Working in an office for the first time ever in a post-Covid world

Do they know I've never had an office job before?

I used to work in restaurants, now I work in tech. Working in Tech used to mean, to me, going into an office and sitting in front of a computer wearing a hoodie. I worked in the kitchens at Google Headquarters and watched as thousands of Googlers would come in and eat their faces off three meals a day. Back then I'd go home at night after grabbing an after-work drink with friends and want for an office job where I would not still smell of the kitchen even hours after showering. Years later and I have started working in Tech during a global pandemic. In my case, that means having always worked from home. I even went to coding boot camp remotely. But here in California, the restrictions have been lifted enough that the company is opening the doors again to everyone (we're a small company of fewer than forty people) and we're going into the office.

My company is remote-first and we have an office in Oakland. The company has decided to have an "in the office" week. There's no requirement for us all to regularly go to the office, this is more of a team-building week. It's going to be a lot of meeting-people-in-person-for-the-first-time and a lot of schmoozing. So it should be low pressure in regards to getting work done. People generally expect Engineering to be generally introverted and not so social, so that takes some of the stress about office socializing out too.

My kids were sick this week and we had an out-of-the-office meet-up on Tuesday, so I only came into the office on Thursday and Friday instead of the full week. So I got in the car and drove the 30 minutes it's supposed to take me to get to Oakland from my home. It turned out to be a 45-minute drive as commuter traffic still exists in the Bay Area even after COVID. I was anxious to get to the office in time for our Stand-up meeting. Long story short, looking for parking made me late for all but the last five minutes of the meeting. My face is red but my manager is reassuring. It's a low-stakes week in the office.

To help people communicate their comfort with physical contact (for COVID and just general personal space concerns) we chose a colored bracelet upon entering. It's a simple traffic light code system where red means "I'm not touching anyone," and green means "I'm open to physical greetings ranging from handshakes to hugs." I pick yellow. I'm good with handshakes but want to be cautious since my kids were just sick. Two people hug me outright even though I'm pointing to my wrist and rigid as an awkward post as they move in for a welcoming embrace. Some people are huggers from the jump, I am not. But I dismiss it as we're all learning how to navigate this new world.

Engineering has grabbed some desks in the corner. We walk over together, everyone puts on headphones and gets right to their computers. Finally, something that feels familiar. Heads down and work time! I get set up and start working on my ticket after finding my playlist for the morning. It's a social week, so I shouldn't have expected to get work done in the office. That being said, I felt like I couldn't get work done. Team members from other departments keep coming over to say hi as they've greeted the rest of the Engineering team throughout the week. I keep taking off my headphones, standing up, and shaking hands. Each time thinking, "this looks a bit formal, do they all know I've never worked in an office before?"

I've worked with an espresso machine before. Really, I have. I would often make two shots in the dark (drip coffee and a shot of espresso) on a regular shift at my last job. It was always maintained and dialed in for the coffee bar at my last job. Here, there were nuances that I wasn't ready for. The water was weird and not timed for doubles. it's an unimportant thing to complain about, so I'll stop for now and leave it at, "I felt super self-conscious even though I know people were trying to help me out of the goodness of their own hearts." Maybe I'm a bit neurotic. Maybe I'm just running in high gear since I've already had a pint of coffee and a shot of espresso. Maybe, it's been a while since I've worked in the same room as other people.

It's funny really that I've come from an industry where everything was done in tight quarters and now, with the space and expanse of an office environment, I don't know how to move or act. I never minded before being shoulder to sweaty shoulder with a new line cook or even one that didn't like me. It was still a well-choreographed ballet no matter who my partner was. It was part of the environment that I had bought into. Being so new to the Tech Industry, I still need more time to find my footwork in this new dance.

What did I like? I liked being physically around people because it meant I was that much closer to getting help. This sounds a little counter to some of my story I know, but being in COVID-land has made me kind of lonely for other people to interact with. I haven't really been on a team in person for a long time, so having a place of belonging has been truly missed. I liked code reviews in person because we both reached out to touch the code on the screen. Being a tactile person, seeing other people want to pick up the work and move it with their hands felt like I'm in good company. I liked being able to look people in the eyes after all this time looking at the image just below the camera.

Would I do it again? Sure. I'm uncomfortable from being out in the world again for the first time in a long time, but not enough to never go out again. Yes, I'm neurotic about being around people and being in the office environment, but maybe that's just me now too. However, I don't see myself going into the office regularly or even often. It's a real gift to be able to work from home. Not just for a socially anxious mess such as myself, but also because I get to drop off my kids at school in the morning and be here when they get home. For now, I'll take that as one of my favorite perks from my company.