In normal times, I’m a big office water fountain guy. There’s a water fountain on my floor, only a few steps away from my office. I would twist the little white knob and take a healthy draught of ice cold water at least a dozen times a day, maybe more. It’s refreshing, and my doctor says it’s good for me, and it’s one of the few easy things I can do to comply with those nagging aspirational physician lifestyle suggestions. Walking to the water fountain for a drink is also a good way to take a quick break and think about what I’m working on, away from the glow of the computer screen.
But since the COVID pandemic hit, our office water fountain has been closed down. There’s a sad sign on it saying that it has been deactivated as part of our office pandemic protocols. As a result, if I want to have a drink of water at the office, I need to fill up my coffee cup with tap water at the communal sink, rather than getting a brisk drink directly from the bubbler.
It’s not the same. The water temperature isn’t as frigid and bracing, and in my mind I also intuitively think that I’m just drinking some tap water, rather than water fountain water. (It’s probably exactly the same water, of course, but just try getting your subconscious brain to rationally accept that fact.)
Many places are struggling to figure out how to reopen their work spaces, and many workers like me are looking for signs that we’re finally getting back to whatever is going to be defined as “normal” once the pandemic is over. For me, one of the leading economic indicators of being back to normal will be the removal of that sad sign, and the opportunity to drink some of that cold water fountain water again.
My last full day in the office was March 13, 2020. As I close in now on my six-month anniversary of an office-free work existence, untethered to a specific physical location, I have to admit it: I kind of miss my office.
I’ve been perfectly content working remotely and using all of the technology that permits us to do so. And without having to do my “walking commute” in the morning and evening, and with “lunch hours” that often consist of a hastily prepared sandwich that I eat while continuing to work, I feel like I’ve made very productive use of my “working remotely” time.
But, after working at the firm for 35 years, I’d gotten to the point of having a pretty darned nice office. I miss my L-shaped desk set-up, which allowed me to easily pivot from working on the computer to a large, reasonably tidy desk surface, at the just the right height, where I could spread out papers and keep documents for different matters in different stacks that were close at hand. I miss my office windows and the overhead lights that made my office a bright place to toil. I miss my office chair, with its ergonomic design and rubbery webbing that would let you kind of sink into it, that gave me the ability to swivel around and lean back, always with total lumbar support. And I really miss the susurrus of the office background noise coming in through the doorway, and the drifting voices of my colleagues as they pass by in the hall and chat at the nearby elevator bank.
So, don’t get me wrong — working remotely has been just fine. Really! But I suspect that, when I get back to the office for a regular day’s work, and get to experience that office environment again, I’ll sink back into that familiar chair, give it a quick whirl around, lean back, and think “aaah.“
Today Kish decided to join me at the office and brought along some cleaning supplies. During her visit, I heard just about every synonym for “dirty” you can imagine.
Filthy. Disgusting. Grimy. Ridiculous. Dusty. Obscene. Soiled. Appalling. Squalid. Oh my God, would you look at the amount of dust and dirt on this cloth!!!!!!!!
Well, the last one isn’t quite a synonym, but you get the idea. It was directed at the condition of my keyboard, mouse, and mouse pad, which admitted were looking a bit well used and were caked with what looked like a troll’s earwax. That is not to say that our office cleaning crew does not visit my office, but their once-overs just don’t get to the level of things like bookshelves, door knobs, phone buttons, or computer mouses. And how many office workers really pay much attention to the condition of their workplaces? Sometimes it takes a fresh eye to put it all into the proper filthiness perspective.
Now everything in the office has been cleaned with tender loving care, and my workspace has that brisk, sharp but not unpleasant Clorox disinfectant wipes scent. I feel more productive already.
Lately there has been an explosion of stand-up desks at our office. Old-fashioned sit-down desks — the kind that I use — are increasingly being replaced by adjustable desks that allow you to move your computer from a desktop location to stand-height. I’ve gotten used to walking past offices and seeing people standing rigidly behind their desks, starting at their computer screens and clicking on their mouses.
Several people in our office have gone even farther, and opted for non-adjustable, permanent stand-up desks — but even that might not be enough for the true believers. The last time I was in the office of the Biking Brewer, for example, he not only had a permanent stand-up desk, he had no chairs of any kind in his workspace, explaining that if he had a chair he might be tempted to sit in it. So, the last time I stopped in to talk, I ended up kind of perching on a narrow window ledge during our conversation.
If you ask the stand-up crew why they’ve chosen these new desks, the inevitable response is “because it’s healthier.” You’ll hear about burning more calories by standing than sitting, and avoiding heart and back problems, and enhancing bone density, but all of the rationales asserts that stand-up desks are healthier than sit-down desks.
Of course, people should try to move around at work. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Consider whether you should walk to a co-worker’s office rather than sending an email or making a call. Get away from your desk and walk during the noon hour. But let’s have a little skepticism about studies that purport to show that stand-up desks are the key to office good health.
In fact, the health researchers quoted in the news article linked above says that most of impetus for stand-up desks right now is that they are “fashionable.” I’ll say! But I’ll gladly resist the trend and just plop my keister down in my comfortable chair at my desk before I get to work.
I have a bowl in my office, on a table between two chairs. Every time I take a trip to a beach, I bring back a shell (or three) to add to the bowl. It’s a little bit of whimsy in an otherwise functional office, and a pleasant, physical reminder of relaxed, carefree times.
I don’t try to bring back perfect shells — that would be frustrating and defeat the purpose — but rather shells that, because of their color or texture or shape, just caught my eye as I walked on the sand. This trip it’s a coral theme, with a ridged piece of brain coral, a reddish piece that is shot through with holes, and a globby item that somehow reminds me of a ghost.
Last night was Beggars’ Night, and we bought too much candy. (We had no trick-or-treaters at all visit our new house, so any candy would have been too much.) Kish’s edict was unequivocal: get the candy out of the house, immediately! So, to the office and the counter next to the fifth floor coffee station it went. By 8 a.m., another of my office mates, who had a cool witch serving bowl, also had weighed in with her extras, and the coffee station was ready for the inevitable onslaught. I’m guessing that this same scene was duplicated in countless offices around the country.
By 1:30 the hungry denizens of the fifth floor had made an appreciably large dent in the candy supplies. The Snickers bars were the first to go, followed by M&Ms and Milky Ways, and the Three Musketeers bars were bringing up the rear. There was a huge post-lunch, “its-kind-of-like-a-dessert-so-its-OK-for-me-to-have-one-or-two” rush on the candy, and one grateful consumer left a nice thank-you note.
By 4 p.m., the human tide had subsided. Only a few lonely, somewhat pathetic-looking candies remained in the witch’s straw bowl. The plate had been removed entirely, and the jar was empty. Even the boring Three Musketeers bars had been consumed by the chocolate-craving occupants of the fifth floor — if not by colleagues on other floors who heard through the grapevine that there were good candy pickins on 5.
How much candy do you suppose is consumed in offices on the day after Beggars’ Night, anyway?
If you work in an office environment, you’re likely aware of a curious phenomenon when people try to proofread their own work. Some people can do it effectively. Others can’t.
The psychologists among us explain that people in the latter class, when creating their work, see a flawless, excellent product in their heads and assume that that is what they are keyboarding. Then, even though typing mistakes get made and everyone’s writing could use some editing, when they try to proofread their eyes don’t communicate reality back to their brains. Instead, they skip over the grammatical errors, misspellings, and typos, think of what they intended to write rather than what actually appears on paper, and see an immaculate piece of work.
Life as a whole seems to be that way, too. Some people have a sense of self-awareness that allows them to proof their lives just like they would proof a memo at the office. They see where they have made mistakes and gone astray and worked to make corrections. In fact, some people are so proficient at personal proofreading that they can do it in real time, self-editing their statements as they are being made and modifying their behavior as it is occurring. It’s fascinating to watch these people internally debate about word choices and weigh one approach against the other before making their decision.
But then there are those who seem to be utterly incapable of self-proofreading. They’ve decided on a course of action and they’re going to stick with it, oblivious to the verbal cues and physical reactions of the people around them that say they’re on the wrong path. It’s as if the some internal buzzing in their brains interferes with the basic sense of self-awareness that keeps humans from walking into heavy traffic or jumping into a shark tank. These people may not think they’re infallible — not quite — but they believe that they’ve thought things through and considered all of the options, they’ve rationalized their ultimate decision, and they just can’t see any other way. And when unexpected or bad things happen, they’re blamed on rotten luck, or bias, or unfairness. Sometimes only catastrophe can cause them to finally deviate from their chosen course and realize that maybe the problem can be found in the mirror.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I think proofreading is a really valuable skill.
Kasey came to the office with me today and decided that the little nook right underneath my desk was a good place to camp out. She doesn’t particularly care for the elevator ride up to my fifth-floor workplace, but she likes the walk to the downtown area and the feel of my office carpeting just fine.
Recently I received an email at work from outside the office that had an emoticon at the end of it — I think it was the ever-present winker — and I groaned inwardly. Is nothing sacred? Is there no place that can’t be invaded by the emoticon wave?
I admit that it’s odd to think of the workplace emailbox as sacred ground, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I am not a big fan of emoticons, because I think they tend to trivialize and infantilize our communications. There is a time and a place to be slouchy and casual, and a time and place to be more formal and serious. In my book, the workplace should fall into the latter category, and work-related communications should reflect that reality. The office is where people are supposed to go to work, not exchange winks.
I admit, too, that I often don’t know precisely what emoticons are supposed to mean. Does a person put the smiler emoticon at the end of a message to make sure that you know that their message is supposed to be funny? Is it now universally accepted that you can write something harsh but use the winker emoticon as a tag line, and everyone is supposed to understand it’s all just a joke and take no offense? Is the emoticon supposed to substitute for the facial expression the email writer would be making if we were sitting across from each other? If so, how am I supposed to take the stupid face-with-tongue-out emoticon?
I get the sense that we’re in a period of severe emoticon creep, so now is the time for those of us who want to maintain the office as an emoticonless sanctuary to pay special attention. Eternal vigilance is the price of winker-free communications.
Yesterday morning the ever-upbeat Chipper Secretary came into my office with a big smile on her face, handed me a card, and said: “Happy Boss’s Day!”
Eh? Boss’s Day?
Of course! How could I have forgotten? That explained the din from outside the window, where the famous Columbus Boss’s Day parade was passing by. As the CS and I looked outside to see the throngs of ecstatic celebrants crowding the streets, a band was playing one of the many selections from the great American songbook recognizing the crucial role played by bosses in our society. One of the many floats — all of which are hand made by office workers and must be decorated exclusively with shredded, recycled copier paper — depicted an appreciative employee receiving a “coaching session” from a friendly mentor that turned around his lagging career. It was followed by the popular Shriner mini-cars, which stopped and disgorged gangs of would-be “bosses” juggling paperweights and other desk ornaments as happy children shrieked with laughter, then a man dressed like a stapler who handed out free samples to the grateful parade-watchers.
Of course, the celebration didn’t stop outside the window. In our office excited people gathered in conference rooms to eat traditional Boss’s Cake, each hoping to get the piece with the tiny gold bowler hat that presages a year of “exceeds expectation” performance reviews. Later the ritual Boss’s Day games began, and one of the secretaries set a new firm speed record for successfully placing a five-party conference call while simultaneously booting up a PowerPoint presentation. By the end of the day, exhausted but happy workers were ready to go back to their homes, ready for their families to share in the fellowship that always wells in the breast of every employee when Boss’s Day ends.
They’ve come out with another study that will make us all feel guilty and worried about our lifestyles. This one concludes that sitting down can be bad for you.
It’s true. According to the report, sitting down too much increases your chances of heart disease, blood clots in the brain, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The study find a link between sitting down and glucose and fatty acids in the blood that are chemical markers for diabetes. Spending just another 90 minutes standing every day, the study concludes, can significantly reduce your chance of developing diabetes. In addition, because your metabolism is at its lowest when you are sitting on your duff, standing increases your metabolism, requires you to use more of your muscles, and will help you lose weight. (We can all expect to begin to see TV commercials in the near future advertising the “[insert celebrity name here] Stand Up Diet” and including testimonials by ordinary people who claim that standing has changed their lives.)
The problem, of course, is that many of us have office jobs that involve sitting. Some people use standing desks — I’m thinking of the Biking Brewer here — but I’m not sure how many employers are going to toss their vast collections of sit-down desks, cubicles, chairs, and tables and spend the money to re-equip their offices with stand-up replacements. So, we all need to figure out ways to spend less time seated on our seats. Walking to a co-worker’s office rather than calling them is one option. Another is to drink lots of water so that you must rise from your chair to make regular trips to the restroom. Yet another is to walk somewhere a few blocks away over the lunch hour, or stand when you are talking to your friend rather than plopping down butt-first somewhere.
It’s tempting to sit on our tushes on a comfortable chair. After all, what’s the human keister for if not a good sit? But Bob Marley apparently had it right: “Get up, stand up” is the way to go.
Today, in office buildings from sea to shining sea, men inevitably will be dealing with one of the most intractable problems known to nature. For it’s February, and that means we’re in the midst of the space heater season.
The problem is straightforward. The weather in February is awful and, worse, it’s unpredictable. Maintenance staffs across the land will have heated their buildings to a entirely reasonable baseline temperature given the prevailing conditions outside. For some people with two X chromosomes, however, that just isn’t good enough. They’re too hot, or they’re too cold. If they’re too hot, the windows get opened and cold air rushes in. If they’re too cold — which seems to be a far more common condition — the space heaters get deployed.
A normally constituted man walking from office to office might move from a pleasant 70 degrees to meat locker conditions to equatorial heat in the space of 50 feet. There is no way to dress properly for such conditions. And if you are required to actually sit in one of the space heater offices, good luck to you.
The space heater is humming, its heating coils are blazing, and you feel the sweat beginning to trickle down the back of your neck. Meanwhile the office’s occupant — who is probably wearing a sweater, to your amazement — yammers on, oblivious to the fact that conditions in their office are like those in the hot box used to punish disobedient prisoners of war in The Bridge on the River Kwai. In short order you are focused solely on that suffocating heat, face flushed and nodding absently to every word, trying desperately to bring the conversation to a close so you can retreat to areas of the building where normal conditions exist.
I don’t doubt that space heaters serve a useful function, but I’m glad when the space heater season finally ends.
Office coffee should be . . . well . . . office coffee. People shouldn’t be expecting Starbucks quality, or Starbucks flavor.
Office workers aren’t like the people in a coffee commercial, having deep, meaningful conversations over their steaming mug of cafe au lait. Instead, they just want to slug back a potable shot of caffeine at their desks to help them stay awake and alert during the work day.
So why is there this push on to foist flavored coffee on those of us who are used to the basic swill? At our office, they are always experimenting with new flavors that bring unwelcome smells to the coffee station. One day recently, for example, they were brewing some kind of cinnamon-scented blend. Cinnamon-flavored coffee? Hey, folks . . . this isn’t Morocco, nor is it the North Pole. I don’t need my cup of joe to smell like a Christmas cookie or pumpkin pie. The same goes for chocolate-flavored coffee, or any of the other spiced-up concoctions that the coffee sellers are peddling.
Office coffee is, by definition, an institutional beverage. It is, or should be, basic no-frills stuff. Can’t we just leave it that way?
We didn’t have many trick-or-treaters this year. It’s cold and rainy here in New Albany, and the crappy weather caused the Beggars’ Night kids to keep their neighborhood prowling to a minimum.
As a result, it’s become obvious that we are grossly overstocked with candy. You almost wish that a bunch of 16-year-olds who aren’t wearing Halloween costumes would come by, so we could just dump the bowl of leftover candy into their pillow sacks. The alternative — to keep the candy around the house — just means that it will be consumed by 50-year-olds with minimal metabolisms. If we keep all of this candy around and eat it ourselves, we’ll soon find ourselves in the Chris Christie category.
Fortunately, there is a solution. I work in a white-collar office environment. As anyone who works in an office knows, if you put candy out by the coffee station, it will be gone in a nanosecond. In fact, I’m convinced that a viable solution to the nuclear waste disposal problem is to cover the radioactive debris in chocolate and put it next to the Bunn coffee brewer at our firm. That’s where this candy will be headed tomorrow — if Kish and I can avoid the temptation until then.
By law, every American office must have a microwave in a common area that is made available to all employees. Any office worker will concede that the zone around that microwave is a crucial part of the rich tapestry of their work space.
Educated noses in the office can learn a lot from the smorgasbord of scents in the microwave zone. Is that the heady aroma of maple that I detect wafting from some mid-morning oatmeal that will linger, cloyingly, for an hour or more? My God, has Jim reheated that pungent fish and rice dish again? And how about the subtly nuanced aroma of blended chemical preservatives that floods the area whenever a frozen entree is zapped? The welcome dinging of the microwave timer acts like the bell Pavlov used with his dog, and summons the office epicures to revel in the sight and smell of whatever appetizing radiated fare is removed from the pristine microwave chamber.
The delightful experience is compounded when reusable microwave dishes are left to soak in the sink below the microwave. Each has the unmistakable pink smear of sauce residue that has been permanently bonded to the plastic by countless doses of radiation, thereby allowing the diner to enjoy the taste of all previous reheated meals along with whatever he has chosen as today’s sustenance.
Curiously, on our floor the microwave is positioned directly across from the door to the men’s restroom.