EACH May the plains of the Serengeti are a sea of dust and flies as the Great Wildebeest Migration, which takes place over many months, reaches the lush grasslands of the North-West.
Despite being on a familiar journey it is noticeable how many of the million animals completing that arduous trek are left displaced, dazed and confused by the sudden change in their circumstances, which makes them wary and vulnerable.
And so it will be with the millions of us who return to offices and workplaces over the course of the next few months, many clapping eyes on desks they departed more than a year ago leaving to-do lists, coffee loyalty cards and daily joke calendars untouched like the abandoned artefacts of a lost civilisation.
Like the discombobulated and weary wildebeest, they will have some adjusting to do. Workplaces have begun sending out return to work surveys to counter issues that are bound to arise as corridors are once more filled with the merry rattle of jammed photocopiers.
But until everyone, or everyone who is left, is back, or not back, no one really knows what to expect. Here’s my take on the issues ahead.
Who are you?
In the course of a normal year around 20 per cent of a workforce changes. New people arrive, are shown where the loos are, work out who to avoid and who to brownnose to, and eventually settle in like they’d always been there.
But all of these changes in the last year have happened well away from the workplace and this new cohort will all arrive on the same day. Yes they may have been introduced to their new colleagues on Zoom, but that is no preparation for how a person really talks, walks or smells; how they behave in meetings or how loudly they chew their sandwiches.
What would usually be minor ripples on the pond of work life in the case of one new recruit will multiply into a small tsunami of a seismic personnel shift you can only really relate to the first day of a new school year when your year group suddenly acquired two Goths, a fundamentalist Christian and a 6ft brute with a beard called Damon who offered to swap your Casio calculator watch for the threat of a sudden and violent tour of a lavatory pan in the boys’ toilets.
Where’s Sue today?
Management consulting guru McKinsey and Company predicts that the benefits of working from home will suit both bosses and workers long into the future. Consequently more of us may split part of our week between the office and the laptop piled on top of Guinness Books of Records and Ikea catalogues we call a home office.
It will lead to constant inquires of ‘is Sue in today?’ as an ad hoc meeting that once took three minutes to organise becomes a 15 minute performance around a laptop and screen as Sue appears kind of live from her living room, first as a disembodied voice and then a soundless vision.
Is it really only 3pm?
By now we are all familiar with the comforts of working just a few yards from where we’ve woken up, had our breakfast and been through our ablutions. I know people whose first calls of the day were simultaneously to their boss and to nature.
Having to do all of that and then to go outdoors for any amount of time before reaching their workstation is going to make everyone’s day longer. By mid-afternoon those who are used to turning the camera off in virtual meetings and cat-napping will be part of a mass torpidity that hangs over the workplace so that it resembles nap time at a nursery.
Talk to me, don’t talk to me
Isolation at home has affected people in wildly different ways. While some are desperate for any human contact other than the neighbour who collects gnomes, the parcel delivery man and their spouse, there are others for whom separation has left them withdrawn, anxious and taciturn.
Throw this mix into a combined space, where one half shies away from eye contact while the other wants to share with gusto the details of every book, song, film, jigsaw and biscuit they’ve experienced since last March, and you have a recipe for disaster.
These small return to work trials are just the tip of the iceberg I’m sure. It will be wonderful to share space and time once again with colleagues who inspire, entertain – or just make work life bearable – but it’s going to be a challenging few months.