Brave New Post Lockdown World: Same Office, Different River? 

In the early 2000s, TV viewers were invited to see the funny side of the drudgery and monotony of the white-collar workplace.

The Office starring Ricky Gervais as David Brent, a deluded manager at a regional branch of paper merchant’s firm  Wernham Hogg cashed in on the then-new trend for reality TV, presenting itself as a fly-on-the-wall “mockumentary” and revelling in the incidents of social awkwardness, gaffes, flirtations, clashes of egos and professional rivalries which permeate workplaces throughout the world.

If The Office were to be remade in 2021 (assuming Wernham Hogg had managed to weather the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic) it would be quite a different show.

For a start, there would be a lot fewer staff around owing to the explosion of the working from home culture.

The largely pointless and unproductive team meetings and training sessions would now be conducted virtually via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

David Brent’s awful jokes and embarrassing dance moves would not have the same effect if heard or seen via a virtual video-conferencing platform.  For his beleaguered staff that might not be such a bad thing though…

In September of this year, I returned to my pre-lockdown weekly routine of three days in the office and two days of working from home – having spent the previous 18 months continuously working from home.

I came back to quite a transformed place.  To quote WB Yeats (albeit in a very different context) things had “changed, changed utterly” – although I wouldn’t go quite so far as to describe the office as “a terrible beauty”.

The place now seems semi-deserted at the best of times with half the workforce working from home on any given day.  On Fridays, it’s like the Marie Celeste. Meetings formerly held in physical spaces with all attendees present in the same room are now virtually unheard of. (No pun intended).

The office café from where I used to get my morning caffeine fix, and the occasional lunchtime jacket potato or butternut squash risotto at a reasonable price has now gone.  It’s been replaced by a vending machine which on the rare occasions when it works dispenses poor quality hot drinks in paper cups and overpriced items of processed unhealthy confectionary.

Consequently, the café’s former status as a place of lunchtime gossip and socialising with colleagues from other departments is no more.

The Friday evening tradition of absconding to the local pub for a few bevvies after work has vanished now that everyone seems to work from home on Fridays. This particular boozer located a stone’s throw from the office was once a hive of activity from around 4.30 pm on a Friday. Now invariably it seems little more than half full.

John Seabrook writing in the New Yorker succinctly captures the changed atmosphere of this new, almost post-apocalyptic environment:

“As far as I could tell, I was the only soul in our Gensler-designed office. Post-it reminders from March were curling at the edges. The silence felt oppressive.

Following the new one-way directional signage, I eventually came to my desk. I booted up my virtual desktop, thinking I might take advantage of the rare quiet and privacy to actually do some work in the office. But I couldn’t concentrate. I missed my colleagues. Whether walled, open, or cloud-based, an office is about the people who work there. Without the people, the office is an empty shell.”

To be fair though, this transformation of office culture into the so-called “hybrid” environment had been on the cards for quite some time. The pandemic and lockdowns have simply accelerated a process that was already well underway.

While some of us may miss the Friday evening pub sessions or the office gossip, few of us will miss the commuter hell of travelling on overcrowded public transport or being stuck in endless traffic jams five days a week.

But change is of course constant.  As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (c 535 BC – c 475 BC) was reported to have said “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.”

These recent transformations to the workplace may have happened more suddenly than expected, but history has shown that we are quite a resilient species who can adapt to change when we need to – no matter how radical.  The modern era is no exception.