Getting Back To the Office

At first, I didn’t really like Herr Schneider. And I was upset that my new boss – actually my first boss – made me share an office with a guy who was easily twice my age. This was going to be lots of fun!

I had just graduated from a university in Germany with a degree in political science. It was pretty amazing that I landed a job in human resources with a big German chemical company because I had no idea what I wanted to do, which career path I should pursue. I knew as much about human resources as I did about finance or logistics – nothing! But there I was, in an office with Herr Schneider.

Herr Schneider was an easy-going man who had been working for the company for over twenty years. He came to work at 8 every morning and left punctually at 5 every afternoon. He wasn’t into climbing the corporate ladder but as it turned out, he was very willing and able to help me learn the ropes.

Each day at 12:15 he’d say, “It’s lunch time. Do you want to join me?”  Most of the days I did, especially at the beginning. We’d talk about everything, what he liked and didn’t like about his job; why certain meetings were important and why others were to be avoided if at all possible; how I could advance my career if this is what I wanted to do.

Back in our office he’d share with me, over and over again if necessary, how to put together a compensation package for an expatriate. He’d check my work if I asked him to and I know he saved me many an embarrassment by doing so.

At the time I didn’t really understand the godsend that Herr Schneider was to me. He taught me so much. He mentored me. He gave me feedback and if warranted, criticized what I did or said. While writing this I’m thinking, I need to find out if Herr Schneider is still alive and thank him for how he poured into me.

Why do I share this story with you? Because I fear that the Covid-19 lockdown will prevent younger employees, especially those who have recently entered the job market, from experiencing a workplace environment similar to what I was able to experience. It will stunt their personal and professional growth.

A recent front-page Wall Street Journal headline (7/28) read: Google to Keep Staff Remote Far Into 2021 Amid Pandemic.   In the article we learn that “The move will affect nearly all of the roughly 200,000 full-time and contract employees across Google parent Alphabet.” Many other companies are doing the same. (1)

I’ve been working from home since 2011 so this “new normal” hasn’t really impacted me. I also understand that there are many individual and societal benefits that come from having millions of Americans work from home:

  • Less wasted time and stress caused by commuting to work.
  • Lower pollution due to less traffic.
  • Reduction of gasoline expense and for some of us, receiving money back from our auto insurance.
  • More time to spend at home with family and pets.
  • Some companies will reduce their office space and save on lease expenses.

We all know how important it is that our children get back to school or college – safely.  I would argue that it is equally important that our employees, especially our younger employees, get back to the office.  The first 5 years are formative years and so much learning, socialization and growth is lost when young employees sit alone all day in their one-room studio apartments connecting on zoom group meetings. And how edifying is it when companies install “spyware” on their employees’ computers to make sure that they are actually working and not out walking their dog?

So, what can employers do during this forced shut down? I’d suggest that they do everything possible to open up and bring employees back to the workplace-safely.

  • Understand how important it is, especially for younger employees, to interact with their colleagues, in the office, having lunch together and yes, meeting at the water cooler. 
  • If you are in management, reach out to your younger employees by phone, often, to see how they are doing. “Waste” some time on small talk.
  • Start meeting your employees for coffee or lunch at your local Panera. Spend extra time mentoring them even if you don’t have the time.

My career is behind me. I’ve experienced the highs and lows of office life, business travel and departmental lunches. I feel sorry for – and am worried about – those employees who are just starting their careers and are missing out due to the Corona pandemic.

  1. Wall Street Journal, July 2020