When the Coronavirus pandemic hit and the world went into lockdown, as many as one-half to one-third of workers in the United States began working from home full-time.
Some people have loved it, but others have felt lonely, unproductive, and stressed while working from home with kids. As we’ve learned more about the virus and states have published reopening plans, many knowledge workers in the U.S. are ready (or being asked) to return to work.
To get an inside look on what returning to the office might be like, we spoke to a data scientist from a San Francsico-based tech company who recently had his first day back. Here’s what he had to say:
I was really enjoying working from home but found the days slowly blending together and becoming indistinguishable from one another. I missed having a space to just focus on work, even though I enjoyed the sense of work-life balance I had working from home.
When I first heard about my office’s reopening a few weeks ago, I initially thought there was no way I’d go back. Then I got an email a week or two ago asking to fill out a survey if we wanted to go in, and I thought, “Why not try it?”
The eligibility qualifications for working from my office are that you cannot do your job from home, or that you’ve indicated that your ability to work effectively has been significantly affected by being at home. I fall into the latter camp. I work out of a small, one-bedroom apartment with my partner, so there are more distractions, from cooking to having to be aware and respectful of her space. There’s also a dog to be walked and seating that is… umm, sub-optimal. I sit either on a couch or at a small desk with a wooden chair.
I selected my week to go back, and took a 30-minute online training that covered the company policies around the office like wearing a mask in common spaces, social distancing, and yes even the proper hand-washing technique.
Here’s how my first day back went.
7:45 am – Heading out into the world
I woke up early today and got my morning workout in. It’s kind of a long walk to the office, but I enjoy walking, and it makes me feel safer than taking public transit. The streets in San Francisco are pretty empty, and most everyone is wearing a mask, like me.
8:30 am – Arrive at my building and get my temperature taken
I enter the lobby of my building that my company shares with a few others. We have 5 floors in the building but just 2 are open currently. There is someone staffing the front desk of the lobby but I head straight to my elevator bay and wait for one to be available. According to the building rules, only four people can be in an elevator at once, and you have to stand in one of the four corners so there’s as much distance between people as possible. An elevator opens up with no one else in it, so I take it.
Upon arriving at my company’s floor, I check-in at the front desk. I give my name, my colleague confirms I’m on “the list” for the day, and points a laser temperature reader at my forehead. I pass the fever test, and he lets me go inside the office. I don’t know what my temperature was, but apparently it was good enough. I have arrived.
8:35 am – Where’s my desk?
Woah. My desk has been completely cleared off and every other desk is marked with an “X” to enforce distancing. The area is pretty empty. Maybe 30 people on a floor roughly the size of a city block. Usually we have 500 people per floor.
Instead of sitting at my desk today, I book a conference room and set myself up there for the day. I feel more comfortable being in an enclosed room by myself than being out in the open at a desk.
8:40 am – My work set up for the day
Found a good spot. This room has a whiteboard, a large mounted monitor for meetings, chargers, and sanitary wipes provided by the company. My biggest concern is that there is adequate ventilation. I feel safe as long as everyone else is wearing a mask, which we’re required to do at all times in the office. But you never know. Some people hate masks.
(Update: a week later my company announced that they replaced the filtration system with a better one which cycles the air more frequently, meaning that we don’t actually have to wear a mask if we are in a private space, like a conference room.)
9:00 am – Coffee time
Although there aren’t any snacks, my company has made coffee and water available. To get coffee, I go to the cafeteria where a member of the building staff hands me a disposable cup of brewed coffee taken from a carafe. If I want a refill, I have to get a brand new disposable cup, which makes the conversationalist in me sad, but so are the times.
11:00 am – Video conferencing with a mask on
Just wrapped up the first of many video calls I’ll do today. None of the people I work with directly are here today, and they were pretty surprised to see me calling in from the office, with my mask on. They ask me how it feels to be back, I explain that it’s pretty nice to have a space to myself, an ergonomic chair, and fast internet, but other than that, it’s not too exciting around here.
12:05 pm – Lunch
Went to investigate the lunch situation. Turns out there are boxed lunches provided, but no refrigerator or snacks. I take my lunch back to my conference room.
On my way to the kitchen area, I see cleaning staff walking around wiping down surfaces, especially in the kitchen itself. This is encouraging.
Less encouraging, however, is the woman down the hall sitting at her desk, not wearing a mask. This really annoys me. I’m not sure we’ll really be able to force people to wear them. Maybe people aren’t doing it now because the office is pretty empty and there’s not a lot of peer pressure, but it’s unclear if bringing more people back in will mean that we hold each other accountable more.
3:00 pm – Bathroom break
I’ve tried to avoid using the bathroom as much as possible, just because they are small enclosed spaces, there is so much you have to touch, and I’ve read concerns from the scientific community about the virus residing in the gut and being aerosolized through toilet flushes.
In my building there are multi-person bathrooms with stalls, but also a single-use bathroom – I opt for that one. Interestingly, my company has installed gold-colored antimicrobial foil on the handles of the bathrooms doors and sinks, putting me a bit more at ease when I have to touch them. Automatic sinks and paper towel dispensers also help, but I still make sure to limit my time in the bathroom, wash my hands well, and grab some Purell on the way back for good measure.
3:30 pm – Tiring a bit of my mask
Another video call just wrapped up. It’s kind of funny because I have this big monitor to use for my calls but I’m less expressive because nobody can see my face! I take the masks pretty seriously. I have a beard and so the mask isn’t convenient for me, but compared to a lot of others I know, I am pretty tolerant of the masks.
5:15 pm – Quittin’ time
Today went pretty well overall. It’s so great to have really fast internet again. Not to mention good ergonomics and better focus. So today was a welcome change of pace.
I also feel more energized. Maybe just because of the novelty of being here, but I do feel like this space is just designed better for working. (Go figure.)
I felt safer as the day went on, although the bathroom still feels risky, even with all the disinfecting. I’ll probably try to use it as little as possible. I think any sort of reopening – especially without a vaccine –will have to be slow and bring more people in gradually so they can get comfortable and get into the habits that’ll keep us safe.
That said, I’m in no rush for everyone to come back. A big benefit of working in the office right now is the emptiness. So even though I don’t like commuting, I’m happy to keep coming back into the office. As long as nobody else does.
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