Ding, dong; the office is dead. The real office is in your head.
This is what I tell myself when working from home gets too weird, too stale, too impossible. By now, many of you know some version what I’m talking about. Our circumstances may vary wildly, but the outcome is the same: working from home is pretty awesome, but, some small, secret part of us longs for the office. Why is that?
The answer will be different for everyone. Maybe you’re a social butterfly who misses face-time and the din of familiar voices. Maybe you just appreciate the physical separation between work and home life. If you’re lucky, the choice to go to the office is yours at this point, and if not, well, we have to wonder if you’re looking for new work. It’s 2022, we’re still in a pandemic, and of course there’s this, that, and the other multi-national Dumpster fire you haven’t heard about yet. Isn’t it time we prioritized work output over office attendance when it comes to our livelihoods?
To no one’s surprise, few major companies agree with me. Elon recently decreed that ‘remote work is no longer acceptable‘, and that those who want to work remotely may only do so as a reward after serving a minimum of 40 hours per week in the office. Apple tried to enforce three appearances a week until they received an open letter with 1,000+ signatures against.
The Office Is More Than Space
Why would companies want to enforce attendance of non-essential people? I figure that, as the pandemic drags on, all that real estate sitting empty is expensive and makes them look bad financially. But then not having a big physical presence or several medium-sized presences scattered around would make them look bad socially. Well, maybe not bad, but less than powerful, precisely because attitudes about the when and where of work are still evolving.
I believe another reason is simply power. The office is the playing field of work, the stage where a caste system of executives, middle managers, and underlings can be acted out. It’s a natural extension of school, which we all got up for in the morning and suffered through each day until we could leave and do what we wanted for a little while before dinner and homework.
The Grass Is Greener When the Sunlight Hits It
I worked in an office for almost 20 years, fresh out of electronics trade school. I started out in the 24/7/365 NOC where I did shift work, including two twelves over the weekend once a month. For a telecommunications company, NOC workers are the custodians of the office — these are the people who have seen the place at all hours on the regular. These are the essential workers, the people who are troubleshooting IP networks on Christmas morning and filling the dull hours of the afternoon watching Die Hard on one of the big screens. Shift work is interesting because you can theoretically get stuff done during the day if you work second or third shift, but you’re also trying to sleep while the world is awake, and it can really screw you up.
After a couple of years in the NOC, I moved out to the engineering department and everything changed. I had metamorphosed into one of Them, a regular 9-5 office worker. Instead of getting my binder out of a breadbox-sized locker in the tiny break room and sitting wherever at a long console of computers and phones, I had a cube with a name plate. I had my own phone. My own box of tissues, accordion-style pad of sticky notes, and a chair that would only need to be adjusted one time. And instead of working in a cave by the glow of the monitors, amber terminals, and surveillance screens, I was across the aisle from a cube with a window.
And of course, I thought that would change how I felt about work. We Americans do too much of it in the name of constant growth, and that includes this side hustle culture out there that can turn our relaxing hobbies into entrepreneurial nightmares. At the office, like at school, there are many rules that are difficult to navigate, especially since the office tends to be inter-generational. I grew up in that office, and it holds a special place in my heart.
Work Is A Four-Letter Word
But that was my old job. At the tail end of 2019, I started full-time here at Hackaday as a Staff Writer. Talk about differences! Almost nothing seemed the same, except that I was working and someone was paying me in return, and I would still be using a computer all day. Suddenly, I went from toiling under a cold draft and fluorescent lights with my back to the door of a cubicle to working anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted, and in whatever clothes I found comfortable. It was all too freeing, and the Monday to Friday I had been pulling all my life suddenly looked like a pile of material and fasteners that I would have to construct by myself into a shelter of sanity.
Most days, I just plain don’t want to do what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time (thanks, ADHD!), but I recognize that I; thrive within a structure. Unfortunately, this works best when that structure is imposed by someone else.
And that’s what I miss most about the office, about going out to work: the whole structure of the thing. You venture out, maybe you’re a little late, maybe there’s time to get a latte. You get there and see familiar faces with stories to tell that distract you from your own life. You work for a few hours, secure in the fact that everyone around you is also working, and often toward a common goal. Then it’s time for lunch, and another change of scenery whether it’s a fast food place, the break room or your car to eat, or, depending on the day, the restroom on another floor to do some crying. Then it’s back to work for a while before we all get excited to go back home to our things that have been sitting alone for nine hours, give or take.
But at home, it can be like one of those endless, solidly-overcast days of sameness where you can’t tell 10AM from 4PM. Many days I miss the being-somewhere-else aspect of going out to the office. Not just because of the scenery changes, but because it allows the workplace to be an emotional scapegoat. Everyone complains about the office, right? But if you work from home, what are you going to do? It’s a difficult thing to hate your home, especially when you have all the power to make it whatever you want. So for me, this translates to having a highly-decorated office, which of course can be an endless source of distraction if I let it. But I believe it feeds my creativity to have all these objects around, most of which have a story behind them.
Having said all that, I don’t think I can go out to work at this point, at least not at a computer-based job. Between the loud, funny keyboard, the foot pedals, the expensive chair, and the ideal desk height of 21″, I’m too set in my ergonomic ways. But hey, for someone who thought they’d never computer again due to repetitive stress injury, I’m doing pretty good.
For another thing, my work is completely different now. While it’s true that I needed to think in my engineering job, what I do now has been best described by some other writer as sitting down and bleeding from the forehead. At least here at home, no one is going to come up behind me and start talking, or call out my name from over the wall. My biggest interruptions are usually cat-based. I can wear what I want, change if I need to, and I’m not expected to have any shoes on. In other words, I’m pretty happy working from home, and I bet I’m not alone.