It occurred to me, about halfway between the office and St Paul’s station last week, that any excitement I might have felt about returning to the workplace had already ebbed away.
Was it the rivulets of rain trickling down my neck as I sloshed my way through London that dulled the euphoria of reunion? Or the reconnection with my handbag which, now packed with half a ton of computer equipment to be ferried to and from the office, had reawakened a forgotten commuter shoulder pain? Perhaps I was resentful about having spent £10 on coffee from “local businesses” that tasted properly disgusting. I was definitely livid that, even after months of absence, the office air-conditioning had relinquished not one Fahrenheit in its campaign of thermostatic terror to recreate the atmosphere on Mars.
Government ministers are concerned that Britons are lagging behind our European neighbours. They’re desperate for us to get back into the office and throw our salaries around the concrete metropolis again. But the UK is proving stubbornly resistant. In a survey undertaken by Morgan Stanley in early August, only about 37 per cent of Britons were back, compared with roughly 75 per cent of German, Spanish or Italians. In France, 84 per cent of office staff have returned. In the UK, offices are largely empty, with a quarter of us only turning up part time.
Having been charged with preventing the economic collapse that looms before us, I have decided to return. It seems a bit pointless to sit at home while my school-age daughter heads to a classroom and the threat of imminent contagion. Besides, my living room is boring. The R-rate might not be perfect, but I need a change of scene.
What was most surprising about reintroduction, however, was not the crappy food options, the discomforts of being mobile or the commuter schlep that office work entails, but how shockingly unproductive it all was. Despite the comparative serenity of the office, free of children, or dogs, and fridges needing to be filled, I accomplished powerfully little in my time there. For all the effort of being more professional, it turned out that I did less than bugger-all.
Far from relaxing the pressure on our output, the remote office is a ruthless efficiency machine. Walking back into the physical office seemed quaintly charming, a time capsule full of printouts and bits of paper now consigned to history, a snapshot of the way we used to work.
In the months since March, all our processes have been digitised and made electronic: there is no eventuality for which we haven’t got a spreadsheet, no “time-saving” communication platform unexplored.
But while this may sound impersonal and bureaucratic, I have found the opposite is true. Systems have necessarily become more share-y and transparent. Instead of holding smaller politburo meetings, we “hang out” and reach decisions as a team. I had looked forward to enjoying some much-valued “face-to-face” time, but while it was cute to be sitting opposite my colleagues, I realised we work far more closely when at home. Sure, I can chat across the desk now. But things have got so intimate remotely that our team of about 20 routinely “share” a 12-inch screen.
But what of the banter? What of the gossip? What about the touchy-feely stuff that makes a workplace such a jolly place to be? If banter means listening to people talking about their dinner, or what box set they should watch next on Netflix, I’ll take a rain check.
As for gossip, anyone who hasn’t found a platform on which to snipe is clearly doing something very wrong. Surely the only purpose of a Google meeting is to enjoy a simultaneous, private, and highly entertaining conversation of text asides. In the torpor of group video calls, G-chat bitching gives me life.
Having said that, the government shouldn’t feel too disheartened. One feeling that was resurgent almost immediately on commuting was a sense that this massive inconvenience should merit some reward.
After months of buying only vegetables, I felt the siren lure of retail starting to swell. Following just two days in the office, I found myself on Bond Street stroking cashmere sweaters in Gabriela Hearst. If nothing else, schlepping back into the office has perked up my interest in consumption. I need something to fight that goddamned air conditioning at work.
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