Last day in the old office, coffee break, and afternoon flashbacks. When is a building more than just a building?
27 Oct 2020. It’s about 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, and I’m sitting at my office desk. I’m not horrendously busy, but I’ve got a few things to get done by the end of today. Tomorrow is a bank holiday, and then it’s only two days till the end of the month.
I’m telling myself I should head to the kitchen for coffee when I casually click on the work email tab on my laptop. I have an unread email in my inbox. I read the subject, ‘Operational updates’, and I already know what it’s about. Working from home is mandatory again. I mean, the email doesn’t read explicitly ‘HO (Home Office) is mandatory again’, but the message behind ‘Only go to the office to pack your stuff, don’t go to the office to work from there’ sounds pretty straightforward to me.
It was a matter of days, I tell myself, we all knew it was coming. The Czech Republic has been Europe’s black sheep for weeks now: numbers of cases have been soaring, curfew is in place, all shops, bars and restaurants are closed, and 2020 still sucks as and more than it has so far.
I’m not exactly fond of the WFH regime (I wrote about it fairly extensively here and, yes, ‘not fond’ is a euphemism), but the fact that the HO announcement doesn’t come as a surprise helps. Also, in early November the whole company was going to be on mandatory HO for about three weeks anyway: we’re moving to a new building, and they can’t have people around while they move the equipment and furniture around. So I was mentally prepared for it.
Some have already done their fair share of packing, but dozens of cardboard boxes are still piled in the shared kitchens, waiting to be folded by those who will step foot into the office with the sole purpose of packing their own stuff.
In the office I’ve been mostly alone for months now, being the only person in my department working from here on a daily basis. Someone comes in occasionally for the day, others agree in advance to work together from the office so they can meet and spend the day together, but only very, very few people in general are regularly here.
In the early office days after lockdown no. 1 I used to ask more often questions like ‘Are you planning on working from the office anytime soon?’ or ‘So, when am I going to see you next?’. Now I only ask when I know there are real chances of ‘Yes’ for an answer.
I duly archive the ‘Operational changes’ email in its dedicated folder, put on my mask, and finally make for the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee. As I stroll down the main corridor, I distractedly think to myself: okay, so I was planning on working from the office till Friday, but now I have to rethink it. I’m mostly packed already, as I boxed my monitor and my desk stuff last week. My locker is already empty too, I will pop down to the reception before it shuts at 4 and return the locker key. I will get my new locker key once we’re in the new building anywa-
I suddenly realise today is my last day in this office ever, and it feels super weird. I’ve populated this building for four whole years. Once I wrote that I’m not good at beginnings and ends, I’m much better at everything in between. Well, I really am not good at ends: I suck at them.
Coffee mug in hand, I head back toward my desk. I take slow steps, and when I reach the end of the corridor, right where the (now deserted) open floor begins, I stop and I lean against the wall. I take a sip of coffee, eyes moving from one side of the room to the other, and I see the fifth floor. All of it.
I see the floor where I had my very first training just a few days after moving to Brno; it also happened to be the only company floor at the time. It’s the floor where I sat for months before I was moved to the sixth, and where I went back to when my department was moved, again, to the fifth – there was a lot of shifting between floors at some point.
I see the kitchen where I shared years of lunches, coffee breaks, cake breaks, cookie breaks, breakfasts, and also laughters, tears, casual conversations I could no longer recall in their entirety (too many of them), and tough, serious conversations i will never forget (no such thing as ‘too many of them’ with these).
I see all the past fifth-floor desks that had me sitting at them all these years at all hours of the day and night (back when I had shifts), and I see the one I have now, where I’ve been sitting for over a year now. I’ve been especially fond of this desk.
I look at the empty desks of my team people, and I realise how familiar they are to me. I even helped ‘personalise’ some of them. These desks have been so quiet and silent this year. I hope they will be loud and busy again soon, once they’ve been installed in the new building.
I see the cloakroom where I ‘hid’ every time my phone rang and I really had to pick the call, either because Mum had a super urgent question that couldn’t wait, or one of my nieces had a super crucial question about her English homework. It’s the very same cloakroom where I also had another one or two of those tough, serious conversations I will never forget.
But I see more than just the fifth floor. I see my old desk on the sixth floor, where I spent some of my busiest, most fun months here thanks to the very few, very special people that made up my team back then.
I see ‘my own’ 6th-floor shower, which I started using regularly only this year, when I got used to biking to work on a daily basis. I take the liberty of calling it ‘my own’ because not once did I find it occupied ever since I learnt its exact location on the floor. It was as if it had my name on it.
I see the table leg, also on the sixth, which broke my finger bone when I fell and hit it as I walked a friend’s puppy across the floor, and he cut off my legs, and I tripped over so as not to step on him, and the next thing I know is I’m lying underneath the table, and then I’m icing my left hand with a pack of frozen peas someone got from the kitchen refrigerator. Except, the finger was so purple and swollen that I had to go to hospital the next morning, and ended up having surgery to have the bone fixed. As it turned out, the frozen veggies weren’t enough.
I see the large kitchen window on the seventh floor, the least familiar of all floors: I never worked in any of the offices up there. It always felt like a bit of a maze. I would only go up to the seventh to say hi to my good friend David (and his dog) or look out of the large kitchen window at sunset. Or do both things at the same time.
I see the long ramp leading up to the entrance area of the building. I see years of me walking up and down that ramp (lately only on rainy days), reading this or that book, or (mostly) doing both things at the same time. And I can’t help thinking how much passive smoke I must have inhaled, paying company to my smoking friends when we took breaks together and popped out for some fresh air.
And I see the benches and the flowerbeds all around the building. Each bench and each patch of grass I can easily match with one or more talks, lunches, drinking sessions, serious talks, coffee breaks. Some are also the benches where I sat with the people I got involved in some of my ‘Pictures of You’ photo projects. I sat them down here and there one by one, and I handed over their own photo booklets.
Everything feels like it happened ages ago.
I place the empty coffee mug in the dishwasher, walk back to my desk, turn off my laptop, and I’m ready to go. I leave around 5.30. It’s already dark, and I have to head straight home and prepare for Czech class which, starting from today, is back on Skype mode. As I’m standing at the bus stop, I look at what is now officially my ‘old’ office.
It was just an office building, anyone could say. It sure was, but it was also more than that. Not for the building itself, and not for strictly job-related reasons. But over the past four years there has been a lot of life within those four walls. And there have been lots of people, some people more than others.
When I have these thoughts I always wonder if other people process things the same way as I do. I feel like my brain retains kind of photographic memories of things that happen, so I remember everything about what happened where: the date and day of the week, what I was wearing, often what others were wearing, how exactly it felt, what exactly was said and when, what I had for lunch that day, how many beers we drank after work that day, and so on. It’s like watching videos in my head all the time.
I wonder if others, too, recalled their happiest and/or saddest memories of the old office when they left the building knowing it was their last time there. Or maybe they just casually stepped through the revolving doors on the ground floor and, just like that, they were out of there, and nothing to think about: it was just an office building, after all.
I guess I’m really, really bad at beginnings and ends.