Year Two in the empty offices
It’s been almost two years since my company sent everyone to work from home due to the pandemic, but I’ve been in the office, keeping the lights green and the wheels spinning.
I wrote a short piece on what the first year was like. The tl;dr is the beginning was crazy, inventing a way to do our work from home, the middle was people beginning to get used to the new way of work, and the end was wondering what life would be like in the Aftertimes.
This is your update for those keeping score at home.
The second year began with the rush to get vaccinated, a topic of the watercooler talk that the limited skeleton crew engaged in daily. Before vaccines became politics instead of public health, the desire to get the shot was a big deal. People exchanging tips on how to get a slot and talk about the differences between the types of vaccines.
Our work is a lot of video and graphics post-production that requires specialized hardware and systems. The first methods we put in were good, but not great. We didn’t have a lot of choice in the early days of the pandemic, but now people were complaining. As with many things in technology, amazing innovation gets taken for granted after a short amount of time.
So the team did a lot of work to put in a third generation of work from home tech: Zero Clients, Teradici, Leostream, DMZ servers, etc. Getting this done in the Beforetimes would have been hard, but considering the hurdles in place from cybersecurity, procurement, licensing, and literally just racking hardware on a locked down studio lot, it took calling in every favor we had to get it working.
In the meantime, other execs were getting pretty demanding about getting everything running faster, better, cheaper. They had adapted to WFH and all our miracles from the year before were expected as a bare minimum.
The new solutions required us sending equipment to people and getting them to stop using the old methods to move onto the New & Improved methods. This was slowed by a couple facts.
First, people have moved away from the local area. I can’t say I blame them. But now we were dealing with a workforce spread across the United States. No longer would a simple courier do. We were now in the business of packing up and shipping full kits, including monitors, all over the place. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but on top of all the other tasks the on-site team had to do, making these shipping arrangements and hauling boxes across the lot to the mailroom was a pain. Hearing complaints about slow delivery had me resort to getting up from my desk and walking a lap around the floor to calm my emotions to avoid saying how I felt in the moment.
Second, people hate it when you move their cheese. Even though the old system was not as good as the new, people became accustomed to it. We’d send new kits, and they would stay unopened or unused. Invariably, we’d receive a report about slow remote performance and then find that the person never started using the system we had put effort into building out and sending to them. It’s hard not to feel emotion over this kind thing. Hard to put into words. Maybe a kind of disrespect or dismissiveness about the kind of work we do on a daily basis? We tried to never let it show, as it wouldn’t be helpful, but it leaves a mark after you feel those things.
Outside of our normal role in technology and operations support, our division felt that year two was a good time for a major re-org and moving entire floors of people from building to building. Not a bad thing, but with hardly anyone on the lot, it’s a lot of complicated planning. The enterprise IT team did decide to do a major upgrade to people’s workplaces in terms of monitors and other desktop gear. This was a great idea that will make a difference in the long run to have large new monitors and other new kit to plug laptops into. I am glad this expensive decision was made to help out the average staff member.
That left us to coordinate several complicated things: moving the technical post-production gear, deploying new desktop hardware, reconfiguring conference room systems, new networking requirements, and the decommission some edit rooms and the build out a few new ones. With actual construction required to pull it off, time was of the essence to get plans locked in and get the work done in the elaborate sequencing needed to get it done smoothly.
However, no proposed floor seating plan survives contact with senior executives. It is known.
As a result, the floor plan is delayed later and later causing issues for all the trades, which were under tight deadlines to somehow have everything ready for a Return To Office (RTO) in early Fall 2021. This seemed impossible at the time.
Fate intervened, and the “RTO” date kept getting pushed out further and further, as the virus surges continued. Target dates went from September to October, then to January. When Omicron hit, the company went back to bare minimum status and the early returners were sent home and once again we were down to 5–6 people on a floor meant for 300.
A word about the trades. Like our team, work from home didn’t apply to the others on-site getting stuff done. Year one was full of overdue maintenance projects and a lot of things that benefitted from no one being in the buildings.
We worked alongside the various carpenters, laborers, sparkys, tin-knockers, tapers, and other trades dealing with the extensive rules of COVID safety. No one complained. But there was a common frustration with “the managers” that expected work to proceed at Beforetimes pace, even if supplies were slow to arrive and just getting on the lot required going through the gauntlet of temperature checks, questionnaires, and other health safety theater.
Our group is lucky to have free drinks and snacks on our floor and shared them openly with everyone. We’re all in this together and have to help each other out, even with the small things. Getting a free bag of Doritos in the middle of a hard day can make a difference to someone. That idea seems to be lost on the national level these days.
The other group to talk about is the Human Resources (HR) teams, who also have been pushed to the limit. The constantly changing rules about safety, who can come into the office, how to handle the constant churn of people moving on to other companies, onboarding folks that have never set foot in our building, and dealing with all the drama about vaccine rules.
They must need hipboots to wade through all the bullshit surrounding them. Getting decisions handed down from the highest part of the corporate structure, and then trying to work with line managers to implement these complicated plans that look nice on presentation decks, but are unworkable in the real world. Couldn’t pay me enough to deal with that kind of stuff.
In my year one piece, I talked a bit about what it was like to walk into other people’s offices and see their personal items. Our second year included a reorg that resulted in layoffs. Adding in the office moves, we were in other people offices a lot.
The Facilities team helped a lot with the packing needed, but we often got asked to retrieve some personal items for co-workers that had been let go. I was happy to help, but it sucked to be the one packing up their old life into cardboard boxes at such an uncertain time.
Desks are full of photos and mementos that are worthless to most, but priceless to the owners. Tossing them into cardboard boxes haphazardly felt kind of disrespectful to be honest.
Meeting people outside as they handed off their badges, phone, and other company stuff since I was the only exec around is in the no fun category of management. I guess tearful goodbye hugs in a once in a century pandemic has become the norm. Doesn’t make it any easier.
After spending most of the fall and winter prepping the building, working with our local IT and facilities teams, we are ready for the long awaited “RTO” when people return to our building. Things are prepared to allow people to work ‘hybrid’, meaning a couple days at home and couple days in the office. Each group and department is going to do things a little differently, but we are as prepared as we can be.
I have to keep in mind that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy and be ready to adapt to new, unplanned needs.
The truth is I’m exhausted. The team is exhausted. The trades are exhausted. While the work from home folks may have found their happy place, it feels like we have carried the org on our backs for two years and many seem to take this for granted.
Seeing other people dialing in while sitting in the sun outside or hearing about trips to Hawaii while we’re sitting here trying to keep the wheels on takes its toll on empathy for others.
And I have it fucking easy. I can’t imagine what nurses, grocery clerks, wait staff, delivery folks, and others have to deal with with an increasingly selfish public. There’s an awful lot of hard working people out there fed up with this bullshit and the baffling expectations that people have these days.
Yes, I know that the people working from home are working hard and have their own struggles with the situation. While the remote work situation does allow business to get done, it really doesn’t let people get in sync emotionally and create the empathy and understanding needed to keep a team together. Humans are are just monkeys with clothes on and emotions drive a huge amount of how we react to each other.
I try to de-stress by eating my lunch out on a dusty balcony away from my computer and just watch TikTok for a bit. I still water the plants and try to keep these mascots from fading away.
I just don’t know when we get to an ‘end’. The need for all this remote tech isn’t going away. Ever. They are hiring people in Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, and many staff have moved away permanently. This new second job and tech stack is here to stay.
People talk of the ‘new normal’, but I don’t know what that really means.
If I have learned anything over the last two years, it’s that people are more adaptable and inventive than I thought possible. That is a good thing. Too bad it came at such a cost to learn.
My mantra for the pandemic has been ‘Maintain your chill’, written on the wall behind my desk. I’ve done my best. Hopefully the Aftertimes will allow a little recharge of our collective chill.