Going back to the office

So, I am currently having quite the dilemma. Like many people out there in a post-Covid world.

To go back to the office or not go back to the office?

I went on my first adoption leave in July 2019 and basically haven’t been back to the office to work since. So it’s been about 3.5 years of working from home (including 2 adoption leave periods). When I went back after my first parental leave it was mid-2020 and working from home was pretty much mandatory for everyone. And while the office slowly reopened and people were gradually allowed/encouraged back into the office in 2021, I found at the time that it was much easier to manage my work-life balance being at home.

All of my work can be done remotely (even before Covid all of our team meetings etc were on Zoom or Teams as we need to be inclusive of our regional offices in other countries). And being at home means that when I get up to have a cup of tea or a lunch break I can throw a load of laundry on, or hang it out, or run a loo brush round the loo, and generally keep on top of household chores that would otherwise build up and need doing every evening and weekend, when I would much rather be doing fun stuff or relaxing or sleeping.

However, now that gas and electricity costs have shot up, I thought maybe it’s time to go back into the office and make use of all that free heating! I certainly don’t want the heating to be on at home during the day so this would help reduce both heating and electricity costs. Several people have also pointed out that working from home alone can be isolating – you don’t see anyone all day and can’t have the same social networking opportunities over the water cooler/coffee maker etc.

So back into the office I went….

And it was a fairly grim experience.

Our office is a huge, open plan area over 3 stories, designed to house approximately 700 people. In the old days there were arguments about desk space, hot-desking and parking spaces etc.

Now it’s a sad, vast, empty expanse, a shell of it’s former self.

They have closed off the top floor completely, in the hope of sub-letting it, though no-one really wants office space anymore. The lease to the building runs to 2025 but they have agreed to give it up after that point, and are desperate to sub-let it earlier if any takers come along. It’s a huge expense keeping an enormous building running with barely anyone in it. The cafe has been closed for almost 3 years though I think they run a skeleton baked-potato service on a Thursday or something random.

There are a few people who come into the office on a semi-regular basis, people with kids at the nursery (which is also closing down soon, much to the disappointment and panic of the parents with kids there), or people with not enough space to work properly or comfortably at home, or with noisy kids at home etc. But some days it’s deserted, a vast, empty expanse of identical desks stretching out into the darkness. The lights are on timers with motion-sensors so they are designed to be on during the day when 700 people are milling about in the building, and turn themselves off in the evenings when people have left etc. But sitting alone in a corner of the building with no other humans visible, they turn off approximately every 10-15 mins if there is no movement and you have to wave your arms about like a lunatic to make them come back on again. As it gets colder and darker as winter approaches, it becomes very tedious to be constantly plunged into darkness and having to wave your arms about all the time. And no, they can’t just turn them on – I’ve asked. The building was designed with all these in-built eco-features that can’t be turned off as they never expected the building to be so empty.

The vast open-plan space is designed for background hubbub. Enough people milling around, typing, talking on headsets and you can’t really make out individual conversations much. No such privacy now. I can hear the occasional HR and Finance staff on calls across the building now, their voices echoing out into the ether. It’s very annoying and distracting.

It doesn’t help that Oxford is one of the most un affordable cities in the UK. Lots of younger staff on fairly meagre incomes hoping to get on the property ladder had no chance while living here, but when online working became an option, many of them scattered to be closer to family, or buy their first house in a more affordable area like Glasgow or Staffordshire. They simply aren’t coming back. Why would you come back to one of the least affordable cities in the country if you don’t have to?

One Monday I came into the office and barring the lady on reception I didn’t see a single other human being for the whole day. Very sad and depressing, and somehow lonelier than being at home on your own.

So back home I went, where I am lucky enough to have a good desk set up. But without heating the house temp dropped this week to a chilly 16 degrees, and even with extra jumpers and gloves and tea it feels too cold to be sensible and functioning. Especially when you are sitting very still typing all day.

I have a tiny little radiator that I’ve plugged in under my desk to warm my legs up, and I think I may have to concede defeat and put the heating on a bit more in these chilly winter days.

So it seems we are screwed either way really – damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, as the saying goes.

Now that I am also grappling with mould it seems the sensible thing to do is have the heating on more often and be at home to try and dry the air out a bit!

I think, at least for my employer, the days of the office are well and truly over.

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