the empty corridors.

My brief experience working back in the office is that it’s a bit pointless. At this stage, it feels tokenistic. There’s no real benefit to being back in the office when the people you need to speak to and meet with are still at home. The idea of returning as (small) teams seems sensible, but in reality, has little real value. Certainly, we take advantage of the situation to schedule meetings and planning sessions, but they’re small plusses. There needs to be a more sophisticated solution.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to be back, though – out of practice – getting myself out of bed and organised, for it is more of a struggle. A day away from home and in the office adds a bit of variety to my schedule and introduces a hint of unpredictability in what is otherwise a very predictable routine.

I catch the train in the morning as I would before, only now I wear a mask, and every day is Friday casual. I sit by the window with my headphones on, just as I ever did, but even with the trains are getting fuller, there’s a distinctly different feel to it. I feel like an outlier.

By comparison to the days before, the city is quiet. The shop where I used to buy my coffee has been closed for a year. Many other shops are also shut, and the streets are not nearly as busy as before.

I’m glad to go out on my lunch break and visit places I would before, but it feels very different. In days gone by, I almost had a weekly routine – lunch one day with a friend, coffee with another the next day, then a selection of shops and stores – and the market! – I would rotate through one week to the next. In retrospect, it felt like a system, a habit almost, comforting in its predictability. But then, most things were predictable then (and sometimes I would complain at it).

These days I can only go for lunch with a workmate. Cheeseboy unexpectedly cycled past me in Swanston street the other day on the way to work, but in general, the friends I would catch up with for lunch or coffee are home now. Some of the shops I would visit are no longer there. And in general, there’s none of the bustle or urgency I remember, none of the big-city vibe of people rushing from here to there, the clang of tram bells, the toots of car horns, the ring of the GPO clock – everything has slackened.

There are people, but no-one’s in a hurry, and anyway, there are only half the people there were. Everything has slowed. You get none of that jolt of being part of such a large, living mechanism. The blood isn’t flowing as it did before, and the beat is much slower.

It will improve. No doubt, more and more people will return to the office in some form, and that’s a good thing. It will liven up again – but I don’t think things will be the same again, or not for years, anyway. Under cover of a pandemic, a revolution has occurred. Things have to be re-worked – re-imagined – if we want to get back that vibrancy.

I’ll be curious to see how all this has panned out in five years time.

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