“Out of the proverbial abundance of caution, we’re going to have our SF office begin working from home tomorrow.”
This is the email that Beth, our CEO, sent out on Thursday, March 5 at 9:01 a.m. PT. Our San Francisco office was shutting down due to COVID-19 and New York would soon too. Less than a week later, our Waltham HQ would tell people not to come into the office starting the week of March 16.
I think we all knew that COVID-19 was serious then, but I don’t think any of us imagined being gone for a year. We thought we might be gone for a few weeks. But no more coffees, lunches or drinks with the people we spend more time with during the week than our family for the rest of 2020? None of us saw it coming.
I’ve been back to the SF office a couple of times in the past year either meeting someone who wanted to grab something they left or with my wife tagging along while I grabbed a standing desk for the spare bedroom that has become my Zoom room. What’s usually an open concept office buzzing with team members, meetings, the SONOS, and good spirit, is eerily quiet. It’s like an entire group of people up and vanished but left a lot of their things. Almost like those convenience stores that antique collectors hear about, closed overnight by their owners with pristine Americana on the shelves only to be discovered by auctioneers and treasure hunters decades later.
Welcome messages for 2020’s new team members written on whiteboards.
Inkhouse blankets hanging on the back of chairs.
The occasional chair turned away from a desk, spun around to talk to a teammate one last time before leaving that day, on March 5, 2020.
I miss hearing, “Jason, do you have a minute?” and being able to pop into a room, get the work topic out of the way before chatting about the weekend or a funny story. I miss getting in a conference room to promote someone as they beam with pride and embarrassment over all of the amazing things being said about them by the group of managers they work with. I miss the yelps of excitement for someone who got engaged over the weekend or just got back from a long vacation. I miss walking into the Boston and NY offices a couple of times per year and seeing people I work with every day but rarely get a chance to visit with.
One year. Could it only be one year? But HOW has it already been a year? How could we fit three COVID spikes, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the election, socially distanced holidays, the assault on the Capitol and everything else into only 12 months?
So much has happened and yet I feel like the biggest takeaway is...nothing.
I say we’ve learned nothing, not as political, social or moral commentary, but because the biggest takeaway from the past year is not a lesson, it’s an affirmation of something we already knew.
The past year has been about the people. It’s about the people we love - like our family, friends and colleagues. It’s about the feeling of camaraderie born out of the freedom to choose to spend more time with each other outside of the office when there is no pandemic. It’s the feeling that comes with being empathetic and receiving empathy because we are kind and a team first. It’s about the people we used to see every day and one day - poof - they aren’t there and we don’t know when we’ll get them back.
We’ve learned to cope and bond in other ways, especially with our new teammates who only know the post-quarantine Inkhouse. We work, we laugh and we FoF with more empathy and humanity than ever as we see kids, pets and parents bomb our Zoom calls. COVID-19 has not just accelerated the move to digital, it has accelerated humanity in the workplace - bringing new meaning to work-life balance and putting our people first.
I guess we have learned something - that things won’t ever be like they were on March 4, 2020. There won’t be four days per week in the office, it will be less. We used to live around where we worked, now we work around where we live - that’s a great thing I think, and a positive change.
But strip out all of the change to our lives, our work, and our world, and there is one constant: it’s still all about the people and I can’t wait for a small slice back of what we lost on March 5, 2020. To my family, friends and colleagues - I miss you, and here’s to what we can only hope will be a much better year ahead.
Jason is president of Inkhouse and leads operations from the firm's San Francisco office. His singular mission is to debunk the myth that people can't be happy long term on the agency side of PR where he has spent more than 20 years working with companies in technology and consumer.