On going back to the office

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Like a lot of people, I’ve spent the last year or so working from home but now, starting next week, that time is coming to an end. Everyone on my campus (or, well, the people who are actually there during the summer) is being called back as of July 6 and, as you can, imagine some people are happier about it than others.

Personally, I’m a lot less unhappy about it than I expected to be.

Part of that is because I expected to be called back long before now, probably in the middle of the pandemic when it was still unsafe.(1) A lot of my frontline colleagues were—many of them went back last summer and they’ve been keeping the lights on for us ever since, including through the worst of the pandemic. Those colleagues very understandably can’t even with people like me who have been away for over a year, relatively safe in our homes, and I totally understand why that would be. I hope once we’re all back that we find as many ways as we can to thank, celebrate, support, and advocate for those who have kept our library (and our campus) open during an incredibly stressful time.

But with all due respect this post isn’t about them.

Even as I’ve enjoyed all the privileges that come with working from home, it’s also been undeniably challenging for me. For one thing, working from home has been incredibly isolating. I mean, I’m not that social to begin with and when I am at work, I spend most of my time shut up in an office by myself. I go whole days without talking to anyone and sometimes, for me, that can be pretty glorious. I relish alone time. But this past year, practicing social distancing meant that the only time I saw anyone I knew was over Zoom. In a way, it’s nice that we can still see each other at all—I can’t imagine what this pandemic would have been like without a tool like Zoom to keep people connected. But there’s something about Zoom that stresses me out more than in-person meetings. And when you go long enough without seeing anyone you know in person, you start to feel like you’re not quite real. Or they are. It’s weird.(2)

There are less existential things I’m looking forward to as well. For example, my office setup at work is much more ergonomic than the one at home. At home, I spend my days hunched over a tiny laptop and banging on my wireless printer to try to get it to work. In my office, I have two good-sized screens, an actual office chair, and a special height-adjustable desk that I can put at exactly the right level for either sitting or standing. As someone under five feet tall, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed that damn desk.(3)

I guess the main advantage of returning to the office for me is that it feels like a fresh start. One that comes with a lot of anxiety, no doubt, but I like fresh starts because they feel like opportunities to make changes, similar to how you make resolutions on New Year’s.(4) Like, who am I going to be in this new life? I have no idea, but so far I’m having fun taking steps to help figure it out, like investing in a new work wardrobe (via thredUP, an online consignment shop—highly recommended) and making real progress on a work-related project I’ve been thinking about for a long time (my new Meetup group on creative writing and research). Not all of the anticipated or planned changes will stick, of course, but how many opportunities do you get to feel like you’re starting a new chapter?

There are things I’m not looking forward to, of course. I’m so tired of Zoom that I could cry but I’m going to miss being able to turn off the camera during boring meetings. It also seems like my campus is going to be pretty strict about keeping people in the office as much as possible, maybe even more strict than they were before—at least for now. There’s a rumor that a more permanent telecommuting policy that allows for at least some flexibility might be coming but I imagine there’s going to be a lot of back and forth between the administration and the union before that happens, if it ever does. In the meantime, the ability to set my own schedule (more or less) the last year or so is a perk of working from home that I’m definitely going to miss.

But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that though I definitely would like at least some flexibility, working from home full time is not a thing I would personally want in a job, even if I could have it.

Mostly, though, I’m just glad that it’s safe enough to go back. Obviously, the pandemic isn’t over. People are still getting sick and dying. And no doubt we’ll experience setbacks with all the new variants and there may still be some scary or stressful times in the future. But it’s been a long time since things felt anything like normal. I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

*

(1) Frankly, after years of being required to report to work in the middle of full-on blizzards even though classes are cancelled and the campus is empty, I’m still surprised that more of us who work in the library weren’t called back sooner.

(2) I live in the same apartment complex as one of my colleagues but we never see each other around. Last month, I ran into him at the mailboxes and it was literally the first time I’d seen someone I know in person since my family came for a short visit at Christmas.

(3) Unfortunately, my office chair is too big for me so the setup isn’t perfect, but with a footrest and a cushion for my back, it’s much closer than the forty dollar writing desk and barely-any-padding chair I have at home.

(4) In fact, I’m reading a book that talks about this phenomenon: How to Change by Katy Milkman.

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