Do you miss the office? Workplace sitcom master Michael Schur explains why we should relish our return | Work & careers

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.

Man sitting at desk in office, looking at woman in denim skirt and patterned sweater
  • “In 1987,” says photographer Steven Ahlgren, “when I was bored and dissatisfied, working as a banker in Minneapolis, I started making frequent trips to look at a painting of Edward Hopper, Night Office. What first attracted me was its setting, which I recounted every day I worked at the bank. But what held me back was her ambiguous narrative – who these two people were, what their relationship was, and why was the woman staring at that piece of paper on the floor?

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.

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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.

Man sitting at desk with cut out birthday balloons hanging from the ceiling above him
Desks in an office with hanging wires and a lamp on one
Man in a suit sitting looking over an office partition, with a red poinsettia next to him
  • “I remember these photos every time I walk into an office building,” says Ahlgren, “or hear a fragment of a conversation about office life: a promotion won or lost, the challenges of a new company, a difficult relationship with a superior or subordinate.Sometimes I remember these conversations and try to imagine how the moment described would have looked like in a picture.

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.

Man sitting at the desk, on the phone, in front of a huge computer
People seated at desks behind yellow partitions in an office, with Christmas decorations taped around them
  • “It wasn’t until I left banking to study photography that I walked into an office with a camera to try and portray some of these ideas. I ended up working on this project from 1990 to 2001, in law firms, insurance companies, government agencies, but always with the same approach: nothing would be staged and only available light would be used. .

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.

Woman sitting at a desk with lots of folders on it
Man seated at a desk, face off camera, back to a sideboard with family photos on it
  • “As I became more interested in photography and less in banking, I began to notice scenes around me that reminded me of Edward Hopper’s paintings. When I worked late, I was fascinated by how the light in some empty offices and corridors seemed almost theatrical.’

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.

Three men seated around a desk, one with his back to the camera, raising a finger
Office workers sitting around a large desk in front of a wall with lots of portraits on it
  • “During meetings, my attention would sometimes wander away from the topic at hand and I would observe the subtle expressions and gestures of those around me. Sometimes I saw that what was being discussed had profound consequences – professional and personal – for others in the room, although their emotions were usually veiled by professional decorum.

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.

Michael Schur’s book how to be perfect is published by Quercus at £14.99. Office by Steven Ahlgren is published by Hoxton Mini Press at £16.95. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copies at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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