The horror of the new normal

Opinion: Office life had its downsides, but let’s not be too hasty to ditch it.

by Gordon Rutherford
Last Updated: 26 Jun 2020

When my working life is over I will inevitably look back and reflect on what will be more than 40 years of blood, sweat and toil. On that day, it will not be the various projects or assignments, the glorious successes or catastrophic failures that I recall. 

It will be the people, for that’s what makes each chapter of our careers memorable. The relationships we develop, the characters and personalities we encounter along the journey and those conflicts that make us stronger, all cohere to craft the rich tapestry of our working lives.

There are some who are question what the point of offices were anyway. For many people the work/life balance has been tilted favourably, as they can more effectively design work around leisure and family commitments. Moreover, there is no more sitting in rows like battery chickens at depersonalised, generic workstations or squeezing onto rush hour trains. 

However, there are genuine concerns over the long-term impact of us transforming into a nation of homeworkers. As I said, it is people who ultimately enrich us and provide fulfilment in our lives. We can all identify and recall the big personalities we have worked with. Those characters who bring energy into the environment - and that is nothing to do with status or position in the organisation. 

One of the biggest characters I ever worked with was the 70-year-old guy who worked on reception and the mailroom. Let’s call him Jim. The fact that he was the first person that visitors to the office encountered meant that he played a critically important role in bringing the organisation’s brand to life.

Jim was memorable; I once went to a meeting in our Paris head office and was approached by another attendee who was desperately keen to find out how he was.

That spark, that intangible chemistry that radiates from so many of our colleagues, is now non-existent as we all work from home. Its absence makes all of our lives much greyer. In terms of our wellbeing, that matters. Smiling releases endorphins, serotonin and natural painkillers. We feel happier and more relaxed.

The artificial, manufactured environment that is video conferencing cannot fully replace that, nor the spontaneous, unscripted events that happen in the office and are crucial for creativity, information flow and team building. 

There is a significant psychological impact on us as individuals too. The workplace gives us a platform to bring our personalities out into the open. Through physical interaction we can express ourselves and achieve a sense of being and belonging. Working from home prevents us from doing that.

Let’s take a moment to consider how damaging that is. View it through the perspective of Jim and reflect on how he, and millions like him, would cope in this current situation, without the opportunity to put a smile on everyone’s face. It effectively equates to a partial loss of identity.

As the New York Dolls once sang, we are in the midst of a personality crisis. We may not know it yet, but it’s sitting on our shoulders. Of course, many of us are fortunate to be surrounded by friends or family in our personal lives. And they make us happy (mostly). But so many of us prefer to compartmentalise our lives.

There are other practical and emotional predicaments. What about starting a new job with a new company, as two friends of mine have had to do recently. How do you integrate effectively without physical interaction? 

At times it has its down side, but let’s be careful not to completely discard the “old normal” too quickly.

Gordon Rutherford is marketing director for a global corporation, author and music writer. 

Image credit: Image by Pierre Klemas via Getty Images.


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