4 min read.Updated: 19 Mar 2021, 05:20 AM ISTHarish Bhat
A year after the pandemic made us work from home, let’s revisit what our workplace meant to us
Offices were originally created as spaces for work, but they evolved over time to combine work and socializing, quite seamlessly
Almost a year ago, our offices suddenly closed, and many of us were locked inside the home. Work-from-home (WFH) became the norm. Initially, there was much excitement about video calls, increased productivity and how wonderful it was to skip the long office commute. A few months later, the conversation changed. We had discussions around Zoom fatigue, blurring of work-life boundaries, and whether team culture was getting affected when people did not sit and work together.
Now, many offices have reopened. As vaccines hold hope for the end of the covid-19 pandemic, discussion has begun around workplaces of the future and what they would look like.
We will await the outcomes of these learned deliberations. Meanwhile, the first anniversary of the work-from-home life is a good time to reflect on what our offices really meant to us.
Remember those quick chats?
Offices were originally created as spaces for work, but they evolved over time to combine work and socializing, quite seamlessly. Our workplaces provide a structured environment to work in, but then there are also the quick catch-ups during tea break, light-hearted banter with teammates sitting next to you, and walking across to your best friend’s desk to talk about plans for the weekend.
Offices are fertile ground for pleasurable social interactions, which help us refresh ourselves, throughout the day. While working from home, we can try to recreate such socializing by telephoning colleagues for quick personal conversations, or by setting up occasional meetings in nearby cafés, but we know it’s not really the same.
Or those in-person meetings?
Zoom meetings and their likes are the product of marvellous technology but they simply cannot replace having colleagues in front of you in a real meeting room. If you need to listen deeply to your teammates, you need to observe them too. The changes in facial expressions, the tone of voice or overall body language, all say a lot about what is really being conveyed during a conversation.
These nuances are difficult to catch on a video call from home, where people are reduced to small clinical squares on the computer screen. What’s more, one has to cope with all the ambient household noise, or even a pet dog running in. Even if WFH does become the post-pandemic norm in some offices, there is no doubt that occasional meetings in office will be essential, particularly for important or sensitive discussions.
You meet a colleague at the photocopy machine or a watercooler in office, and a new idea suddenly springs up during the conversation. A chance lunchtime conversation at the canteen with a senior colleague throws up a new project opportunity which appears hugely exciting, and may actually lead to an interesting career move that you can pursue.
Your boss meets you in the lift, and invites you to a quick conversation over a cup of coffee regarding a customer insight that has been sitting in her mind. You meet your soulmate at an office conference, and eventually decide that both of you are made for each other. Offices abound with such serendipitous moments that can sometimes turn out to be defining interactions too.
Perhaps technology will give us a WFH-serendipity solution sometime in the future. Till then, nothing beats the unplanned office corridor conversations.
The joy of sharing chips
The offices I have worked in have always had interesting food and snacks in them. I have been fortunate to have had some amazing foodies as teammates, and all of us have generally been hungry at various points of time during work hours. This has resulted in an array of snacks arriving through the day, and particularly during late evenings. From nearby Udupi restaurants come the idlis and masala dosas. From street vendors come the vada pavs and roasted peanuts. From various handbags emerge the addictive potato wafers and chocolates. There is interesting food served during extended meetings, occasionally there are nice official lunches with clients and visitors, and then there are fresh cream cakes on birthdays.
Some modern offices also feature a snack table or open pantry, from which you can help yourself. All this is virtually impossible to replicate at home.
Commute as personal space
Many of us at some point in the past year have spoken about all the time we have saved from skipping the daily commute to office and back home. It’s quite true, and perhaps one of the big advantages of WFH. But in the mid of such commute-bashing, we often forget its merits altogether. Because, at least for some of us, our daily commute serves as a valuable personal space. We use it to read in silence, or listen to music, or think, or chat with friends over the phone—whether we are in a taxi cab, bus or metro. This is typically the time of day when neither office nor home impinges physically on us, and the pressures of both can be kept away from our mind. WFH has taken away this comforting cocoon from our lives.
For all these reasons, as we mark one year since the initial lockdown and working from home, I do miss office quite a bit. For many of us, our office was our second home, and I hope we don’t end up losing it altogether.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata Group. He also misses the clear divide between office and home, which used to exist once upon a time, before work from home came upon us.