When I last left the office, I didn’t know I might never go back. Out I breezed a year ago, like nothing, bye, half-finished tube of hand cream on the desk, aspirational water bottle tucked behind the computer screen, locker of assorted Eva Wiseman ephemera (tampon, hate mail, eye liner, Daily Mail spread about how women’s knees reveal their age) abandoned, so sure was I that I’d return to claim these treasures. The following week, lockdown happened, followed by 12 months of assorted traumas, biscuits, births and bollocks, and quietly, while we were all working from bed, offices withered like the hopeful succulents huddled on their desks.
The Financial Times reports that 20 major British office employers are planning to move towards hybrid working. HSBC plans to cut its office space by 40%. British Telecom, which currently has 300 offices, is cutting them down to 30. This news, it chills me. For I, a person who loves a bit of a pre-lunch chat about telly or death, a macabre in-joke about the coffee machine, a supermarket cake cut with ceremony at 4pm, am a great admirer of the British office. It might even be my longest love affair – . Since graduating from shop tills I have worked in a series of offices, each with its own internal politics regarding temperature and birthdays, each one a place of fragrant joy, an air-conditioned holiday from the necrotic wound that is real life.
Rather than your chosen family – the assorted humans that have stuck to you since childhood, burrs attached to the hem of your garment – in the office you are plonked within a new breathing mass and left there until 6pm to fight for your place. I have learned from the greats, including Marie, who, during a period of excessive change in our office, got an ink stamp made for leaving cards which said, “All the breast” – concise, amusing, effective. I have mastered the apologetic knock of a person who is devastated to be kicking you out of a meeting room, and also the blank white stare of the person ignoring said knock despite the door being glass. I have put a bottle in the communal fridge labelled “breast milk, do not drink”, and found it almost empty by morning. I can flit between office personalities – the amiable lift bore, the cheery idiot who has forgotten their pass – and truly exist there, truly thrive.
How do I love thee office? Let me count the ways. The thrill of yesterday’s stranger bitching quietly to you about their ex who, gasp, recently started working on the second floor. The pride in getting a tea round right, the Pantone chart of everybody’s (between you and me, mad) preferences, ranging from sock-water grey to Trumpish tan to the tellingly macho, “Leave the bag in.” The first time you make brief but meaningful eye contact over a desk when an adjacent colleague says something offensively basic. The brief shard of light when you look up from a late-night WhatsApp conversation about pasta or fertility and realise you have made a real friend.
And listen, there are few pleasures like the pleasure of an office crush. It’s like a normal crush – sweaty, anxious, ripe with fantasy – but professional. It’s a peach in a skirt suit. Name a feeling that tops the one when your eyes meet across a crowded canteen, the smell of subsidised bolognese sweet and thick on the air, your mate still going on about their dying, was it… dog? Cat, dad? Either way, your eyes meet and your heart sloshes in its juices. You see them again, “photocopying”, adorable, retro, and they say, “After you,” and nothing has ever sounded more heavy with sex. Then one day you wake and the crush has passed, and when you see them later on the phone you feel suddenly cleansed, washed with fondness and nostalgia for a relationship that existed purely in boredom, born of meetings that could easily have been on emails.
Sure, working from home has its perks – I have cultivated a body that swims lovingly around me in the bath having fed myself up since summer like a foie gras goose. I have saved enough money on train fares to build a lifesize set of a train carriage in the hallway and hire men to press against me there while playing a game on their phone that involves exploding sheep. I have more than spent time with my family – I have gone deeply, deeply into debt.
But if I’d known that would be my last day in a real office, there is much I would have done. I would have tried every porridge topping available, including the unidentified orange gravel. I would have bottled that scent, of paper and hair, the glorious smell of other people’s problems. I would not only have listened to my colleagues’ stories about their weekends, I would have put them to music and added strings. I would have sat in that absolute throne of a swivel chair and wheeled wantonly through the banks of desks, and I would have sung out a question, “Teeaaa?” and the song would never end.