The old song is new again.
It won’t be across a crowded room, but shuffling nervously through your workplace you may indeed meet a stranger. It’s not a stranger, of course. The vaguely familiar humanoid is a co-worker, one of your closest and dearest comrades before COVID-19 struck and everyone headed for the hills. Now, coaxed or commanded, haunted or hunted, they roam the halls, strangers in the strange land of desks, water coolers and broken copiers.
It isn’t surprising that you don’t recognize the person who used to sit across from you in endless meetings in Conference Room 1. After months of isolation, people change. You’ve changed, too, but in your case, the change has been for the better. How are you ever going to get along with a gangly gang of malcontents who look like they’re on the losing side of the zombie apocalypse?
The question isn’t really how will you work with these people; it’s: How will you will live with these people? Conversation is easy in a Zoom meeting conducted from your kitchen table, but running into a real live human being in the lunch room is an entirely different matter.
For one thing, if you don’t like what someone is saying, you can’t mute them.
To navigate this stressful situation, what you need is a bunch of interactional strategies in your back pocket. You also need a back pocket. If working from home has rejiggered your idea of proper work apparel, even at the grooviest tech companies, pants are recommended.
Let me help with a few useful don’ts and do’s.
Don’t start conversations with: “Wow, it’s weird being back at work. What did you do during the pandemic?”
It’s nice to ask, but you can see the problem — they might actually tell you.
On the other hand, feel free to launch into a detailed discussion of your months of isolation.
“And then, in March 2021,” you might say, “I washed my bathrobe. No, that was April. In March I found my bedroom slippers. They were under the refrigerator. I’ll never understand how that happened.”
Also, after months home alone, you may find you want to escape the hustle and bustle by secluding yourself in your office. Or, if you don’t have an office, under your desk. While this can be marvelously comforting, the danger you face is that someone might find you and want to relate to you. Or worse, give you some work to do. Better to slip into the supply cabinet and spend the first few months back at the office in splendid isolation among the paper clips and the Sharpies. It will be lonely, but you can do lonely. It’s actual deadlines that are the problem.
Importantly, be prepared for people to forget your name. It can be disconcerting if your manager takes on a glazed look as they point and stutter, “It’s … it’s you. Isn’t it?”
On the positive side, this temporary amnesia could be an opportunity to rebrand yourself. A nerdy Leonard can instantly change into a daring Kylo. And why shouldn’t a downtrodden Karen live out the rest of her career as Daenerys?
How popular would your company’s vice president of human resources become when a visit to their office required making an appointment with the “Mother of Dragons?”
If you are considering your return to the office as a temporary condition before moving to one of those charming low-cost, rural hamlets where a month’s rent is about the same as a DoorDash delivery of chalupas, don’t let anyone know.
It’s OK to take a peek, but your desk drawer is the place for those mesmerizing brochures from the chamber of commerce of “Amazing Ashtabula, Ohio.”
Finally, if simply being in the same space with other human beings is a strain, socializing with these strange creatures will also take some getting used to. People will want to go out for coffee and for cocktails. They’ll want to schmooze and chitchat and spend endless hours talking about nothing. Worse, they’ll expect you to listen.
Don’t do it. While all that is required is the occasional “What a loser!” or “They just don’t get it, do they?” caution is required. The loser who doesn’t get it may just be you.
Over time, you will probably return to your rut and forget completely about the wonderful life you used to lead when you worked from home and everything was perfect. If not, there’s always Amazing Ashtabula.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at [email protected] To find out more about Bob Goldman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.