Twenty One Years In the Office
A decision looms.
That title probably sounds like I’m talking about retirement, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway. No, this is something else completely. I’m thinking of switching offices at work. Not jobs, not companies. Just my office.
This is a big decision. I’m considering it because I’m rarely in the office these days, and there is a woman who is younger, busier, and in need of the kind of space my current office can offer.
I love my current office. I’m also afraid I don’t need it anymore.
The other office is small. Tiny, in fact. I love it. But do I love it enough it to consider switching offices?
The fact is, the proposed new office is a former storage closet. It has a door and a window. Years ago, when I used to go into this space to get something or other, I would wish it were my office. It had a door. And a window. I’d occasionally suggest to my manager that he clear out the storage closet and let me have it. He would roll his eyes at the idea. “Too much work,” he would groan. And I would return to my terrible little office.
The worst office in the building.
At the time, I sat in perhaps the worst office in our building. It was a hemmed-in narrow strip of windowless space that held a PC, a Mac, a typewriter, and a printer. I sat in the middle of these oxygen depleting machines, and I used them all. The space was so small, I barely had to roll my chair to swap what I was doing.
On the counter at the end of my skinny space sat a huge metal spray booth. People from all over the building used it. They would stand six feet from my chair, opening the doors, flipping on the loud fan, spraying toxic fixative, usually talking to me about whatever they were doing because it was so incredibly awkward to do that in my office.
You can see why I wanted the storage closet, I bet.
When I was choking on the fumes from the booth and the dust attracted by all these various electrical things, I would look across the hall at my friend Sandee’s office, with her huge corner desk and two big windows and credenza topped with random items related to our company. I longed for Sandee’s office. It was visceral.
Better offices come at a price.
I switched jobs. I had a better title, more money, a troublesome manager, and a wonderful office. It had a full wall of windows that looked out onto Broadway Avenue, and a ¾ wall with no door. It was open, open, open.
My manager didn’t like that people would stop by and chat with me. I didn’t invite them, they just somehow needed to say hello. I got my work done, in fact I excelled in this position, but still, there was that friendliness, that chatting, and the fact that during the weekday, I smiled a lot. She didn’t like the smiling. Yes, this boss complained because I often had a smile on my face.
Is that not horrible? She was horrible. I don’t mean to imply that she was a horrible person. She was just a horrible manager.
The horrible manager moved me to a more enclosed office right next door to her. That was fine with me. This office was smaller, but it had spectacular windows and a door. That I would close. Whenever I could. To block out the sound of her strident voice, calling from her office because “everything turned to italics and I don’t know how to fix it!”
This manager was worried about how much time I spent on the phone. Our phones were connected, so when she saw that I had picked up mine, she would pop into my office, eyes wide and blinking, to make sure it wasn’t a personal call. It never was.
And yet, in she came.
I had two enormous black filing cabinets in my office where she filed useless and unimportant pieces of paper that she considered important. She would come into my office to retrieve something from one of them, then walk through the very narrow space behind my desk chair–where I was sitting, mind you–to my side desk. There, she would rummage through my desk drawer to get a pen or pencil, or make a phone call on my office phone while I sat there in disbelief, trying to work with her bumping around to my right.
Once, while attempting to do this, she stubbed her foot on the base of my desk chair and said “OUCH” loudly, right into my hair. I went to HR, where I was told this manager had “a good heart.” She most certainly did not have a good heart, she’d had a heart attack on the golf course, but whatever.
Shortly after this event, I came in on a Sunday and methodically stripped out every single personal thing I’d ever installed in this office; the blanket over the back of the chair where my visitors sat when they persisted in dropping by to say hi, every random scrap, clipping and Cristiano Ronaldo photo on the cork board, the framed photos of my dogs, the pottery unicorn my mother gave me for my seventeenth birthday. Even the plant.
The look on the horrible manager’s face when she popped in the next Monday was priceless. She stopped stumbling around behind my desk. For a while.
There is more to write about this particular period of my employment, but the most important part is this: it ended.
When an office makes you cry.
In the year that followed, I found myself switching offices a few times. I had two fairly crummy interim offices with no windows or doors. One of these offices was so terrible that I went to HR and cried over it. Real tears. This might be because I’m a big baby, and it might be because the office was really that terrible. Possibly both.
The HR manager was very kind, and she took notes. And though it sounds like I was always going to HR, I really wasn’t. I’ve gone there four times in 21 years, and three times were about that manager. The other one was about the bad office.
But here’s the thing about my crummy interim offices. They came with the most wonderful manager. You might wait your entire professional life to work for someone like this manager. And this manager eventually installed me in the window-filled office I’d coveted when it was Sandee’s.
I love this office. It is grand. On the day I moved in, I wheeled in my desk chair, pinned my various and sundry ephemera to the cork board, and covered the credenza with my own crap and a few plants. I hung a blanket on one wall and a huge map of the USA on the other. I filled the bookshelf with reference books I never use, and topped it with a vintage globe, two sock monkeys, a bunch of retro souvenirs from places I have and have not visited.
I also put up a framed company photo from the “Good Old Days” that includes the terrible manager. I haven’t even affixed a sticker over her face. I consider this proof that I am a kind and forgiving person.
Discovering that I’m a stop on the tour.
Last year, I was sitting in my office on one of my rare in-office days. A person from HR stepped into my office and then backed out, a new hire close behind her. That was weird enough, but then I could hear her whispering. “[Redacted]?” I called. “Why are you whispering out there?”
She came back in, embarrassed. “I was just explaining to [Redacted] here” (the new hire who had followed her in) “that some of the people who’ve worked here for, you know…” and she smiled, “some time, how you decorate your offices. And yours is just so cute.”
I smiled and said thank you! Wow! Gee! And thought about how much I hate being told that anything about my life, age, appearance, or taste is cute. It is one of the most condescending things you can say to an older person, no matter how cute she may be.
Working from home, like everyone else.
Since the shutdown of Spring 2020, I have rarely used my cute/grand office. But I miss it. I miss my team, chatting with my manager, lunching with my friends, and the give and take of office conversation. I even miss a couple of people I hadn’t really liked before the shut down. We were somewhat awkward with each other in the “before times,” but now we are all hearty with each other, practically slapping each other on the back in all our break room bonhomie.
I attribute this to the nearly forgotten pleasure human beings experience from random unplanned positive interactions. I make it a point to go in at least once a week, now.
That was how I discovered that the former-storage-closet-cum-office was vacant, due to a realignment of staff. The former occupant is on a different floor, and this tiny space, which has somehow housed two different visual managers over the years (don’t they need space?), is sitting empty.
When I broached the subject of switching offices with my manager, she gave me a look. “It’s a closet, Karen. I want you to go sit in there with the door closed for a while. You can be kind of…claustrophobic.” (It’s true, but how does she know this?)
I have, and it’s fine.
I’m not sure when, or even if I’ll be moving into the office that used to be a storage closet with a door and a window that I coveted so long ago. I’m not even sure why it calls to me. I know part of it is that I feel like my team member would make better use of my current space. I despise waste, and I feel like the space is wasted on me. I also feel like if I’m going to work mostly from home, keeping the big office is selfish of me.
I have a lot of feelings.
I’m not sure that the move will actually happen. I’m still considering this switching offices thing. If it does happen, I’m sure I’ll find a way to personalize this dinky little space.
I just hope no one tells me it’s cute.