The night I receive the email about a partial return to the office, it takes me a long time to get to sleep. There are the logistical questions of which days would be most logical, and underneath them, a fizzing disquiet. In my mind it is still January, or maybe October, and all this is far too premature. But really my hesitance has little to do with the risk of catching Covid – though I would rather crawl the four miles to work than have strangers breathe on me on a rush-hour Tube. After a year of longing for a return to “normality”, I find I don’t want it after all – at least, not this part of it. Working from home has been a reclamation of sorts, and I am not ready to relinquish it.
My new three-metre commute from bed to desk has gifted me two extra hours in the day, and I spend at least one of them asleep. Freed from the rigidity of the office, I can exercise, water the plants or meet a friend for a walk during the working day. I can no longer remember how I once squeezed life’s mundanities – doctor’s appointments, laundry, hoovering – into the fleeting hours I spent at home and awake. In my flat, I don’t have to surmount the ickiness of heated-up leftovers in plastic containers in order to swallow my lunch; there is no microwave here at all.
But more appealing than all of this is that I can kid myself, even if just for a small part of each day, that I am my own boss, that I decide what to do and when to do it. This is what I imagined adulthood would be like as a child; now I realise that you still spend most of adult life being told what to do – the difference is that you sometimes get paid for it.
But the reality is that this newfound freedom is a fallacy. Pre-pandemic, I was strict about boundaries: about taking lunchbreaks, leaving on time wherever possible, not having work emails on my phone. I have tried to maintain some semblance of this while working from home: I haven’t given in to loungewear, or worked a single day of this pandemic from bed. At first I tried to distinguish the week from the weekend with takeaways, but my bank balance and my jeans soon informed me that this was untenable.
Freed from the physical demarcations of the office, work is rampant in my mind like a stubborn weed. Once one of many occupations that filled my waking hours, it is now the greatest of a mere handful, and the pressure on it to provide validation and meaning is too great. When people enquire as to my well-being, I answer, “work is mad” – even when it isn’t – as if there is now no distinction between how work is and how I am. I dream about it – grown-up versions of those arriving-in-the-playground-naked dreams of childhood: in my sleep-addled mind the camera on my laptop is always on, private moments broadcast on Zoom. In another dream, everyone on New Statesman staff has a book being published, and I am the lone failure.
I read said email about a prospective return to the office on my personal phone, in bed, at 11.30pm. I feel the need to work longer and later, to be contactable at all times, as if I need to prove that I really am working. Yes, I could do the food shop on my lunchbreak, but I rarely take one. And I have developed RSI for the first time in my working life. This is a strange kind of freedom.
I miss the thoughts that bubble over in conversations with colleagues while my lunch does the same in the afore-maligned microwave. I miss decompressing in the pub; the curious intimacy between colleagues, the only people who truly understand this huge part of my life. I would like to build real-life relationships with those of them I have only met via a screen; to discover how tall they are. I may not miss the strip lights and carpet tiles of the office, but I miss being able to leave them behind.
I sign up for a hypothetical two days a week in the office, begin furiously googling folding bikes (tell me, dear reader, is a Brompton really worth £1,000 or is it a middle-class metropolitan con? And what route between King’s Cross and the Strand has the lowest risk of death by terrible traffic accident?) and wonder whether I should ask for a pay rise.
[see also: Why we should celebrate the demise of the office]
This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people