We recently passed the one-year anniversary of the official declaration of the pandemic. I admit that I found the acknowledgments, think pieces and “a year ago it was the last time I was doing…” reminiscences more irritating than they probably deserved. But hey, we’re all frayed at this point.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of predictions or philosophizing about business operations or the future of working in offices in some time, though. I do expect another slate of them once we reach a critical mass of completed vaccinations and infection rates fall low enough. Then it’ll be all about “When is it safe to go back to work?”

I’ve seen the phrase “living at work” come up a number of times as the more accurate variant of “working from home,” and a better descriptor of people’s often frustrating and unproductive reality. 

Many people have been saying loudly that a lot of work-related things that aren’t working these days were not working before the pandemic, either. They’ve just gotten worse, and returning to the prior status quo is not going to cut it. Assuming the status quo is even still in business...

Thinking forward, I found a lot of really valuable insight in this edition of Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter. I didn’t know how much I needed to read the message of “it’s not going to be like it was, and it’s not going to be like it is now.”

We all need to be planning now for the next reality. Once we’re back in those trenches, those in power will have little motivation to try and bolt on or retrofit change.

We also can’t forget that not only has the pandemic happened, time has passed in the world. Life has happened. Change, upheaval, new expectations, even when we’re locked down. Corporate operations, employee and customer relations, and generally how things get done will need to reflect that. 

A lot of people had a hard enough time with work/life balance or boundaries in the Before Times. Whether we just couldn’t unplug (mentally or physically), or had relentless bosses who sent emails or Slack messages at all hours, what jobs demanded and how people actually wanted to live often didn’t line up. And guess which one lost? 

I think this past year of living at work is going to be the final straw for many people. Life and work will have to be separated. Priorities will have to include rest and decompression. I’d argue the economy will recover better if that’s enforced.

Human existence has become an amorphous blob in which work and life exist to whatever degree we can manage, whenever we can manage. In the After Times, we’re going to be like trainees for a while. We will need the manual. Plans, policies and the corporate will to see them through. Otherwise guilt, frustration, and imposter syndrome will tag along to the office. What we will not need, though, is monitoring or surveillance.

I think Petersen makes a great point that we don’t need boundaries; we need guardrails. And it’s not the individual worker’s job to create or maintain them. Most people never had the power or agency to do so in the first place. And there will always be attempts at erosion for Good Reasons.

When people have options on when, where and how they work, it actually enables them to focus more and get more done. It doesn’t have to match how their managers or co-workers or anyone else work best in many cases, unless direct, synchronous collaboration is required.

Remote work or working from home won’t be what it is now. Kids will be at school, Third Places will come back. (Though I warn you that walking down King Street in Uptown Waterloo right now is pretty depressing.) We will have coffee shops and co-working spaces and chance encounters that lead to great things. 

Whether CEOs’ dramatic pronouncements of abandoning offices stands and we actually end up with acres of unused commercial real estate remains to be seen.

There will always be a need or desire for some office space for some purposes. Not to mention labs and workshops and other places to get one’s hands literally or figuratively dirty. 

For those who are instructed to return to their cube farms, it may not seem so bad for a while. People will be so happy to see other people, to be able to collaborate in person and hang out with work spouses and grab a coffee and go out for lunch.

But they’ll remember soon enough that business attire isn’t that comfortable. That endless meetings suck, even if you’re around the same table. How restrictive it feels to not be allowed to work anywhere but the office. Particularly when senior management just happens to be out of the office every Friday afternoon in the summer. To feel like you’re not trusted to get work done without the gaze of some kind of Panopticon.

I think companies that try to go back to pretending the pandemic never happened are going to have trouble retaining talent. Like I said, time has passed. Much has changed and everything’s been disrupted. We got tossed out of those complacency ruts we were living in with our unhealthy habits.

Work flexibility is a bigger issue or benefit than many realize. As Petersen also notes in her newsletter, it’s a major part of companies actually embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, instead of just giving it lip service or downloading the emotional and physical labour for it onto their “diverse” staff.

Many of women’s career gains have been wiped out by the pandemic. Women have lost or left jobs at astounding and depressing rates. Some had little choice and some were given no choice. We’re talking potentially decades of progress lost, particularly in communities of colour.

For this to even begin to be repaired is going to require efforts that are so much better than they ever have been. They will require real focus on and support for and investment in work flexibility, childcare, evolving leadership, and a sea change in what “performance” really looks like.

For a lot of people, financial instability and general pessimism is going to keep them tethered in place longer than they might want. Even once we’re in the After Times. But more people will eventually say “now or never” and make moves.

Entrepreneurship will recover. Again, financial instability will be a limiting factor for a while, same with investment availability. And people who lost businesses will need to regain their footing. But hey, even in 2020 new businesses opened. 

People who’ve started businesses did it for a reason, and losing a business under extraordinary circumstances won’t suddenly make them all content to join someone else’s corporate grind. Preparing to join the workforce when millions were being put out of work may also inspire more than a few to choose to start businesses to start their careers.

I mean, if we get through all this, what’s left to fear, really? We’re all going to need some new life. From the tech industry broadly, right down to King Street.

Can’t wait to see you there.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.