Back in 2018 when I got a new day-job it was a two-year contract so I knew that, all other things being equal, I would leave in mid-April 2020. As we began this year, what with Easter and accumulated leave my last day in the office looked like it was going to be March 31st. What perfect timing, I thought, for my last-Sunday-of-the-month blog post to be an amusing look back at office life, commuting, and the people-watching I’d done over the previous two years. Light-hearted thoughts about the pronunciation of acronyms and why I was inordinately fond of a database that sounded like it was called Malcolm, even though I knew nothing about its contents or purpose. Speculations on the sudden smartening up of a familiar stranger. That kind of thing.
As we’ve all noticed by now, however, March 2020 isn’t going to anybody’s plan (unless, perhaps, you’re one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – which really makes me want to go back and finish a comic fantasy story I started writing in 2012) and my last day in the office turned out to be, rather abruptly, March 16th. Because I mainly sit at a computer all day sieving and cleaning data and occasionally taking a SQL-spanner to the workings of the odd database, I can work from home. There are technical challenges that need to be figured out before we can work completely as normal, but basically I’m easily transplantable. Every now and then over the last couple of years I’ve had a day or two working from home for one reason or another and it’s been fine being on my own, peaceful and productive. Besides, after March 31st I was planning to be writing at home anyway, with OneMonkey working in the next room three days a week, so all I’ve done is move to the next (planned) phase of my life two weeks early. Except it doesn’t work like that because for those two weeks I still have colleagues.
I tend to keep the day-job out of this, but I guess with a quick search for my name you could find out what I do so it seems tiresome to talk around it in this context: I work (for the next week and a bit) on statutory returns at a university, sending student data to HESA and the OfS. Bits of it are fiddly and arcane, and at certain times of the year incredibly high-pressure, and the four of us in the HESA corner end up having long, detailed, technical discussions over whether some particular student in unusual circumstances should take this code or that code out of the five rigidly defined possibilities in the HESA specifications, and kind of forget that anyone else in the office exists. Believe me, we’re great fun at parties. Assuming that by ‘parties’ you mean gatherings of geeks who are particularly interested in student records. And like to quote Douglas Adams at every available opportunity.
Because that’s the thing you miss when you’re suddenly all separate. The in-jokes, the familiar joshing, the leaning round the monitor and asking what’s up when you hear the snort of disbelief from the other side of the desk. In my writing life I’ve never had that, I’m not missing out on anyone’s company by sitting at home rather than being somewhere else. I was gearing up for leaving my office job and I knew I’d miss everyone but it feels so odd suddenly never hearing someone’s laugh (or Terry Jones impression) and yet still interacting with them via email or text discussion, rather than having left them behind as expected.
We’re all getting to grips with using Microsoft Teams and apart from technicalities like getting headsets to work, we’re grappling with etiquette about why and when and how to initiate a voice call, which I’m sure will settle down after a while (though maybe not before I’ve left). In the office, I can see from the set of my colleague’s shoulders that she’s concentrating and I shouldn’t disturb her, but I can also see her stand up to stretch or get a drink and before she settles back to work again I can ask her a question or tell her some piece of information she might like to know but doesn’t warrant clogging up her inbox. At a distance, the best I can do is leave it in Teams and see if/when she spots it (as yet, we haven’t all got the hang of mentions and notifications and the like either). The Dilbert cartoons, the cat pictures and the Dungeons and Dragons memes that we might lean over each others’ screens to look at are missing entirely so far, as we try and keep the Teams feed ‘professional’, whatever that means.
At the end of the week we instituted a daily afternoon chat, half an hour of hearing each others’ voices (and seeing the one person with a working webcam) and it surprised me both how much I was looking forward to it all afternoon and how refreshing it was. Over the last few years I realise I’ve gradually slipped into asynchronous communication outside of office life. I don’t have the hour-long phone conversations with friend T that were a feature of our lives (however irregular) for twenty years, we text for quick updates or email if we want to include pictures. I went from Christmas Day to mid-February without hearing the sound of any of my siblings’ voices, in fact I still haven’t spoken to Big Brother – Sister Number One and I text each other so we all know what’s going on in each others’ lives (they all live in one place, I live 20 miles or so away). Nobody seems to watch TV programmes or even listen to the radio at the same time anymore, it’s all about catch-up services and convenience, and there’s so much choice and individuality that they’re often not watching or listening to the same thing anyway so all of the ‘did you hear..?’ has gone. I wonder if this enforced separation will change that?
I’ve already seen global book clubs springing up on Twitter, I think Robert Macfarlane for one was suggesting everyone read a particular book and then presumably they’ll discuss it somehow. Bands are live-streaming gigs with no audience, or filming to put them online. Writers are setting up webinar groups to write together to the same prompt at the same time as though they were in the same room. Even with catch-up or podcasts, you could agree with a friend that you’ll both watch or listen to the new episode on a particular day of the week and then ring up for a chat about it. Or even better, video call. Maybe when broadband is struggling with all the extra home-working and extra streaming of TV services to bored people in self-isolation I shouldn’t be encouraging extra strain on the capacity. However, having used Skype or Google Hangouts now and then to catch up with distant friends and family, I can recommend it if you’re not used to phoning particular friends. Particularly if you’re using a screen that’s larger than a phone screen, and preferably have it propped up somewhere (for a phone or tablet – you don’t have that problem with a laptop) so you don’t have to hold it for ages, it can start to feel more like a cosy chat in the same room than a potentially stilted phonecall. You get the body language cues of someone being about to speak so you don’t keep talking over each other, and it can include anyone in the household who wanders into the room, rather than it being one on one.
This pandemic is necessarily going to change everyone’s lives, at least for a while. We’re all going to have to get used to our own company but don’t misjudge the place of casual interactions. If you’re used to pointing to a passing peregrine falcon from the office window and sparking a conversation, or chatting about hair straighteners while you queue for the kettle, you probably need to find an equivalent of that while you’re in your weird new solitary world. Now excuse me while I make a cup of tea and see if my dad’s up for sitting quietly in front of distant screens making occasional observations about what birds each of us can see from our respective windows.