Back to Work: Commute(d), Cooped Up and Controlled

This week millions of workers head back to their offices and the rat race returns

It’s finally happened. Eighteen months into the pandemic cooped up at home, we are once again set free, like birds in a hurricane, returning to office and life. The first day feeling like ‘back to school’ - or like an ageing rocker hitting the road again after years in splendid isolation. More bottle than mic.


Millions of workers are heading to the office this week for the first time since March 2020: ‘Anxiety en masse’. You can practically feel the tension in the air. Presumably the last time it felt like this was on the first air-marshal-packed plane out of New York post 9/11.

Women and men, girls and boys are going back to the campus of life. The alarms dusted off, train passes bought and cars dutifully scrubbed. The shops have been busy selling uniforms and suits. After all, much has changed since we last donned them - body shapes shifted - Peleton honed or couch inflated.

Either way, it’s been a forever since so many of us have experienced that commute. Endless fun and games - parking, queuing, packed in, patient - staring idly out of windows streaming real life, no longer Disney Plus with the kids as surround sound.

Thousands of us reacquainted with this communal workplace again, relieved to find our favourite coffee shop has survived. Disappointed to discover there was a new owner, different decor, staff, even prices - resuscitating a sense of loss. ‘They didn’t even remember my order.’

‘Not sure I’ll return tomorrow.’

But then, the moment arrives. We head to the lobby, into the lift and out to a landing full of suits. Finding our way back to the desk left behind a lifetime ago. Once spotted, nostalgia wells up - like a long lost partner… Not quite the four legged spice of life - more like the kiosk of order and function traded in for a quirky loft or basement or garden shed.

The family I wanted back at base - work, life, family as one. The intimate immediate - the workplace remote.

Order reversed.

Maybe this is what away in action feels like. Images of Afghanistan flash to mind - and all those people left behind. For another day?

The office space feels different, more sterile - full off arrows and plexiglass and signs about Covid and health and safety. Co-workers are not the same ones we remembered. Maybe they’ve been allowed to work from home - not in for the day.

Colleagues long Zoomed (can you catch long Zoom like long Covid?) have returned in 3D, no longer cardboard cut out. Real again. Perhaps too real. The smell of competitive testosterone slowly returning. Cliques rekindled. The intimacy of the bosses kitchen and dining room revealed with the click of a Google hangout - slammed shut again.

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The first day flashes by as the conundrum returns. Do we strangely look forward to the commute back home? Or distract ouselves with the football news wishing we could get traded to a far off land like Messi or Ronaldo. Missing the freedom of space and the games with the kids.

The day resorts to the once familiar blur of the cosmetic office buzz, endless emails, meetings and calls. The reports, the data and the prospectus. I could have done this from home.

We return late to the family and dinner and back to the couch, stopping by the home office so as not to let go of its memory. Not just yet. But, once inside, the world turns on its head once more.

This time it’s not because of alarming Covid stats or Messi leaving Barca or the Euro’s, the latest episode of whatever, the cat catching all kinds of stuff in the garden or the toddler in my video call.

Now it’s back to office myopia controlling the days musings, taking our thoughts to strange places, some even wishing the pandemic’s return. And a ‘Dan in real life’ - in real life. More confused than before about what it’s all for.

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Maybe I’ll ask to go into the office a bit less.

Not quite ready to leave it all behind.

Maybe.


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