“You can do and be anything you put your mind, heart, and energy into.”
I remember my mother saying this any time she helped me through a crisis. Her career in child protective services often left her working seemingly endless hours while also providing a safe, welcoming home for my sister and me. Never once do I remember her telling me to go it alone or figure things out on my own. I’ve carried my mother’s balance of care and tenacity with me throughout my life—I credit her for my work ethic, my sense of hospitality, and much of my success in guiding teams through exciting new projects each year.
When I’m focused on exciting new projects and things are going well, it’s always a surprise when they go awry unexpectedly. However, surprise doesn’t adequately cover our collective reaction to the rise of a global pandemic. This particular crisis would no doubt require a lot of my mother’s brand of care and kindness.
I woke up this morning and, like every other morning in quarantine, checked my phone for new emails and Slack messages. Although several hours had passed since I last looked, the messages feel like a continuation of where I left off mere minutes ago. Yet another nearly identical day had arrived and here I was, preparing to do it all over again.
“Didn’t we just do this?”
I wondered aloud to my husband, Matt.
My feet pressed firmly into the carpet as I headed down the stairs toward the dim glow of the kitchen. Despite the rain, our dogs were ready for their walk. Charlie and Arthur, circling my feet like sharks, were an integral part of the morning routine for Matt and me. Today, though, they felt more like adversaries than companions. They rolled over each other and my feet, barely letting me through without stepping on or tripping over one of them.
Their commotion reminded me of my commute to New York—that is, when I used to commute. On most days, I drove for seven minutes to the local Metro-North station. From there, I’d have 75 minutes of uninterrupted time to work (or sleep) if I was lucky enough to find a seat. Once I arrived at Grand Central Station, I took the 6 train two stops and walked the rest of the way to office, navigating my way through schools of other commuters and tourists swimming their way upstream to their jobs or to the next flashy Manhattan locale. Working in commercial real estate, I was no stranger to both high-end New York offices and the innumerable tourist attractions scattered across the city. Many of the office buildings throughout New York, with their immense heights and world-class designs, drew architecture fans and gawking sightseers alike.
Each morning, I weaved through the crowds as if on autopilot to get my usual breakfast. The place—my favorite juice bar on 28th Street between the train and CBRE’s office—was predictably loud, every order yelled over grinding blenders and the hum of conversation. My daily smoothie was better than what I made at home—sweeter, with a delightful tartness I could never quite identify.
As I entered the office, I nodded and smiled at the security guards on my way through the lobby to queue up for the elevator and cram myself into one with a dozen people or so, three or four of whom I knew. No one ever talked in the elevator, but there was almost always a tiny, crackling duel between the earbuds of two audiophiles. On the 18th floor, I usually met Cheryl, the Host in CBRE’s office, who lit up as soon as she saw me. Cheryl was always a comforting presence. She regularly reassured me that whatever events I had for the day were lined up and ready to go. In a way, coming to the office was a lot like coming home, but with most external stressors having already been addressed. I’d see Cheryl throughout the day, mostly in passing, and she always delivered a little spark of joy. Like the sun, she warmed the entire office whether or not you saw her.
Although I’m not a coffee drinker, I basked in the smell of Matt’s morning coffee as the dogs and I came in from the rain. While I dried them off and tried to shake the chill in my bones, the warmth and energy in the scent of his coffee filled the room as I began my own new morning ritual: I washed my hands (as I would approximately every five minutes throughout the day) and began making a fruit smoothie. After adding the frozen fruit and protein powder, the blender’s dull roar mixed with the pitter patter of puppy feet to break the quiet of the morning. In this new reality, the mix of sounds invited a sort of short, sweet morning meditation. My homemade smoothie lacked the delightful tartness of the juice bar’s version, but I’ve come to take delight in the process and how it eases my transition from sleep to work.
Like every other day in quarantine, I made my way upstairs to the spare-bedroom office and sat down, not having seen a single soul apart from Matt and the pups. Against the glow of my computer, the sky filled with light and poured through my window. Arthur found his way onto my lap and once again, I quietly dug in and started my day.
As I logged into Zoom for my first meeting, I couldn’t help but think about the fun we’d had on our 80s-themed team call last week. My screen had lit up in teal and pink, people danced to Whitney Houston—I was thrilled to see each of my teammates contributing in their own unique ways. I loved every second of it because to me, it felt like we were finally connecting over something that wasn’t the virus or a work project. We were just enjoying each other’s company. I found myself hoping we’d be able to get that kind of energy in a meeting again once we returned to the office.
With my own kitchen nearby, the concept of second breakfast wasn’t quite as foreign as it once was. I nudged Arthur off my lap and shuffled back down to the kitchen for a bagel. Matt, hearing me washing my hands (yet again), came up from his first-floor office and joined me for some water-cooler chat and to grab a bite himself. As I reached for the bagels—which had been a much-needed doorstep delivery from my mom—the sweet smell of sourdough brought me back to Bagel Thursdays at the office.
Every Thursday, my colleagues and I made our way to the kitchen just as Cheryl put out a vast spread of bagels. We thumbed through the assortment like siblings—careless, grabbing the most coveted bagel varieties, sharing knives for the myriad cream cheeses at our disposal. Being so cavalier about our hands and proximity to one another didn’t feel odd at the time, but thinking back, it was amazing we could build these connections without having to always be considerate of where we had been or what we had touched.
Ding! The sound of the toaster snapped me back to the present moment. I hoped my bagel hadn’t burned because of my daydream. I knew we’d eventually return to the office, and that many more Bagel Thursdays were likely in my future. The office would again be a bustling spot for collaboration and engagement, where I could talk to my colleagues face-to-face and work through problems in the same room. We were resilient—we’d find our way back to the office eventually. However, the experience would no doubt be informed by the realities of the pandemic, with increased cleanliness and more spatial awareness to keep everyone happy and healthy.
I knew it was something we would accomplish together—we could do or be anything we put our mind, heart, and energy into.
I knew we were getting close to the holidays when Cheryl started mentioning our company holiday party when I arrived at work. She’d always ask about themes we might incorporate and shared information early to get everyone excited. Of course, it never took much to excite me—I’ve always been energized by spending time with people. Much like holidays with my family, the opportunity to come together, eat, and strengthen my friendships with colleagues was a high point each year.
Until I could reconnect with everyone again, however, I was still under quarantine and working from home. This realization pulled me away from my office daydream and back to my responsibilities. As I made my way back upstairs to the spare-bedroom office, I checked in on Headspace for a bit of walking meditation before my next call—one I had been stressed about all week.
As morning yielded to afternoon and finally evening, sunlight lazily surfed across my desk. I found myself feeling nostalgic about a particular sliver of sunlight that made its way through the window at the office to sting my eyes in the early-morning hours. It was a daily ritual to close the blinds when I arrived and open them again after lunch when I knew it was safe. Like an enduring papercut, though, it was always there—small, but mighty.
At home, I didn’t typically worry about the light or any of the other distractions that came with office work. I had much more control over my environment. I could silence notifications so people wouldn’t interrupt me when I was on a roll, and I never got pulled into sidebar conversations. I often found myself losing track of time or accidentally skipping lunch without my officemates clearly marking the time with their movements in, out, and around the space. The sound of clicking shoes and elevator dings were no longer harbingers of office connections, and the gentle hum of the air conditioner wasn’t there to lull me into my 2 p.m. slump. In the spare bedroom, all was quiet except for the cars outside, the dogs who barked at them, and the neighborhood kids laughing (and screaming...always screaming). Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get back to the consistent bustle and the joy of impromptu connections, distracting or not.
I heard the screaming again. This time, though, the sound came from the tired brakes of a delivery truck outside my window. At last, my Milk Bar cake had arrived. Yes, it was indulgent, and yes, I had also ordered some cookies from Levain Bakery that week too. But we were in quarantine after all, and we were all doing our best to stay afloat and not lose our minds.
When I got back to my desk, I had no choice but to share the news of my latest joyful delivery with the Host team. One by one, they shared their latest indulgences too. Not because I prompted them, but because we were genuinely excited to connect. In that moment, I realized that while all our journeys were different, at least some of our challenges were the same, and each of us turned to similar outlets for a little relief. Slack had become our water cooler, our board room, and our bulletin board. Through chat and video calls, I grew closer to coworkers with whom I barely spoke before quarantine. The shared experiences of stress and uncertainty established a baseline of trust and vulnerability that we hadn’t had before. I was grateful for the chance to make those connections and celebrate the fact that none of us was in this thing alone, despite being physically alone in our respective offices.
As I said my goodbyes to the team, we all joked about the weight we would gain, fully aware of the vices we had turned to relieve the tension of quarantine. We also shared a few photos of our dinners, our dogs, our kids, and whatever projects we were working on at home. Compared to the quiet of my mornings, signing off at the end of the day felt so much richer. I couldn’t help but wonder how we would manage to keep these connections alive when we returned to the office. We’d have to be very thoughtful about our return to the workplace to take the best parts of this new reality and apply it in the future.
“Goodnight all! I’m here if you need anything,” I posted as I once again pushed the dog off my lap, closed my laptop, and stopped at the bathroom to wash my hands again before heading downstairs for the night. I could hear Matt heating up dinner as the dogs played in the kitchen. I wish I could say I was excited to see them all, but I had been cooped up with them for weeks; the excitement just wasn’t there tonight. I missed that feeling of decompression and anticipation that came with the train ride home. It was sometimes lonely, but I used the time to reflect and compartmentalize (a bit). My commute gave me the motivation to wrap up the day before I got home so I could truly be present for my family.
After a rainy walk with the dogs, I had a bit of a brainstorming session while cutting into the cake I ordered. I put the knife down and sent a quick Slack message to a colleague. It was 8 p.m. by then, but somehow, I got an immediate reply—I guess I wasn’t the only person with work on the brain. But more than that, their response helped me realize that we didn’t have the same boundaries as we did in the office. Everyone was at home near their computers and, for better or worse, we were all living at work now. The occasional after-hours interruption felt like less of an intrusion.
Shortly after that exchange, I got a calendar invite for a Zoom call at 8 p.m. the next day. It was less than ideal, but it was the first available time for everyone. And really, what else were we doing at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday?
The cool spring evening wound down, casting long shadows as daylight made way for the golden glow of table lamps. Matt and I started another Netflix original series, and there were only three more Slack messages to check before bed.
In the moments between wake and sleep, I find myself thinking more about my days, how they used to be, and how they ought to be. I consider what the workplace might look like after quarantine ends, when workers begin trickling back to their offices and to a relative sense of normalcy.
I imagine a daily rideshare commute with a custom-tailored carpooling option that lets me leave my house and pick up colleagues on the way to work. After just a few trips, I feel like I know the driver. We talk about some of the precautions he’s taking now to make sure the car is as clean as it is comfortable. Craving my morning smoothie from the juice bar near the office (as always), I order and pay for it through the Host app during the drive. Since it’s ready and waiting for me when I arrive, there’s no need to wait in line. What’s more is that, when I ordered my smoothie, the app tells me the next one’s on the house—loyalty punch cards are amazing, but they’re even better when you don’t need to carry the card.
I still use hand sanitizer what feels like every five minutes, namely because it’s at the entrance to every store and building. It feels like a normal part of being out and about now, so I don’t mind as much as I anticipated. In CBRE’s office, it looks like there are fewer people than before and there’s much more space. Before getting on the elevator, I stop at a temperature check station, paying attention to the markings on the floor to ensure no one spends too much time shoulder-to-shoulder. In the office, proximity sensors use the app to vibrate our phones when we get too close to each other.
I bring a cloth mask from home, but there’s a Welcome Marshal in the lobby handing disposable masks to people and directing them where to go for their temperature check. She’s wearing a mask too, but her bright eyes make it clear that she’s happy to connect with others in person, even if in a modified way.
The elevator, which was typically crammed with seven or eight people, is now limited to three riders at a time. I expect there to be an intense wait given the limitations, but things move quickly. I wonder if it’s due to things being more organized or that there are fewer of us in the office—I’m sure it’s some combination of the two. Thankfully, the workplace app tells me which elevator to use, so I always ride up with people going to the same floor, no button-pressing required. When we get to the office, everything about entering (understandably) feels a bit surreal. But everything’s clean and even though the process has changed, there’s still something about coming to work that feels natural and good.
The app tells us which desks have been sanitized and which aren’t ready to use, assigning a space based on cleanliness, need, and availability. When I sit down at my workstation, I’m thrilled not to have to deal with the painfully bright morning sun like I did before, as the blinds were already drawn before I arrived. Like magic, they automatically open up again around noon.
Cheryl isn’t in this new space to welcome me back. However, Jessica is, and she’s just as warm, hospitable, and prepared as Cheryl was. She keeps the office humming along with the new sterilization schedule and meeting-room capacity changes. She’s always in the office before anyone to make sure the workstations and meeting rooms are ready for us and I’m convinced she has an endless to-do list on that tablet of hers. But somehow, she keeps it together and always surprises me with one random delight after another.
It’s Bagel Thursday, and in this dream of mine, Jessica put an individually wrapped salt bagel (my personal favorite) in my food locker. What a sweet surprise, since I didn’t get a chance to add to our group order on time. Most of the snacks throughout the office are similarly packaged, dispensed by RFID-based vending machines as soon as you step in front of them. I simply order something in the app and walk to the machine to pick it up.
The kitchen area is still there, but there aren’t any bulk foods around anymore. For the curious among us, there’s a QR code on the counter to scan for information on the last time the space was sanitized. Any time I check, it’s never been more than an hour. Instead of steel utensils, the silverware drawer now contains packaged, biodegradable sets with bamboo plastic straws. There’s a new touchless water-bottle station, and even the toaster and dishwasher handles have anti-microbial covers. (The fact that I’m noticing dishwasher covers mid-dream likely corresponds with my constant loading and unloading of the dishwasher in quarantine.)
One exciting thing about this new, cleaner environment is that I see greater respect and consideration for both the office and one another. Even my messiest office mates clean up after themselves and sanitize their own workstations before they leave for the day. I have no doubt that this level of hospitality and care will break down barriers and lead to new relationships.
It turns out, the connections built over Zoom and Slack weren’t temporary. The bustle of the office returns along with us and I once again see my colleagues throughout the space. We seek each another out to collaborate and share stories about our families, culinary debacles, and joint projects as others connect for real-life coffee and lunch dates. We’re growing the relationships we established online as if nothing had changed. It’s overwhelming to think that such a motivating event for our company culture was born from the grim necessity of video conference calls during a global crisis.
There aren’t as many face-to-face meetings in this new office environment and the space holds fewer people overall, but the meeting I have today is amazing. Only essential people are there and everyone has plenty of space—plus, the strong office WiFi has been a nice little reminder than I’m not working from a spare bedroom. Before the meeting, Jessica made sure the space was clean, the AV setup worked, and the seats were labeled for everyone. I’ve never held a meeting where there was so little to worry about and now, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
After the meeting, I pop over to our building’s gym for a quick run to blow off some steam. I notice there are fewer machines with more space between them, and several new faces clean the unused equipment throughout my workout. It’s comforting to know CBRE is as concerned with my health as I am. On my way out, I notice a sign announcing a new partnership for at-home, digital fitness classes. I’ve heard so much about the program, I can’t not try it! I just hope my husband is as excited to give it a shot as I am because he’ll be trying it, too.
As this dream day comes to a close, I’m exhilarated by how much we got done and how effortless it was to get around the office. I open up the app to find out when I should line up for the elevator in time for my ride home. While in the elevator, I realize I don’t feel like cooking, so I order some delivery to meet me at home.
I get so much energy from people. And now that I’ve had some time away, I cannot wait to see Matt and the pups again. When I get home, I compulsively check my phone it to make sure it’s working because no one is Slacking or texting me. I love the quiet of my house and sharing a cozy meal with Matt.
I can’t wait to get back to the office again tomorrow and do it all over again.