Many Tuesday mornings, I’m in the middle of one of my daily Zoom work calls when I hear my neighbors wheeling garbage cans back from the curb. Until a year and a half ago, the distinctive grinding of wheels rolling over the concrete courtyard was a sound I’d rarely heard. Because I would not have been at home having left for work early, and already been settled into my day in the GBH newsroom.
Since COVID, I’ve become one of the millions of Americans who work from home with some regularity as well as in my office. We hybrid workers never entirely left the office behind — for a long time the few commuters on the nearly empty streets. I came in even during the COVID lockdown. My work put me in the official group of essential employees, though obviously not linked to the life and death duties of the frontline workers.
GBH was officially closed except for those with critical duties and those of us continuing to keep the news-related programs on the air. But out of an abundance of caution, there were very few of us in the office — most of my fellow newsroom colleagues were assigned to work from home. Others began a rotation during which they’d switch off with other team members so as to minimize the risk of infection.
On any given day, the newsroom was the proverbial ghost town with just me and two of my co-workers populating a huge space. Sometimes I wouldn’t see them at all as their desks were way across on the other side of the room. At night another colleague would arrive for the late shift, but that was it.
Initially, it was weird and off putting to interact with the same tiny corps of people in the building. To hear my own footsteps echo in the abandoned hallways. And to walk past rows and rows of department offices — empty desks cluttered with dusty personal items. But what was at first eerie and more than a little nerve-wracking quickly became a kind of comforting desolation.
I didn’t realize how comforting until a few weeks ago when a few more people started making their way back into the building. GBH is officially closed until Labor Day, but after the Centers for Disease Control relaxed the quarantine rules, more of my colleagues decided to venture in for short trips to clean off their desks and prepare for their eventual return. At first, those drop-in visits were few, but recently there were people coming in for meetings or doing their own version of a hybrid schedule.
Suddenly I realized how much I was accustomed to the mostly silent spaces. Not only was I literally startled by the people noise, but I’ve been unsettled by what now feels like a whirlwind of activity. It feels crowded, even though it’s actually just a few more people. They are all so excited to be back — happy to connect outside of their Zoom screen squares. I’ve been happy to see them, but I have to admit it feels strange, really strange. I was relieved when my late-shift co-worker shared with me that the extra people rattled her, too.
Though I feel strongly that the future of work will be and should be hybrid, until recently I hadn’t given much thought to how I would feel in the workplace after a year or more of physical and emotional social distancing. It will not be as simple as just people returning to reclaim their desks. I’m now convinced that there has to be a process of reintegration and a thoughtful reorientation for a successful transition. And even that might not be enough.
Returning to normal at work or finding that elusive new normal is just a first step.