Sunday, January 16, 2022

Comforting Effect of Unprofessional Environment


     It says something about myself—whether good or bad I can't decide— that I've had the same scraps of ephemera stuck to the wall by my desk for more than 30 years.
     For instance, the "Have you forgotten anything?" sign snagged from an Amtrak sleeper compartment in 1979, heading from Cleveland to Chicago at the end of winter break, into an epic snowstorm. It struck me as useful advice in professional journalism. (Both that side and the flip side, which shows a sleeper and the words, "Quiet please.")
     Or the photo of a hangdog pooch snipped, if I recall, from some kind of veterinary magazine I was scanning to pass the time on the night shift back in the late '80s, posted by my desk as an unsubtle "Fuck You" to my bosses.
     Above the dog is the caption: "Terrifying Effect of Unprofessional Environment."
     Why display that clipping? Maybe because I had a job where I had to show up at 4 or 6 or 7 p.m, and do whatever anybody on the desk told me to do, often attend some tedious zoning hearing, or try to find some spot where a crime or fire or accident had occurred and hang around the yellow tape with a few other reporters and wait for some official to come out and talk to us. Maybe because more than a few of my bosses viewed me with bewilderment and contempt, at least in my view. It was all so disappointing. I never had much of a plan in life, but whatever it was I once wanted, this wasn't it. So "terrified" might have been a slight exaggeration to describe my state of stymied ambition, but it wasn't far off. 
      Now of course those fluorescent-lit offices we all scorned and decorated with countless "Dilbert" cartoons bewailing our fate, are a Lost Eden. Remember the colleagues, commotion, desks, chairs, mail, snacks. People would show up unannounced! Coworkers would bake things! And bring them in to the office, cranberry bread and cookies and red velvet cupcakes, simply because they were so kind and generous and what else were they going to do, eat all this stuff themselves?  ("You're going to poison us all someday, aren't you?" I once quipped to an older colleague, a lovely Southern lady, whose stricken expression haunts me to this day).
       Swapped for an endless exile of computer screens and intruding spouses and the same meals eaten again and again and again. The torpid grind of working, or trying to, in some basement next to a washer and dryer, or while the kids try to learn long division, or in some similar dire situation. In a corner of the living room. In a coffee shop.
    Not me of course. I'm very lucky. I've been working at home since 1997, when I quit my job at the Sun-Times and, in allowing myself to be wooed back, inserted the right to work two days a week from home. And it's a pretty nice home. I've always had an office: this one might be the best room in the house, on the second floor, with a bay window, facing trees. I can see the sun coming up as I type this, will watch it transit the sky through the day, eventually setting to my right. Literally able to watch the world turn. If I look up at the right moment I can see birds, hawks. The train occasionally makes itself known. People walk their dogs past.
    But still I keep this woebegone mutt. Why? Habit, I guess. Though when I think about it, now that I'm in an extremely unprofessional environment: no one barging in while I'm trying to work, no hour-long commute, no bothersome dress code, no time-wasting meetings, no interrupting phone calls, no science experiment communal refrigerator in a dreary lunch room. I get to eat in my own luxe kitchen, often in the company of my beloved wife, who is working downstairs. That is many things, but terrifying is not among them. 


  1. I wonder if it's too soon to ponder whether us middle-class worker drones will permanently adapt to Working From Home as the new normal. Our houses will be either built to suit or converted in layout to have a bona fide Office, officially labeled as such on the floor plan, where the breadwinner will confine himself or herself during Normal Business Hours, except for one hour at lunch. The large glass boxes downtown, at least those that have not been converted into condominiums, will be visited occasionally for meetings, as a treat to replace the little faces in boxes on the home screen, except with facemasks on.

    Our family house was built in 1873 with a large upstairs bedroom at the front, last slept in by me. When Dad retired from his office job around 1990, he turned that room into what was known as a "home office" for his hobby interests, with a computer and a telephone and a printer and everything. He even had an office chair in there. What a concept.

    I, during those same years, was commuting downtown from my own house, 90 minutes each way, every weekday, along with everyone else. In Winter I would see my house in daylight only on weekends.

    Flash forward 32 years and Dad's in assisted living, and my son and his wife are in the house now. Son goes to work in that same room every day, only it's now sporting at least three computers, four monitors and a variety of equipment that didn't exist just a few years ago. This, to him, for the past two years now, has been his weekday existence, and I don't detect any desire by him to return to how we were all doing it before.

  2. I have worked (mostly) from home for more than 20 years...going into the office just two times a month. It works more than fine when the work requires real concentration, like writing, which is what I do. A real office though is a must. Most nice houses already have them. I think the "new" thing will be for homes to be configured for at least two offices so that one spouse isn't stuck at a kitchen table or basement washing machine.

  3. The rare times I worked from home were not happy ones for me. Simply put...too damn many distractions. Too easy to get up from the desk in the corner, or from the dining room table, and take too many breaks. Grab something to eat, go out in the yard, play with the kitties, watch the news, surf the web, take a walk, or even take a nap. Of course, that was before every second and every keystroke was monitored, and all output...or lack thereof...weighed and measured.

    Going to an office meant having to become focused, having to work, staying on-task, and actually interacting with other human beings, not just a phone and a screen and a keyboard. But maybe that's just me.

    If I were still young enough to come out of retirement, I would NOT elect to work from home. I'm sure many employers would begin to welcome me with open arms...until they learned they were dealing with a septuagenarian...a grizzled geezer. Then it would be...sorry, pal. Can't use you. Best of luck.

    As for being "terrified", Mr. S, clicking on the "About Neil Steinberg" link, and reading about your history, and the body of work you have produced, tells me that you now have far less reason to be disappointed or stymied--and while your bosses and clients undoubtedly feel certain things about you, bewilderment and contempt are probably not among them. Decades of success in a tough, competitive, and shrinking business have probably helped to changed their viewpoints somewhat. And to dissolve the "terror." I hope so.


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