The first week back in the office – and WFH begins to seem easy

How much eye contact to make, how long everyone’s hair is, how many times to sanitise the keyboard… Why returning to work is so utterly exhausting

I mean, bloody hell. Honestly, Blood-ee hell. How on this sick sweet earth did we ever manage in the before-times? After a single week back at work, face to face with my colleagues, I am overcome with a profound and existential exhaustion. The kind of tiredness that creeps up behind you and climbs on your back, its wet tentacles slithering into your hair and armpits, shushing in your ears, singing terrible lullabies.

Why does my body find it so very difficult to engage? I am like a 90s modem, whirring desperately, screaming with the pain of trying to connect. Sitting in a meeting with three people and their notebooks, four hot drinks of varying brown, two ideas that keep running at each other and shattering on impact, I can feel my cells working their minuscule fingers to the minuscule bone. To remain “present”. To successfully “think”. To maintain a level of energy that allows a smile, a nod, an upright posture, a body that does not puddle on the table, a voice that varies pleasingly in pitch instead of allowing words to fall, clattering, like old teeth from an old mouth.

Is it just me, I ask greyly at the end of day one, and everyone shakes their head. No it is not just me. Everyone feels the same, like a Capri-Sun squeezed dry, but they express it with varying degrees of butchness. Office work is a combination, really, of basic admin, working out how to explain something clearly, and being nice to each other, but as the energy drains out of us the last thing is first to fall away. We communicate like old sisters, shittily and quick, our patience for such things as phones ringing and nuance almost completely burned through.

But once our collective exhaustion has been acknowledged, we look at it together, handling it with interest. Until now, few of us had appreciated the many efforts it takes to communicate in a room, to pass a conversation between ourselves and reshape it as we go. The strain, to apply meaning like makeup, find the right words from between the sofa cushions of our foamy minds. To maintain eye contact – what a thing! What a thing, these sudden intimacies, and we don’t know how close to stand to one another, and we have forgotten the boundaries of casual speech, such as which questions it is appropriate to ask one’s boss, one’s barista, oneself, about their feelings and or family dynamic. Four or five times before lunch someone must apologise for falling bloodily over the line.

Despite all the anxiety that came with watching ourselves on Zoom, at certain times of day – 10, then 11, then 12, and so on – working from home now seems an idyllic and sensible dream. At least, it would if former Tory minister Jake Berry had not last week permanently soiled the idea with his very-pleased-with-itself phrase, “woke-ing from home”. Brrr. In 2021, the only people using the word “woke” are using it as a truncheon to beat those with an interest in social justice, a way of claiming victim status. In this case, the victim is the hard-done-by CEO, losing millions hourly because his pathetic staff insist that health exists. Today, if someone acts thoughtfully the Berry-types leap upon them with this word, screaming that they are “virtue signalling” or similar, their intention being that all of us must stay silent and still in our cooling custard baths of cynical gloom. It is immediately clear, of course, now we are back, that most of us get far more work done in the silence of our kitchens than in the screeching maw of an office. Ironically, though, I tend to get more woke done in the office. Worth looking into, perhaps.

In the meantime, I continue to drag my fingertips over the thrice-sanitised keyboard, swallowing my yawns like Maltesers. Attempting to shake a bit of life into my bones I strap on a face mask and take a trot around the building, maybe treat myself to a mug of water. Colleagues meerkat up over their computer screens, displaying a kind of terror familiar from theme park photos of dads on rollercoasters. A year inside will do this to a person – transform them from a perfectly respectable adult into someone who jumps with fright at the small word, “Tea?” This is exhausting, too, the regular shocks at seeing somebody new – aged now, their hair hanging white and thin 2m down their back – and the tiptoeing caution with which you must approach so as not to spook them. “Sorry,” we whisper across the printer, for what we’re not quite sure, but apology is our safe language, and the printer is warm.

Time slides downhill and our legs go numb. A small celebration of biscuits at 4pm injects some spirit back into the day, but it lasts only until the Google doc has saved. Someone puts their coat on, a kind of test, and someone else disappears for what is rumoured to be a nap in the disabled loo. Finally, at the end of a week that lasted 14 years, we clear our desks and trail darkly towards the street. And, “Surely not,” everyone’s muttering, their breath now coffee and wax, “I heard that on Monday we have to… start all over again.”

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

Contributor

Eva Wiseman

The GuardianTramp

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