Years ago, on a stint in the world of corporate communications, I did some editorial work for a major pension plan. One brisk morning in January, I rode an elevator up a tower in downtown Toronto to kick off the project with several key executives. And although she would not be intimately involved with the details of the job, my boss rode along.
A fly on the boardroom wall would have said that she contributed very little to the meeting; she barely said a word. But her presence was felt in the five or ten minutes it took us to get from the reception area to our seats. I watched in awe as she exchanged effortless small talk with our hosts and telegraphed enthusiasm for the conversation we were about to have. Even before we arrived, I was impressed by how she approached such an interaction: she had chosen her outfit strategically, for example, so that she wouldn’t have to awkwardly hang up a coat and stash her gloves in front of a senior vice-president. For that hour or so, my boss was almost a different person than the one I knew from the office. Indeed, there was something instructive, almost beyond description, about watching a veteran of her craft in a high-stakes situation.
For two years now, countless meetings like the one we had that day have unfolded instead over Zoom. We have not had those valuable moments of polite conversation with our clients and suppliers; we’ve been lucky if we’ve had them with our colleagues. Perhaps that’s why many of us breathed a sigh of relief when, not long ago, it sounded as if we would return to the office, at least more regularly, by early 2022. The City of Toronto, for example, wanted its people back, part-time, by January 4; Saskatoon asked that all of its municipal employees return full-time by February 1. There was even talk of abandoning indoor mask mandates. Things were finally getting back to normal, especially in Edmonton, which the real estate firm Avison Young said was leading the return to in-person employment as of mid-November. But, of course, the Omicron variant has upended things once more.
Contrary to previous messaging, Ontario’s chief medical officer, Kieran Moore, encouraged employers in early December to “ask their employees to work from home whenever possible.” Many listened. In the United States, the ride-sharing company Lyft, which wanted people at their desks come February, postponed its reopening scheme until at least 2023. Google and Uber have pressed pause on theirs indefinitely.
As the return-to-work plans have changed and changed again, much ink has been spilled about the pros and cons of our old habits. Last July, Michael Emory, the head of Allied Properties, told the Globe and Mail that business leaders, specifically bank CEOs, needed to “find a backbone” and get employees back in their empty Aeron chairs as soon as possible. With 14 million square feet of office space in his portfolio, from Vancouver to Montreal, Emory has an obvious horse in this race, but his message seemed to have resonated with Victor Dodig, the head of CIBC, who said in October, “You can’t build a company, and a company culture that’s cohesive, just working from home.” For every be‑together booster like Emory or Dodig, however, there have been many more skeptics of “horsewhipping workers back to their cubicle ranches,” as a piece on TVO.org recently put it. The Atlantic has gone so far as to describe pre-pandemic office culture as an unjustifiable “optics-driven albatross” that benefits only upper management and landlords.
Whether it’s months or years from now, who knows what the future of the physical office will actually look like for all those people who have been afforded the opportunity to log in from home these past many months. But what seems to get lost in such conversations is the experiences of those who are just now entering the workforce: those who have never successfully navigated departmental politics; those who haven’t learned the value of giving a physical token of thanks, however small, to a co-worker who has been particularly helpful; those who haven’t picked up a valuable skill or two by just watching someone else do their job; those who haven’t built the kinds of social capital and lifelong personal networks that are made possible only in the staff kitchen; those who have been unable to watch an accomplished boss in action.
Generations of us know the ups and downs of office life, and, yes, working from home has had true advantages. But some 3.4 million Canadians between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were employed in the first year of the pandemic, many of them just starting their careers in roles that were, by necessity, virtual. Let’s not forget about them and all the intangible yet invaluable lessons that they cannot simply live-stream, no matter how good the technology gets.