SARAH BUITENDACH: What we lost when Covid killed the office
Confined to our diminished worlds, our present nostalgia isn’t just for a bygone era; it’s for two months ago. For outings to the movies, breakfasts at Tasha’s and team meetings that aren’t peppered with: ‘Sorry – can you say that again? We lost you for a second.’
That I lost half an hour of a day last week watching this video, produced by US celebrity magazine Entertainment Weekly on the reunion of the Dawson’s Creek cast after two decades, says something about my mindset right now. That I then spent a further 30 minutes on the phone to one of my oldest friends – an extremely busy corporate type – dissecting the video and reminiscing about the show, which we loved as teenagers, says something about nostalgia. It is intoxicating, powerful stuff.
Those of you who didn’t come of age in the 1990s, and thus were spared the terrifying zenith of Boys of London baggy jeans, Spice Girl platform trainers an black bomber jackets with orange lining, might not be familiar with the angsty teen TV series that launched the careers of Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams. No doubt there are equivalents in your past that evoke melancholy and longing for days lost, generations later. Of student road trips in your clapped-out VW, watching Spider-Man in Xhosa and listening to LM Radio, perhaps.
Much has been said about the sudden desire to revisit the past during lockdown. Stuck indoors, many people are finally sorting out cupboards of largely rubbish family photos that have been forgotten for decades. Some are rewatching the whole of Friends or Seinfeld, listening to podcasts about movies they loved as kids (here’s a good one) and revisiting formative books.
This behaviour isn’t happenstance, by the way; it’s a very particular coping mechanism.
As Professor Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton says on the topic in this smart BBC piece, “the past serves as a template for what the future will look like. It reminds you of what was good in the past, what you enjoyed doing, the things you enjoyed engaging with and the people you love. That provides you with a model of what the future will be like.”
Confined to our diminished worlds, this nostalgia isn’t just for a bygone era; it’s for two months ago. For outings to the movies, breakfasts at Tasha’s and team meetings that aren’t peppered with: “Sorry – can you say that again? We lost you for a second.”
Writers are feeling this too, and, as a result, have fashioned some great, wistful work on a topic we didn’t see coming: the office. Or rather, the potential death of it.
As always, the FT’s Lucy Kellaway nails it in her sort-of obit to a world we all took for granted. There’s now a void which used to be occupied by cross-desk skinner, flirting in the lift, smoke breaks, passive-aggressive boardroom fights and projectors not working again. Kellaway’s lament on losing “office spouses”, pranks and workplace cynicism made me feel warm inside. And sad. In SA, there’s the added element that our offices, post-1994, brought cultures and races together. We bonded with Zeenat and Themba over our bosses, we hung out over Friday afternoon drinks, and we went to traditional weddings and learnt about Eid and black tax and liking Dawson’s Creek, all because of our workplaces.
This excellent opinion piece by The New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior tackles the topic too. Among other things she discusses the boundary the office created between our work and home lives, and how that has dissipated.
I know you’ll agree that in a poof of smoke, we’re suddenly now always on: your kitchen is also your boardroom; you’re replying to e-mails in the bath; your spouse is annoyed that you’re on another Microsoft Teams chat. Of course the heat is on to keep your business alive in a pandemic – but all this cannot be healthy.
Once this horror show abates, our work lives will probably never be same, but hopefully some semblance of life partition will be reinstated. If not, above all, I will miss the FM deadline evenings where we quibble over cover lines, proofread pages over a glass of wine (yes – it’s like Mad Men, just without the style and good-looking people), laugh at outrageous suggestions and get all the gossip from our politics team. Imagine trying to do that on Zoom. Ugh.
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