Remote work has been a pretty typical thing for the last two years and we’re starting to hit the inflection point where people wonder if the office really wasn’t so bad. Think of the productivity gains! The water cooler talk! The spontaneous ideation!
Lest we all forget, this was my experience coming into the office.
I worked at a medium sized healthcare technology company that got acquired by a really big healthcare technology company. Since this was my first job out of college, I decided to go into the office everyday for the first year to prove… something? I’m still not sure what, exactly, but remote work didn’t really appeal to me at the time and the gym was a half-block away from work so I knew I’d be going to the office to go to the gym later most days anyway.
Since I was already going to that location, I’ll skip over all the issues with commuting and let’s just focus on what being in the physical office was like. This is a narrative, bulleted list.
Since we were a tech (tm) company, we had to have an open office. There were half wall dividers between the rows and no gaps between the seats in the rows. This was pretty miserable because everytime myself and the other new hire wanted to discuss anything between us (i.e. how to install Java), we had to do it in front of the row of senior engineers and managers. I don’t think they cared, but it was embarassing all the same.
One third of the team came in, maybe, one day a week. This included both of the tech leads I had for the first two years at the job. The rest of the team came in either everyday (me) or three times a week/however much they felt like.
In my entire 4 years on that team, there was only 1 day where every single person on our 8ish person team were all there at the same time.
If even 1 person is remote, meetings become a newly added responsibility for the team that’s in the office. Somebody has to reserve the meeting room, come in a little early to the meeting room, make sure everything is working, hook up their laptop to the projector, dial into the call, etc. This resulted in either all our meetings starting 5 minutes late, or one of the engineers having the designated responsibility of “meeting runner” and showing up 5 minutes early to setup. I always found this a little cruel that the people who’d already sacrificed some of their day by coming into the office then get another responsibility to account for the people who didn’t bother to come in.
We had a foosball table because, again, we were a tech (tm) company. I don’t really like foosball but I either had to play or get excluded from the “impromptu team bonding” event.
We talked about race/culture a lot. We had team members from China, India, Bulgaria, Mexico, and the US so we discussed different traditions and practices quite a bit. This was pretty neat, but it also wasn’t always a good thing. There was a bit of racial animus at times and we often skewed away from talking about us as individuals and instead to what Indians did or Chinese people did. I would describe it mostly as just odd.
I’d finished my 1 year stint of always going into the office and decided to only go in only 4 days a week.
Our company got bought and split into two seperate companies. The fancy “tech floor” (read: awful open office) was given to the marketing department. Tech got punted to shared, 4 person cubicles on the floor above. 60% of the floor was empty, which made this a very depressing place to work.
I was the sole person in my “pod” that came in consistently. The guy in the adjacent cube block was ostensibly a database administrator, but he mostly just watched cricket all day on his computer. Being in the office is a constant reminder of just how little your coworkers really do.
During this time, a product manager in my cubicle-group would come in once every two weeks(ish) at 6 in the morning and then leave at 2 p.m. Her logic was that she could “beat traffic” doing this but I always thought it kind of defeated the purpose of coming into the office if the office was empty most of the time you were there.
A second move brought another (?) marketing department to the same floor and next to us. Ironically, having the floor full was also a little depressing. The marketing people seemed to be having a great time. They were all friends, they had cubicle decorating contests, they went out after work, and genuinely seemed to enjoy being there. I got to listen to the Cricket watcher talk about how many pull ups he could do.
To “properly give the tech team its space,” we moved again to another floor a level down. This was designated “tech space” and was meant to enhance productivity by putting all the tech people next to each other. The problem was, we’d just been acquired by a mega-corp that was extremely supportive of remote work. Between that and the staff attrition, the “tech floor” was now 90% empty with maybe 15 people coming in semi-regularly. This was definitely the low point of in-office work.
The aforementioned tech space had no common area. There were mostly single cubes but there was one “mega cube” which seated 4 people and had a small table in the center. I was in the mega-cube and, since there was no common area, that meant everybody ate lunch at the small table right behind me. A lot. It was fairly annoying to be working, or have a lunch call, and then turn to hear 4 people munching chips. I don’t really blame them, though, it’s not like we had anywhere else.
We had a couple genuinely fun in-office events. At one, we brought in alcohols from around the world (again, we were a super diverse team) and sampled them all. At another, we went bowling. It was great!
We had a Thanksgiving potluck. I was not feeling great about the job or my coworkers, and we were in the midst of a release and I had a lot to do so I decided to skip it. Probably <6 people went as it was entirely optional and not a scheduled thing like bowling or whatever. I was in the office, though, near where they were having it. After the potluck was over, the account manager came by and chastised me for not going because “I wasn’t doing enough to build community” or whatever. Nobody pinged the people who worked-from-home, though, and yelled at them! I was there, which just gave the person the opportunity to criticize me for not doing enough.
One of my coworkers was really into Taekwondo. Another was super into MMA. They would frequently talk about which is better and this eventually escalated into them actually fighting in the office one day. It wasn’t a big thing like in the The Office more they just grappled with each other until one of them pulled the other to the ground. A couple other people watched and cheered. It was weird.
The company had spent god knows how much money on a brand new office building that we moved into in early 2019. This was my third move in three years.
The office took up an entire city block and you leased it floor-by-floor. It was huge and filled with half cubicles. The company bought it during its growth years (pre-acquisition) which meant that they were expected it to be filled due to their exponential growth. Instead, it now had maybe 30% of the space filled and was so empty that it was a little unnerving.
When an office hits that size, doing anything is kind of a pain. You had to walk half a block away to go to the bathroom. Another half block to get coffee. A third to find a meeting room. To leave the building you had to walk around the block to get out of the building and then walk around it again to get to where you wanted to go.
My tech leads desk was right in front of mine. He almost never came in and literally dumped all of his stuff on his desk. There was trash, cords, etc. strewn about his desk everyday that I got to walk past.
The building was incredibly ritzy and trying to attract people to come in. This meant they put on a lot of events which were actually super cool. We got free ice cream one day and on the 4th of July they opened their rooftop, hired a bartender, gave out free drinks, and we could watch the fireworks over D.C. An incredibly cool experience that only like 20 people went to.
There was a great coffee shop in the building that I really enjoyed and miss going to on occassion.
Do I miss going into the office? I can resolutely say no. I miss the occassional chit-chat and getting to know my coworkers better but that’s about it. In other ways I really don’t miss getting to know my coworkers…
It’s incredibly galling to come in and realize the senior engineers (who literally sit next to you) are reading ESPN for 2 hours everyday and embellishing their status reports in standup. When remote, you can ignore this! It’s very difficult to spend 2 hours on a problem only to swivel around and see the “senior” engineer dicking around on their phone. I can ignore this at home!
This is a tired point, but you do spend a lot of time pretending to be busy in an office. This, for me, resulted in a lot more time on LinkedIn. Since it’s technically a “work” social media, it wasn’t blocked and I wound up spending a lot of time on there and subsequently felt awful.
I also felt a lot weirder about coding side projects while in the office. I mostly wanted to code web apps which were very obviously not a work project and everybody around me were coders so I it’s not like they wouldn’t be aware of what I was doing. Ironically, this is a much better use of my spare time than reading work blogs or LinkedIn industry articles, but I felt better about doing the latter. Strange social expectations.
Now, if I don’t have anything to do (which is totally normal at times!) I work on side projects or clean the apartment. Nobody minds.
When half the office is remote and half isn’t, you create an incredibly bifrucated social environment. For one thing, I always felt like I wasn’t cashing in on some work benefit by coming in. The remote workers got to wake up at 8:55, I had to get up at 7:30. They didn’t have to setup meetings, attend work functions, etc. I did. They didn’t have to respond promptly to messages, I did because I was at the office. They could leave for multiple hours at a time. I couldn’t without it being very obvious.
It always felt kind of toxic to me. There were two different sets of expectations - one for the remote workers, one for the in-office workers - and it never skewed to the benefit of the office employees.
Everybody’s different and works in different ways. I get that some people need a place to focus that’s free from distractions. I don’t really feel that way.
I could see myself returning to an office at some point, even. I’m just never returning to an office where half of the people are there and half aren’t. That was the cardinal sin and the thing I hated most. There were two classes of workers and we were treated differently, often to our detriment, for doing the thing the company wants us to do - be in the office.tags: posts - work