Saturday, June 26, 2021

On Returning to Work and Going Back in Time


Scott D. Parker

On Tuesday, I went back in time.

After working from home since 17 March 2020, I finally returned to my office.

My company, a large oil and gas service company, has gone to great lengths to ensure the safety of its employees, and that started with sending us home on the afternoon of 16 March 2020, a Monday. 

For my team, product marketing, it was a rather seamless transition. Most of what we do is write and discuss strategies and create awesome visuals, things we can easily do that from home via Skype or Teams. 

On that Monday afternoon, we were told to pack up everything we’d need to work from home for the foreseeable future. If you asked each of us when we’d return, most of us might’ve said summer or fall 2020. Summer arrived and our return date was extended to the fall, then the new year, then Quarter 2 of 2021. Many of the folks in my building are slowly returning to work, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays. My first time back was this past Tuesday, and it proved something truly odd. 

In the 15 months since I last made that 23-minute morning commute, I had gotten very accustomed to not having a commute. Sure my audiobook and podcast listening took a serious nose dive, but nothing could compete with a commute that was just down the hall. In my work office, I have one of those desks where you can sit or stand. At home, I have two desks, a standing one and a sitting one. Each has a separate monitor so I only had to move the laptop from station to station. Throw in the fact that I have an actual home office with a door I could close—versus some of my peers who set up shop on dining room tables and in game rooms vacated by college-bound teenagers—and my setup was great. I get to have lunch with the wife and son, pet the dogs, and wear shorts. (I always wore office polos).

Tuesday was weird. The commute’s muscle memory kicked in and I made good time. There’s a temperature sensor at the front door so we have to swipe and pass the temp check just to get in. Masks are required whenever we are in public areas. That means when you have to get some coffee or visit the restroom, mask up. 

Walking through the hallways to my cube, the old smells hit me. So did the quiet. It was eerie, like those late afternoon times in December when many folks are already on their vacations. The fridge was empty so my lunch had lots of space. Then I rounded the corner to my cube. 

It was like something out of a dream. Like a time capsule frozen in amber. The post-it notes on my monitor, reminding me to do something now long forgotten, were there. So was my chair, a unique one unlike all the others. The papers on my desk still sat in the haphazard fashion as I had left them.  The list of projects were still there, reminding me of what was important in spring 2020, some of them completed while others were a casualty of the economic downturn in my industry. 

Opening the drawers, I discovered all the snacks I had stashed away. Tea, nuts, gum, and protein bars—all trashed now. There was even a fidget spinner I had forgotten. 

All the edible stuff went into the trash. A complete wipe down of all surfaces commenced. And then I logged in and got to work. 

We’ve all experienced the pandemic in different ways, but we all experienced it in real time, day after slow day, for the past fifteen months. We’ve adjusted our lives. As the months dragged on, I think many of us kind of forgot what everyday life was like before COVID. Even now, as I start going out in public without masks, it is taking me a few times not to feel skeeved.

But to have a visceral, personal reminder of how I lived prior to the pandemic was shocking. As much as the transition to pandemic life took getting used to, so, too, will the transition to post-pandemic life, the return to normal. 

I suspect I’m not alone. 

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