The Daily Heller: What Was an Office?

Posted inThe Daily Heller

About half of the people I know in the design business (and that does not include those in the gig economy) no longer have offices, or they have opted out of returning to their existing offices on a regular basis. The reasoning goes that it is still unsafe, but truthfully many have simply gotten used to a work-at-home, semi-autonomous existence where they earn a regular paycheck. Whatever the reason, the office is no longer the center of creative coexistence.

For those who do not remember the pre-COVID norms: An office is a space where one played digital games, drank lattes and stored stuff that was unsuitable for home; wrote emails, texts, tweets and Facebook entries; and otherwise used it as a base camp before and after lunch. Offices were places for conducting transactional business, the likes of which we may never see again.

Decades ago, long before cell phones—before Hangouts, Zoom and FaceTime—I had a notion to start a mobile design studio on wheels that would go directly to a client’s location, like a Mr. Softee ice cream truck. People thought I was crazy, until one day I met an itinerant printer who was doing just that. He had rigged up an Airstream as a mobile letterpress print shop.

Drawing by Emily Roemer

It wouldn’t have worked for me, anyway—I get car sick in city traffic. So like most of you, I was content to work from home during COVID-19, but once the quarantine lifted I grabbed the opportunity to return to my home away from home and spend considerable time at my office, doing more or less what I did at home but without the anxiety. An office is more than a workplace—it is a defining environment, an anchor of sorts. Leaving my office, I was adrift.

I recently interviewed myself about the existential distinctions between office and home, and was surprised by my responses.

Steve: Why were you so keen to return to your office?
Steven: I felt I had purpose, not just real estate.

Steve: What did you miss about your office?
Steven: Well, there’s a long, diverse list. The tape dispenser, rolling ergonomic chair, the large computer screen, analog desk calendar, letter-size ScanSnap scanner … did I mention the tape dispenser? Oh yeah, and my tchotchkes.

Steve: What emotion or emotions did you feel when you returned?
Steven: I felt bereft of a year lost. I still feel unhinged, a bit of a Rip Van Winkle syndrome. Since everything was as I left it, the passage of time did not happen.

Steve: I know what you mean, since I am you. Anything else?
Steven: I feel happy and sad. Depressed and elated. Longing and belonging. In short, Verklempt.