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All those birthday cakes, all that whingeing – I miss the office | Zoe Williams

‘Hearing an alarm. Putting on a tie. Carrying a handbag. Receptionists.” You may have seen this advert for Dettol, dressed up as an ad for offices. It swiftly ceases to make sense: “Caffeine-filled air. Taking a lift. Seeing your second family.” You what now? Air filled with what? Second who? “Watercooler conversations. Proper bants.” (Someone should write a thesis on why the word “bants” doesn’t belong in the mouth of any but the very first person to say it.) “CCing. BCCing. Accidentally replying-all,” the advert continues, seemingly unaware that you can do all three of those things from home.

I saw this ad in the very busy London underground interchange station of Euston; it could only have been preaching louder to the choir if it had been an ad for using public transport. But you get the point, right? Dettol wants you back at work, just as the government wants you back at work. Go back to work.

I didn’t work in an office in the first place. I haven’t had a desk since the 90s, and that was in a time-warp of a workplace, more like the 30s: people would arrive, stay long enough to put their coat on a chair and then go to the pub.

For at least the first eight weeks of this pandemic, the worst (and, indeed, only negatively different) thing about working from home was all the other people who were in my house, treating it like their own, which is to say my family. But over time I came to realise that I relied on office life, too, the way you might follow a stoner’s smoke around a park to relieve stress, or just for a nostalgic kick.

I used to love the intoxicating delight of knowing, when I phoned someone in the office, that they were sitting next to someone to whom I also wanted to speak. I loved visiting an office, perambulating around, disturbing the peace. God knows the last thing I want is to agree with an advert, but I loved receptionists, especially the ones who looked a bit bored and could be diverted by the most trifling remark. I loved the weird conventions of fellowship that would develop, particularly around food, everyone crowding round chocolate like soldiers in trenches. I loved the whispered, fevered conversations about people who were annoying. “Hysterical bitching”, psychoanalysts call it – powerful emotions going absolutely nowhere and then ending, like a whirling waltzer. I loved that it was always someone’s birthday.

When the pandemic started, responses were codified by class: the rich got clean out of town, to the country retreats they weren’t supposed to visit, or the spare homes on their parents’ grounds just outside, say, Durham; the middle classes huddled in their urban homes, faux-self-flagellating about how lucky they were to have a garden; and poor people kept going to work, because it turned out what they did was vitally important.

As we emerge from lockdown, or fretful politicians try to coax us back, class is sidelined and temperament comes to the fore. It pleases introverts to go around saying things such as: “There is no back-to-normal – nothing will ever be the same again.” When they think their point hasn’t quite landed, they up the ante: “You lot are dreaming! Wait for the second wave!”

Extroverts, meanwhile, think that if they start behaving resolutely as though it is 2022 already, the world will simply catch up with them. We are in the pub, we are eating out to help out, but what we really want is something anhedonic, something that won’t get us accused of irresponsibility, something packed with people, all of whom we could legitimately approach and talk to – something, in short, a bit like work.

Introverts are always pondering the specific thing that extroverts love about company. Is it the intimacy? Is it the familiarity? The jokes? It is none of those things. It is the unpredictability. Sure, on a lot of days, nothing will happen. On other days, the thing that happens is untoward and life would have been better if it hadn’t. But if every person brings to work not only their tie and/or handbag, but also a limitless number of fresh variables, chances are that things will happen. Incidents might extend into strings of related events, going on for weeks. At home, nothing happens except post and breakages. Office life versus home life is the difference between reading a novel and reading the small print on a bottle of bleach because you got locked in a toilet.

I would absolutely love to get back to the office, in other words. I would go as far as to consider getting a job.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

Read the original article at The Guardian

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