I took my first step into an office and simultaneously traveled back in time
In March 2020, almost everything we knew was thrown upside down.
As we all remember too clearly, life seemed to completely stall in a matter of days — and it's taken more than a year to inch back toward something resembling normal.
Now, it's the summer of 2021, and we're starting to really move forward. But at the same time, we must also take a few steps back to the places that are still frozen in time.
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I recently returned from my first trip in over 15 months to meet with coworkers in our New York City office, and like many other standout moments in the last year, it was an experience I won't soon forget.
In the "before times," our Manhattan office was a vibrant newsroom. It was always a bit loud. People walked with purpose. Ideas flew around as fast as fingers landed on keyboards. There were meetings, meetups and lots of food and coffee.
On Feb. 27, 2020, I left the office — and my coworkers — for what would turn out to be the last time for a long time. Just a couple of weeks later, New York City emptied to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the bustling 16th-floor office closed.
It was, at the time, intended to be just "two weeks to slow the spread."
But like other offices all around it, ours remained frozen in time. Stuck, for what sometimes felt like forever, on March 12, 2020.
Despite what the newspapers gathered at the entrance may say, however, it’s no longer March of 2020. It's a new year, a new day and it was time to take another big step forward back into the office.
With shots in our arms, four of us went up the elevators and walked into the dark, quiet office built for around 100 people. At the time, New York City had just recently fully reopened, making it the perfect moment for this step into what honestly felt a bit foreign and unknown.
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The heels of our shoes echoed against the floor as we walked past the rows of vacant desks. There was no battling over conference rooms now, no buzz of activity, no searching for a quiet space to take a call.
Instead, there was just silence that hung in the stale air.
Rows of empty chairs were pushed against empty desks with calendars still turned to March 2020. These calendars displayed upcoming dates and events that almost certainly didn't happen as envisioned. Weddings, presentations, big in-person events and even preapproved work-from-home days ... which was especially ironic given what was about to happen to office life.
The magazines laid across a sitting area now have a light layer of dust on their winter 2020 covers.
There were phone and computer chargers everywhere, demonstrating the naive viewpoint so many of us had as we walked out of the office for what would be the last time in over a year. There are photos of kids, who are now noticeably older in real life, still sitting at unoccupied workstations.
Abandoned birthday balloons remain tied to desks but now lie flat, fully deflated. The recipients of those balloons have all had another birthday since they last saw those gifts that still await their return.
Looking around this place where time stood still felt like a scene in a movie where something terrible has happened and those who remain are left walking around in a world that looks the same but feels so very different.
But it wasn’t all post-apocalyptic.
Once you get past the initial shock of doing something as simultaneously foreign and normal as sitting around a conference table with coworkers, it quickly starts to feel familiar.
We talked for hours without a single issue getting back into the swing of things. No one tried to express an idea while stuck on mute or sat frozen with a bad Wi-Fi connection. The Zoom fatigue we've become too familiar with was replaced with shared laughs and coffee breaks.
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Together again, it was easy to pick up on a nuanced expression or a shift in body language. There might have only been a handful of us in an office built for so many more, but that one conference room was quickly brought back to life.
It felt like a flashback, sure, but also a premonition of a day when we can soon collaborate together around a table, instead of appearing as "Brady Bunch"-style faces in squares around a screen.
And if you've taken similar work trips, then you might share my love of after-work dinners and happy hour cocktails.
You know, a real happy hour with adults and not virtual "forced fun" on Zoom.
To be fair, I've actually had some decent virtual happy hours catching up with coworkers at the end of a long day. But it will likely surprise exactly no one that the real thing is even better than you remember.
Of course, the future of work also won't look exactly like the past. Logging time in an office chair from Monday to Friday just because that's how it was always done before is gone, at least at TPG and its parent company, Red Ventures. But, work and travel that involves some remote flexibility with strategic in-person time will be a welcome mix.
With relaxed recommendations for vaccinated persons from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coworkers all around the country will hopefully return to the office — and to each other — in the coming weeks and months. For its part, TPG currently plans to begin using its office in some capacity starting on July 21.
Meeting in person won’t be without challenges that go beyond cleaning out that (slightly terrifying) office fridge, of course.
My family back at home wasn't used to the rhythm of having one parent away for work. Our pandemic-era life simply isn't structured around what one person can easily pull off.
And I was completely worn out after 60 hours of living life at my old, normal pace. It was a glorious form of exhaustion from real-world activity, but it was exhaustion all the same. It can be tempting to overdo it as we try and make up for lost time. And with rapidly changing guidance around what is now considered safe, individual situations and comfort levels still vary pretty dramatically.
Related: What it's like to visit New York City right now
Getting a taste of one of the good parts of our "before lives" made me want to order another round. I don't want to go back to the old menu of being on the road a bit too much and most people probably aren't itching to go back to the office full time, but walking back into the quiet, empty office with a handful of coworkers felt like a big step in the right direction.
Hopefully, this future will balance the best of our old normal with what we've learned during the pandemic: For many people, the office should be a place to gather and work together on ideas and projects — not the only place your computer can operate when you're working independently.
The office as we knew it might be a relic that froze with the March 2020 desk calendars. But just as a virtual happy hour can never come close to replacing a real one, there's immeasurable value in some face-to-face time with others.
Business travel may (hopefully) never be exactly the same, but it's certainly not gone -- and that's a good thing.
And as employees everywhere get a taste of what it's like to work together again, instead of interacting solely through screens and separated by thousands of miles, that first trip back is very likely to remind us all just how great it is to be in the same place, at the same time, working with others who have a shared goal.