The photos in last week’s New York Times are startling: a desk missing a laptop, its cords dangling free. A dead mouse by the copier. Plants brown and crackling, inches from a watering can of stale water. The end times? Sort of. Welcome to the office buildings of March 2020, hastily abandoned on a sudden call from the governor (not ours) to shelter at home. Some workers had time to grab the essentials – a jacket, sunglasses, datebook – but others had no warning, being told to stay home a day after leaving for the weekend.
A Times survey reveals that 86 percent of people now working from home are satisfied with remote work. Three-quarters report their productivity is the same or better. Some researchers say this was already coming, and those planning for the future of work need to wake up and smell the coffee – the kind we brew in our kitchens, not the breakroom Keurig.
I understand. Work can be the place where you sit and long to be at home, where you can set your own schedule, take a walk around the block to clear your head, be there when the Lowe’s truck arrives with the new fridge. The occasional snow day or even sick day, if all you’ve got is a lousy cold, can feel like bliss.
But take if from me. Even if you, like me, are able to retire early, before your boss says you have to, and even if that is not a hardship because you have enough to be pay the bills and then some, not working can be a loss. I’m not just talking about not doing a job, but about doing it the way we all did before this strange new reality. I mean going to work, parking in the lot, walking into the building, addressing the time clock, striding down the hall, turning on the lights, opening the shades, turning the sign from “Closed” to “Come In!”
Every job is different, and I’m not talking about toiling in a factory, though my Dad told enough entertaining stories about his decades as a millwright at Alcoa to help me understand it was not all drudgery. My job was a luxury in many ways. While I had to be there from 8 to 4:30, with half an hour for an unpaid lunch, I had my own domain, a medical library I managed the heck out of. I did the thing I went to graduate school for – help people by hunting down the information they absolutely need. The only medical librarian in town, I wasn’t lonely at all. I met monthly with a swell bunch of people who did the same thing I did, albeit for a different audience – public librarians, college librarians, seminary librarians. We spoke each other’s language. We gave each other advice and used book carts, and plenty of moral support.
It’s the other kind of companionship, though, that I miss the most. It’s all about the people who worked in the same building, though not in my office. (I only ever had one assistant, a lovely woman I’m afraid I drove away because I wanted to do everything myself.) I miss talking about the early morning rain with the other people sprinting from their cars to the front door. I miss greeting the nurses in the hallway clad in their hairnets and scrubs. I miss stopping to take a request for research from a doctor in a hurry to his rounds. I miss running into someone from finance as we dropped our Netflix envelopes into the lobby mail slot, asking, “What did you watch?” I miss talking about grandkids with the pathologist in the gym as we walked (okay, he ran) side by side on the employee treadmills.
Every year, we had to complete an employee engagement survey, a series of statements designed to measure the happiness (and, of course, productivity) of each person on the payroll. Some folks had a problem with one perennial statement: “I have a best friend at work.” The CEO finally had to explain that didn’t mean “I work with my BFF.” It meant you had someone, somewhere in the building, you felt good about, someone to share concerns and celebrate little joys with. It took a while, but I found that person. Jayne worked near me, for the same boss but doing something else. One day she came into my office, noticed a pile of stones, and knew instantly we were simpatico. I said, “Let me show you something else!” and led her to enormous sixth-floor windows to look down on a row of artfully planted shrubs. We soon found we had much more in common than a love of nature, and I mourned the day she left for Minnesota.
One day at those same windows (they were on the way to the restroom), I saw a flock of turkey vultures circling. A man I hardly knew from IT walked by and said, “You can’t tell me they’re not having fun.” Later that year, I stood transfixed at those windows, watching the first big snowflakes fall. I didn’t know he was there until we both turned to go back to our work. “Queen Anne’s lace,” I said, and he smiled. These chance encounters are a part of work we might not even know we miss, whether we are home on quarantine or retirement. People matter. Not just our friends, but the ones we pass on the street, in the hall. I hope we get back to that soon.