OOne of the first things we knew at the start of 2020 was that we weren’t going to be working for a while. We thought we were going to take a little break – maybe a week – and then reevaluate. So we cleaned our cabins and offices and grabbed some snacks in the galley (and toilet paper in the bathroom). One week became two, which became one month, which became a series of question marks stretching endlessly into the future as Zooms and FaceTimes conversions and the home office gradually made the idea even spending our working days with other people felt like a quaint memory. Like childhood birthday parties, or answering machines, or democracy working properly.
Some of us may never go back. From time to time, we’ll hear of companies reassessing their relationship with the desktop, which has proven to be unnecessary or at least obsolete.
Maybe it’s better. Maybe the fuel we save and the traffic we avoid are betterin the long run, and it took this forced separation to reveal it.
But I’m a defender of the office, despite all its troubles. I’m here to pay homage to the tall, dumb, heavy apartment buildings, with their slow elevators and water coolers, and the shared bathrooms that smell mysterious and disconcerting. I defend the poorly designed parking lot, the faulty wifi router in conference room B driving everyone crazy, the bundles of power cords and sun-faded personal photos hanging at a five-degree angle because Janice des accounts hit the holes in the plasterboard too close together.
Maybe I’m biased. I wrote for the US version of the ultimate workplace show, The Office, for its first four seasons. This show, like its British predecessor, didn’t exactly celebrate the concept of a communal workplace so much as presented it as a banal, necessary evil. It’s just the place, said Wernham Hogg sales rep Tim Canterbury, where you share a bit of carpet with other people for eight hours a day, and that shared piece of carpet could be all that. that you have in common.
It’s not exactly the most romantic ode, but after two years of commuting between my bedroom and living room, a shared piece of rug sounds delightful. Because, despite all its problems, the office is one of the only places where we meet and have to deal with other people.
This was true before the pandemic. The world had already fragmented. Should we go to the grocery store? Hey, let’s have them delivered. Need to buy a book, a toy, a flashlight, a humidifier? Why drive to the store when we can order it from our couch while we watch Netflix? The only place we met other people reliably, the only place we knew we had to share some mats, was at work.
I imagine that, for many, the loss of that shared rug was something to celebrate, not mourn. I understand. Offices can be places of drudgery, emotional pain, or even abuse from cruel co-workers or bosses. Working from home has also allowed some of us to spend more time with our children. (Although, counter-argument: we had to spend all of our time with our children.) I imagine that, for many, the flexibility of working from home could have been, and could forever be, a blessing.
But a world where we never meet other people, no matter how dull or annoying, is not the world humans were designed for. We’re meant to be around each other, gently jostling each other, exchanging little moments of conversation and mutual interest. We’re supposed to share experiences, bond over common annoyances, celebrate each other’s birthdays with silly hats and cupcakes. The shared office is one of the last places where you can practice being around other people.
I have spent the past six years reading and writing about ethics. Ethics, in a nutshell, is the art of negotiating with the people with whom we share bits of carpet. It’s the art of learning what others appreciate, comparing that with what we value, and learning to coexist.
It’s messy, disheartening and frustrating, and it’s also the essence of being alive. Our offices are ethical laboratories of which we are both the guinea pigs and the scientists.
Again, I will admit my own bias. Not only have I made a living writing about people in offices, but the offices I’ve lived in are some of the most fun in the world. They’re filled with funny, smart people who make going to work feel like the opposite of “going to work.” The 50 hardest laughs I’ve had in my life all happened at my job. It’s probably not the same for you, which means you can read about the disappearance of the shared desktop and say: good riddance.
But something will be lost if we stop working around others. There will be one less place on Earth where we will have to negotiate with people we have not chosen to negotiate with. I submit, to those of us slowly returning to our desktops, water coolers, and wonky wifi routers, that all might not be so bad.