The awkward farce of the office return

The awkward farce of the office return

We have a problem. All of us, I mean. At some point in the all-too-near future, we’re going to be required to return to the office. Not right now, obviously; the “delta variant” is raging through American communities like a … well … you know. The promise of “total immunity” from the new vaccines seems to have some disappointing caveats. Right now, it’s a really bad idea to bring people – especially unvaccinated and immunocompromised people – into close proximity in cubicle farms, lunch spots, and public transportation. 

Eventually, though, we’re going to lick this bug. When that finally happens and it’s safe “enough” to pick up where we left off pre-2020, all the bosses in all the boardrooms across the world are going to sound assembly on whatever passes for their adjutant’s bugle and we’ll all drag ourselves back to our office parks like a vast migration of undercaffeinated salmon shuffling uptown.

That’s where our problem starts. Specifically, who will be “returning” to the office. It won’t be us necessary. Let me explain.

Consider that the “self” we present at work isn’t our “true self” as we perceive and understand ourselves when we’re alone and free of social pressures. Our “work self” is one of several public characters that we perform for others, the same way an actor plays a part on stage. We accept that Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor. When he played Colonel Mackenzie in 1917, that wasn’t really him anymore that it was his performance as Satan in Good Omens. We understand that the actor is not the roles he plays, even if he brings a great deal of his charisma to every performance.

The reason why so many organisations have strict dress codes is to help force people to keep their “work selves” and “core selves” mentally and emotionally separate so that their “non-professional” habits don’t bleed into their artificial “professional” persona. The costume helps remind everyone which role they’re performing while they’re on the clock.

We’re all doing the same thing when we go to work, only we’re making a hell of a lot less for each performance. When we enter the office, we’re not the same person we were when we left the house. We’ve transitioned to our “work self.” This is usually a muted, more circumspect version of our core (or “unfettered”) self. We’re performing a task – and environment – optimized version of ourselves that cheerfully follows stupid policies, doesn’t mind dressing uncomfortably, and convincingly pretends to enjoy spending long hours pretending to look busy in a fabric cattle pen.

That’s not really “us,” is it? Let’s be honest; no one enjoys cubicles. Or “open plan” offices. Or “hotelling.” There’s lots to complain about when you don’t have a swanky corner office. Trouble is, very little work will get done if we prioritise grousing about our workspaces’ limitations instead of actually doing work. So, we keep our honest thoughts to ourselves and press on.

My current favourite way to describe this schism comes from as aside in Eric Sophia McAllister’s latest YouTube video on the meaning, subtext, and lessons to be learned from the horror video game Alan Wake. At the video’s 46m46s mark, they say: “We all have to separate ourselves from our labour in order to maintain the dissonance between being a complete and complex human being and being required to exist in one solitary capacity for work.” [1]

That’s why I’m bringing this up: who we pretend to be at work isn’t who we believe ourselves to be. Our “work self” is a character based on the “real” us, modified to function effectively so that we’ll keep getting invited back for a repeat performance. We want to be paid, so we pretend to be someone that our employer will accept. Enthusiastically accept during the interview, grudgingly accept after a few years have passed.

For those people unable or unwilling to climb the career ladder, the most fervently desired reward of long service is to become so indispensable to the company that you can drop all pretence and tell people what you really think of them without fear of retribution.

As any actor will tell you, pretending to be someone else in front of a sceptical crowd takes effort. You must remember to speak, act, move, and react to your other performers in a way that seems genuine to your audience … in this case, genuine to your co-workers, your customers, and (most importantly) to your bosses. Even if work itself isn’t fatiguing in and of itself, the act of portraying our “work self” convincingly is.

To be fair, there are some people for whom the Venn diagram between their “core self” and their “work self” are near as makes no difference a perfect circle. We usually call these people something vulgar. I like the phrase “office cowboys” … people who blatantly don’t care how others perceive them and are solely focused on getting what they want regardless of getting it might harm others. [2]

For what it’s worth, the higher up one rises in an organisational hierarchy, the less pressure there is for a person to hide their “true self.” The power they wield – especially at the executive level – renders senior people largely immune from the natural consequences from engaging in boorish or “work inappropriate” behaviour.  That’s one of the main reasons why common workers often resent and despise their senior leaders: not so much because of their unprofessional antics, but because they’re allowed to get away with them.

All that aside, if you accept my premise that we must perform a version of ourselves to function in our respective workplaces in much the same way an actor must perform a character on stage, then we must face one indisputable pandemic fact: we’re out of practice!

After eighteen months of getting to tell your boss off at will – thanks to Zoom’s mute mic button – it’s going to be darned difficult to resume reflexively praising their “genius” when they say the same insipid nonsense in person.

That is to say, it’s been a year and a half since most of us transitioned from working in an office building to working at our breakfast tables. In the decade of so that seems to have passed since March 2020, we’ve been forced to develop an all-new “spin off” version of our “work self” called “work from home self.” This variant might have started as a carbon copy of our persona from February 2020; as time passed, this alternative performance became a distinct new character in its own right. One with its own distinctive quirks and mannerisms.

Truth be told, our “work from home self” probably isn’t compatible with a live workplace. Most offices require us to wear trousers at work for a start.

So, yeah. It’s time to dust off the old costumes – hoping they still fit! – and ease back into the role of our “work self” the way we imagine our co-workers remembered us. That’s going to be a hell of a challenge. The cultural environment our old “work self” was optimized for no longer exists; the post-pandemic world will be markedly different from the pre-pandemic world we vaguely remember.

Additionally, it’s probable that most of our “work from home selves” will clash with both our pre-pandemic and post-pandemic “work selves.” To really complicate things, everyone’s “core self” foundational persona has likely changed significantly during the pandemic. Those things we valued and prioritised might no longer matter as much in a world where 632,786 of our friends, neighbours, and colleagues died unnecessarily of a preventable disease and its catastrophic knock-on effects. Or a world where house and healthcare prices have skyrocketed, making the threat of layoffs even more of a death sentence than it was before we knew what “COVID” meant.

I miss live concerts more than anything else. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel comfortable going to another live show now that I’ve seen what COVID plus suicidal intransience can do in large crowd.

Put it all together, and the Big Return to Cubeville™ is going to be an absolute circus. Not necessarily a disaster, mind; more of an awkward farce. Millions of people who are long out of practice will be returning to the metaphorical stage with three different performances styles that must be reconciled before they can truly “get down to business.” We’re going to need a lot of rehearsals, coaching, and patience.

As with the COVID crisis, I’m confident that we’ll solve this problem too…eventually. It’s going to take more time and patience than most planners expect to work the kinks out. We’ll get there … it’s just unrealistic and counterproductive to expect it to magically happen overnight. The more we demand that people “return to normal” – which is laughably unrealistic – the longer it’ll take and more unnecessary drama we’ll all be forced to endure.

Plan for a long and bumpy transition as everyone gets themselves sorted. Like a theatre troupe reuniting for a reunion tour a decade after they broke up. Everyone must re-learn their parts and work out how to play off one another. It won’t be easy, it won’t be smooth, and there’s no way to fast-forward through the rough bits.

[1] Eric Sopha’s channel might not be considered safe-for-work depending on how uptight your office culture is. Use your discretion.

[2] See my book of the same name for a much longer analysis of the phenomenon and lots of cowboy movie puns.

Copyright Lyonsdown Limited 2021

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