Last week I stepped in the office for full-day work for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I have visited the office twice in the last two years to pick up items and personal effects, but have otherwise acted as an employee from the comfort of my home. I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work remotely, and now things at work have been deemed safe to return.
This is not to say that everything is back to “normal.” We are obviously still following public health protocols by conducting screens on entry, displaying our vaccine QR codes, wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, and staggering our time in the office to cut down on the number of people on site at any given point. But it’s the first step back towards “normalcy” I’ve experienced in two year – I had to put on pants to “go to work.” In my time at home, I have whole-heartedly embraced what I call the Zoom mullet – business up top (in camera view) and party down below (always shorts; even I have a sense of propriety).
What I found most jarring about my return is the paradoxical strangeness of being on campus. It’s paradoxical because intellectually, I know I have been away from the office for two-years, however on an emotional, visceral level, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone at all. I have a few guesses why it doesn’t feel strange being on campus. First, I have continued working my job during my time at home, so I’m not stepping back into an unfamiliar context. I’ve also been in regular contact with many of my collegues (though some I literally have not interacted with them since we’ve been away), and I’ve seen many of them on video, so there is a sense that we’ve not been apart too long. Third, the pandemic has created a distorted time dilation, where large swaths of time pass quickly, even if day to day existence is (sometimes) painfully long. This tricks our minds with a kind of time travel into the future; perhaps we’ve all been more zoned-out on auto-pilot than we realized. And finally, I think the reason why it feels like I’ve been gone for a short time is that the office hasn’t changed. I mean almost literally, the office is the same as when I left. Because we have all more or less worked from home during this time, and everyone has been out of the office, no changes have happened to the physical space – the furnature is all where we left it, the decorations are the same, the same names appear on the walls, etc. Other than the desks being decluttered, you wouldn’t know that people have been gone for two years. Props to the custodial staff for keeping the space clean.
I came to work with some mixed emotions. I’m a little sad that our time at home is over and we have to move on to the next phase of things. The pandemic might drag on, but I am entering a new phase of interacting with the phenomenon. And of course, I’ll miss the flexibility that came with always being home. However I was looking forward to my return as well. I looked forward to the separation of work and home, the commute to function as a liminal space. I embrace the structure imposed on my time by virtue of changing phyical locations. I look forward to the serendipitous interactions with my colleagues, around the proverbial water cooler.
All things change, and now so must I. I will look back with some fondness on the last 23 months, despite all the negatives it brought. However, now it’s time to get back to work.