All the lonely offices

The Thinker by Rodin

In February I will celebrate my tenth year of working at my agency. As I near that milestone, it’s hard not to see that a lot has changed.  Some things have not changed at all. My building is still the same. The view out my window of the parking lot and (on clear days) the Shenandoah Mountains is still there. What’s missing is a whole lot of people. It’s like something out of a Beatles song:

All the lonely offices
Where did they all come from?

Ten years ago, my office was a bustling place. It was not completely full, but it mostly was. It was even fuller ten years earlier when I hear the cubicles put up in the hallway outside my office were also full. Today it is mostly silent. It feels more like a tomb than an office building. In an office, people are supposed to scurry past each other regularly and chitchat over the office water cooler. That was then.

The other day I had my annual physical. I sent a note to the only two people on my floor that might conceivably wonder where I was. “I’ll be in by 9:30. I doubt anyone will notice.” Of course they did not. One works from home most mornings until the traffic abates. The other takes advantage of telecommuting, so she often works from home. But when she does come in, I’ve been at work for a couple of hours already. And I’ve been there working in silence, with pretty much only the drone of the heating unit near my window for company. I figure I could arrive at work at 9:30 and say I’ve been working since 7:30, and absolutely no one would figure it out. I could play hooky pretty much every morning, but I am still up at 6:30 anyhow, and slogging into the office.

A few weeks ago, around 8 AM someone actually showed up at my office. She works in Denver and was visiting on business and making the rounds to say hi. It was good to see her but she was expecting, like, people to be around. I was pretty much the people.

What’s going on? Why are my days at work so empty? Part of it is incremental retirements. It’s one of these things you don’t notice because it is happening so slowly over many years. One day you look around and hardly anyone is there. Some offices still have names on the door. Many of these names are from people who are retired, in many cases years ago. Many often have official occupants, but they are part-time occupants at best. They prefer the convenience of working from home because there is no commute. And here in Northern Virginia, commuting is often a slow and painful hassle. It’s not so much for me, since I am only three miles away. I don’t mind having a place to go to during the day. I’m much more productive there, even when it was bustling, than I am at home with a whiny cat and noise leaching from my daughter’s bedroom.

The office is disappearing, and I for one am sad. It’s not that the work has gone away. It still gets done, but much of it is done via telecommuting, usually from home. They are easy enough to chat with via instant message or telephone, but they simply aren’t in the office with me. They are becoming disembodied voices on the phone. Many of them feel about telecommuting the way NRA members feel about their guns: they’ll give it up when I pry them out of their cushy home office.

What’s missing is the social life, hitherto an important part of working in an organization, and I believe a key reason why work became meaningful. It’s nice to chat with a colleague on the phone, but it’s not the same as having them down the hall for a random chat. Talking to someone face to face is a high fidelity experience. An instant message is like a telegram. Without interacting with them face to face regularly, I’m less likely to learn about their hobbies and their struggles. They become dispassionate people, almost abstract. This makes it hard to know when there are things bothering them. They might be seething about something but it won’t be obvious from a text message. Even a phone call won’t necessarily tell me. However, while they may be seething, they often think that I am picking it up when I am usually clueless.

It’s the new virtual office and it has its benefits and its downsides. But I also miss, how shall I say, the dearly departed. I miss most of those now retired people who I interacted with regularly. They are pretty much gone and permanently disconnected. It’s a shame because for the most part they were interesting people who I enjoyed getting to know. But they’ve moved on. For the most part I have no idea what’s going on with them unless they happen to show up for a holiday party or when someone else in the office decides to retire and they come to celebrate, and maybe not even then. These people who were once so passionately vested in their work, full of creativity and doggedness, have moved on. I hope it’s to a happier place, but for those of us left behind the emptiness is sad and getting sadder.

A space consolidation is underway. New people are supposed to move in and fill these empty offices but they have been saying this for years. It will be good to have more people around, but they will largely remain strangers even if I see them regularly, because their work and mine simply won’t intersect.

I have eighteen months or so before I join the retirees club. Maybe when I do I’ll find out where they all went. I am hoping that there is a party underway, and they invite me inside.