COVID-19 makes the workplace seem more precious
There’s no place like home — unless you’re forced to do your day job there because of a global pandemic. Then, there’s no place like work. Happily, I am doing work where I do it best. At work.
Though I had been a bit apprehensive about going back to the office during COVID-19, my return to work was better than I thought — and I thought pretty highly of my job. My building — more than 100,000 square feet of offices, laboratories, and conference rooms that typically host more than 60 small startup companies — was a proper ghost town. A very clean ghost town with sanitation stations and signs indicating “masks required,” to be sure.
Within the building is my organization, which has 30–40 employees. Returning to the office with me were 8–10 of my colleagues. The rest must self-isolate until they get through the now long line for a COVID-19 test and they choose to return. Some won’t return until our employer forces them to do so, some because they’re in the higher risk category for COVID-19, some because they are afraid.
If you haven’t suffered the nasal swab test for COVID-19 yet, you probably don’t want to read about my experience: If You Haven’t Been Tested Yet You Need to Know How Awful it Feels.
I’m completing my fourth week back in the office, and though more people are returning to work all over my city, more are not, and so working in an office seems to be a new normal. Every day.
1. It is quiet
During the stay-at-home order, I had been living in my husband’s version of surround sound, multiple radios all over the house. My makeshift standup desk— a coffee table and cedar chest atop our dining room table — with one little laptop screen and one large extra monitor was encircled with talk radio speaking “COVID-19 death” and fear all day long.
You can get the humorous details here: How Do I Report Sexual Harassment During COVID-19? It’s just one of the many perils of working from home.
In contrast, fewer than a fourth of our workforce is back in the building, and visitors aren’t allowed. The entrances are locked. Our individual office doors are closed. Add social distancing, that “wall of silence” that comes with mask-wearing, and fear of the contagion. It is utterly quiet and oh-so-peaceful.
No one is congregating in the lobby outside of my office door. All face-to-face meetings and events are canceled. The coffee bar is one-at-a-time only — with stickers on the floor demarking six-foot increments, should a line be necessary. It isn’t.
Previously, the coffee bar was the best location for “creating collision,” our old motto intended to highlight the spontaneous, nearly continual networking interactions and connections that happen here. Fear of the virus or respect for one another’s newfound, six-foot diameter of personal space, maybe both, prevent us from colliding.
It is so quiet I have not needed to run the water feature in my office. (Yes, I have one.)
2. Traffic is light
My commute, about six miles to my office, typically takes me between 25 and 45 minutes, depending on traffic. Typically, it is fraught with idiot drivers (made in the image of God, I know, but not living up to that image) who take chances or play with their cell phones.
I have spent years at traffic lights, wasted precious energy speculating the best strategy and lane for getting home the quickest (while remaining safe), and fretted and fumed at traffic lights that took multiple cycles to get past.
Now it takes 15 minutes from my home to my office door and vice versa. Suddenly, speed limits make sense; as I sat in traffic or shuffled bumper to bumper, I often thought of them as speed longings or goals. When I say, “Traffic is light,” I can hear the smile in my voice — even if you can’t see it behind my mask. I could get used to this new normal.
The return to old normal will reduce me to tears.
3. Work is like play
My workplace feels slightly unreal but in a nice way. You know how cleaning a friend’s kitchen or a vacation rental kitchen seems almost fun? Working with a skeleton crew is like that.
It’s almost like working the day before a holiday when most people have left town and you’re among the faithful few who lingered. Almost, I say, because tomorrow is not a holiday and I’ll return to work for more of the same. And, just almost, because other people are working, just elsewhere, as is evidenced by my overfilled inbox.
4. I feel like a hero
My boss initiated the invitation to return to the office. He first reached out via email to those of us who had expressed a desire to be back in the office. (I may have mentioned it a time or two when we had our one-on-one phone calls.)
In the email, along with the rules of engagement (i.e. face masks outside of our office, social distancing, hand sanitizer), he wrote: “Welcome to the point of the spear, ‘Rangers Lead the Way.’” (To which I should have responded, “All the way!” But I didn’t realize until now that “any officer worth his salt” would have responded in such a way.) “Rangers Lead the Way” is the Army Rangers’ motto, first stated on D-Day, 76 years ago.
“Point of the spear” is another military term (my boss is former military). It refers to the initial combat force that breaks through enemy lines and is followed by large numbers of fighters who will finish the job, destroying the enemy.
I am one of the first to fight the coronavirus (or the fear of the coronavirus) in the workplace, and I am a hero. I will lead the way for others.
5. Life is a little easier
A lot of little changes — some directly because of the pandemic, some related only to the fewer numbers currently in the office — make life a little easier. Wearing a mask at work means I don’t have to worry about food that might be stuck in my teeth after a snack or lunch. (It also makes me horribly aware that my breath isn’t as fresh as I thought it was.) I don’t have to wear lipstick.
Virtual meetings despite my return means I don’t have to travel across campus to attend. Finding a parking spot is easy — any time of the day. Since visitors can’t enter the building, I could wear jeans and T-shirts every day. (I don’t, but one of my colleagues takes great joy in that.) This may seem like a small detail, but I can shut my office door — which I typically kept open despite being located directly off the lobby — and get into the zone with little fear of interruption.
And since so many are still working from home, we can be flexible about where we work. We can work in the office one day and work from home the next. Or work some hours in the office and work some hours from home. While I’m happy to be back at work, this new flexibility is a nice change.
Because everyone is hypersensitive to any evidence of sickness, a cough or the sniffles — even when you know it is merely allergies — is a ticket home, where you can still work. No harm to anyone.
6. I appreciate what I really have
The next best thing to being together might be Zoom or Microsoft Teams. But being with my colleagues in my office building — masked and socially distant and smelling of hand sanitizer — is so much better.
The tools we used to connect digitally — digital cameras and microphones and platforms that allowed us to conference with ease — bridged the distance between us while we were #alonetogether. I’m thankful for the digital age in which we live, or those weeks and months apart would have been much more painful.
But being back in the office with my colleagues? Priceless. Real beats virtual any day — even if we’re still limited to virtual or air hugs.
If COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s that life is precious, lives are precious, and work is not a place. I know that each and every life is valuable, and we will do what we must to protect each other. Whether by staying home or by returning to work with safety measures in place.
I have work I can do almost anywhere. I am among the lucky ones. The virus didn’t ravage my body or those of my loved ones, and it didn’t negatively impact my work. It has presented some challenges that continue, certainly, but I am excited to flex my mind-muscle and meet the challenge head-on. Overall, I am thankful.
Work is not a place. I see that. It is a combination of tasks and challenges and people working individually to meet corporate goals. I can do this #alonetogether or #togethertogether. I prefer the latter. At our workplace. Not my home. (Frightening thought.)
Many of the “best things about my return to work” I have listed will fade as more and more people return to their workplaces and clog roads with commutes and parking lots with cars and coffee bars with lines of cup-bearing people.
Even so, there’s no place like work. (Even if work isn’t just a place.)
Originally published June 6, 2020, on Medium.com.