A couple of weeks ago, my manager, Richard, sent out an invitation to join him and a few other co-workers for a Saturday picnic in a local park. Prior to 2020, this was par for the course; here in Seattle, the coming of spring weather is so satisfying, people would throw a full-blown parade for the occasion if they could. But last year, Covid-19 made spring feel as dark as winter. The only invitations we were getting were to Zoom parties.
This year, however, things are starting to feel somewhat normal. Citywide restrictions are being lifted on restaurants and businesses. Outside is opening up. The streets are calling, emailing, and two-way paging, asking us where we’re at. The aforementioned invite — extended to vaccinated employees at my job — is a perfect example.
The note was packaged with the assurance that there’s no pressure to attend for those who feel uncomfortable with in-person meetups. Most folks RSVP’d with their intentions to go. I, however, was one of a few who declined. I told Richard I had plans that day, but that was a lie. The truth is, I wasn’t ready.
I haven’t quite been a social recluse during the pandemic. I have my group of friends — a herd, if you will — and together, we’ve occasionally linked up for hangs after passing rapid Covid tests with flying colors. So my reason for declining the invitation to a picnic with co-workers wasn’t exactly out of fear or caution. Truth is, when I thought about seeing these people with whom I’ve been video conferencing for more than a year, the idea of meeting up in real life got my anxiety going.
Throughout the work-from-home era, I’ve been acutely aware that I’m still one of a very small number of Black employees at the company, even though the office is now virtual. I’m reminded of that every time I see that Brady Bunch layout of squares on my screen in meetings and seldom see another attendee who looks like me.
In an odd way, that feeling of isolation has been softened by the way a video call, unlike an IRL boardroom, can democratize its participants. Together, as a company, we’ve all been through a lot. (Some of us more than others.) It’s easier to feel a sense of comradery when even the VP has a finicky double-monitor situation and damn near needs to shut down and reboot just to get through her presentation without technical difficulties.
Am I wrong to wonder if my relationship with my manager will change when he sees me in the office being my unapologetic Black self? Will he be the same person he is virtually while in the presence of others?
I’ve got a feeling that going back to the office and once again being around co-workers will change that — and not necessarily for the better. Sure, WFH has its annoyances, but I don’t know if returning to socially distanced cubicles will be the remedy.
It’s weird to think about seeing people again in the flesh after spending so much time with them virtually. Save for a few pandemic pounds and Cast Away beards, I’m sure they won’t look much different. But I can’t imagine the dynamics won’t feel different. This is especially true for my colleagues who started during the pandemic — in particular, my newish manager.
I’ve noticed that everyone who’s joined the company during the pandemic is a little more humble and patient because they’ve needed people to be patient with them, too. Onboarding is a challenge even in pre-quarantine times; doing so virtually is like a damn Rubik’s Cube. I believe a great deal of the rapport I have with Richard is due to my help in getting him up to speed on things when he was still a staff noob. With this impending return to the office — which is starting to arouse the anxious energy of the first day of school — I have some questions.
Am I wrong to wonder if my relationship with my manager will change when he sees me in the office being my unapologetic Black self? Will he be the same person he is virtually while in the presence of others? How tall is he? How tall does he think I am? Some of these queries are more important than others, but all of them matter, right?
Employee dynamics aside, once you factor in the loss of mornings to myself, the necessity of wearing pants without an elastic waistband, a two-way public transit commute, empty kitchen small talk through masks, no afternoon naps— the whole thing is about as appetizing as reheated coffee. I’m resisting every step of the way.
At this point, plans to return to the office are still in their preliminary phase: initially a soft reopen that’s voluntary for employees before a presumably mandatory return to the same workspace for everyone. The rest of the details are still being sorted out. If Amazon’s memo touting a “return to an office-centric culture” is any indication, our days of popping in a load of laundry between meetings are numbered.
I’m not scouring for new permanently remote jobs just yet; I’m willing to wait and see how this whole thing shakes out. But for now, I’ll continue to practice social and professional distancing. Kicking it around my co-workers or my place of employment is definitely not in my plans anytime soon. No lie.