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The Long and Winding Road, that Leads, to Your Lunchroom…

Forty minutes early for our meeting, I finally stumbled into the floor’s barren and ghostly lunchroom. I walked through the awkward and twisting floor plan of the amorphous office building, past the floor’s makeshift boardroom that had an empty sign-up sheet on the door for the entire week. This boardroom looked like a glass-walled interrogation chamber furnished with the finest office furniture from Costco’s 2010 catalogue. The building itself sat awkwardly on a busy intersection in Toronto. The ground floor served as a shopping centre, and the high-rise offices sprouting from its retail foundation sprawled haphazardly as it tried to make as much of its footprint as possible. It had been a solid season since we met last in person. Having downsized his business like everyone else in his previous office building, the owners of his prior office gave up, deciding to sell the aging office building to a developer.

His new office building had the harrowing vibe of a refugee camp, albeit nicely appointed, air-conditioned, and charging a few thousand dollars a month for an office the size of a gas station bathroom stall. The floor’s disinterested receptionist, who was charged with greeting anyone who would arrive to see any one of the two dozen businesses that had set up shop on the seventh floor had a permanent thousand-yard stare affixed to her face. Hand sanitizer bottles with clotted nozzles could be seen everywhere in the unsympothetic waiting room. Out of interest, I walked past the waiting area and through the twisting hallways of the amorphous floor plan, and into the lunchroom.

Our meeting was for 12:30, and shortly after I had settled myself down to catch up on the morning’s missed newspaper articles, the atmosphere suddenly shifted. Slowly, an eerie audible mist took over the floor. As the slow hum of office doors opening and closing came to its peak, several entrepreneurs made their way into the room out of the carrying haze. They avoided making eye contact with each other as they waited in line to access the floor’s fridge, where they stored their disorderly packed meals. Those who did not need the microwave grabbed their prized Tupperware and left in a hurry, with only the tops of their scalps visible to the rest. Those who used the microwave stood in place, either scrolling their phones or staring into the oblivion afforded them by the tops of their shoes. The last two gentlemen who remained greeted each other.

“Hello, Alex,” said one as he grabbed his meal from the microwave.

“Good afternoon,” replied Alex as he stirred his medley of ingredients into an indescribable mess called a meal.

The Forgotten Average within the Hole of the Donut

These were the lost and forgotten souls of the small businesses that were heavily impacted by the pandemic. According to multiple papers, small businesses still occupy the majority of the landscape, yet the psychological impact of the pandemic and the forced changes that it placed on them are not covered nearly as much as they should. The pandemic, affectionately called the era of the multi-crisis, has shifted many aspects of their professional lives. Much had been made in headlines about the demise of city centres as “thought workers” retreated to their home offices, as essential workers risked their lives going into their workplaces before any vaccines were on the horizon. Globally, countless professionals moved out of city cores to suburbs and other cities, orbiting the gravimetric force of the regional economic engine as remote work became the temporary new norm. Still, to this day, the real estate markets in city centres have been rocked due to a lack of tenants. The reality is that many businesses permanently shut down during the pandemic as their various business models proved untenable. While a large portion of businesses downsized their operations and on the number of staff, many pivoted to a dynamic hybrid model that required less square footage. These businesses are underreported in your morning financial paper, for they tend to be small to medium businesses topping out at around 10 employees, and not Fortune 500 institutions that tend to move heaven and Earth with every mild overnight spasm due to a lack of potassium in their diet.

“I’ve moved into a smaller space due to my client base being cut in half over the pandemic due to screening procedures,” said a physiotherapist based in mid-town Toronto. These screening procedures required clients to wait outside the office and to arrive at the time of their appointment. This caused many to wait standing, which for people waiting to see a chiropractor, physiotherapist, pediatrist or any other healthcare practitioner introduced an insurmountable challenge. Those of you who are healthy and able, you may see no issue with this. If you are either currently disabled or have ever suffered from a lack of mobility, you know how hard it can be to stand in one place if the health practitioner’s schedule is running late that day. “Even after the procedures started relaxing and eventually went away, my clients did not return.”

“I moved us into a smaller space in the same building,” said a close friend who is the national manager of a consultancy firm in downtown Toronto. His firm went from 10 enclosed offices, 5 in an open space, and a board room, to one with two closed offices, and the open space as the central boardroom. This situation seemed to have been the least painful move I had encountered throughout the pandemic. Not a single employee lost their job, and they were encouraged to work from home and at their own pace. Productivity levels skyrocketed from an already impressive rate across the board, and the various teams’ abilities to quickly tackle flaring issues were unfazed. A good manager goes a long way toward making this work.

Historically, cities with strong and relatively safe transit systems have shown the tendency to bounce back from such setbacks, according to Arjun Romani and Nicholas Bloom. These two academics coined the term “The Donut Effect,” which explains the hallowing out of city centres to the suburbs. Cities such as Detroit were contrasted with Chicago (and its reliable transit system) for this, where violence was superseded by convenience for the eventual return of the workforce. Even still, the scars of inner cities burning and being looted in the early days of the pandemic due to protests and riots that extremist groups hijacked remain fresh in the minds of those who reside or who used to reside in city centres. As a result, city centres in places such as Toronto have once again started to flourish, for the most part. It has not been all clear sailing back in terms of transit within Canada’s largest city. Incidents of violence increased dramatically as the population slowly came back to the cities busses and subway systems, but the frequency of the violent crimes has been sparse enough not to discourage the population from using the transit system altogether.

A researcher working in fertility sciences in downtown Toronto had no choice but to continue her long commute into the city throughout the pandemic. Never one to complain, the mother of two simply went about her business, but the weight and the strain of navigating people who ignored pandemic protocols while they were in place showed on her face. “We have no choice. You have to keep your head down and your distance from anyone who looks like they are looking for trouble.”

The commute itself was one challenge, but the other still is deciding on which days to come into the office.


The Wilting Will to Understand

“I’m free for drinks on Tuesday and Wednesday if you want,” said my friend over his car’s intercom. Both of us were stuck in traffic and in our cars, so what better time to catch up and organize an afternoon of day drinking?

“Aren’t you back in the office now,” I asked.

“Yup! Me and a few of my colleagues go in on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays to avoid long lazy long weekenders. Without them around, we are measurably more productive.”

“I bet you have a spreadsheet covering productivity rates of multiple departments while the weekenders are in the office, don’t you.”

My friend’s distinctive dry and coarse laugh filled my car’s cabin. “You fucking bet I do.”

Though my friend works in one of the largest corporations in the country, the state for smaller businesses has been rather bleak when it comes to human interaction. As I sat observing the lost souls wander in and out of the lunchroom, it was evident that the social aspect of work for many who occupied this space had entirely vanished. Though they were forced to come to their tiny offices almost every day of the week, they barely uttered a word to anyone while there. This impacts the smallest of businesses with one employee to a much greater degree. A graphic designer in eastern Toronto has not seen his assistant in person only a handful of times since March 2020. Along the way, questions surrounding the assistant’s sparse productivity and potentially taking a second job continuously lined the business owner’s thoughts. Having their businesses downsized or no longer able to convince their employees to return to a central office, many entrepreneurs and managers of these small firms now lead a very lonely existence. At the time of writing, there is a lot of coverage about the mental health crisis of teens who have emerged from the pandemic with unprecedented levels of loneliness. Not much has been made about the strain on the mental health of professionals working from their spare bedrooms or those in a new office the size of a cabinet. As adults, we are expected to weather such storms in stride, only having to deal with them behind closed doors and at the cost of those who reside in our homes. For those who live alone, it is entirely possible for these humans in this lunchroom to go an entire day without delivering a complete sentence to another person in person. Say what you want about how resilient we should be, but the sheer fact that these people’s social skills are eroding is enough to be a cause for concern. As social beings, not being forced to interact with others can have its consequences. Without ample opportunity to flex our social muscles, apathy grows as our ability to read others’ cues diminishes, and we travel further inwards psychologically.

 “So, how was your first day back at the office,” I asked my friend, who, as an introvert, was not looking forward to this day. Like my friend, whom I conversed with over his car’s speaker phone, he also worked at one of the largest firms in the nation.

“It was good,” he snapped beamingly. As quickly as his smile had appeared, his brow started retreating into a pursed arrowhead of concern. He shifted in his seat as his posture relaxed and disposed of his originally rehearsed answer. “It was fine. It was exhausting. It was nice seeing all the familiar faces again. But it was so exhausting.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. It was a good day at work. We got a lot done, though, after lunch, it was a slowly declining shitshow, similar to a nice Friday during the summer,” he said as he crossed his legs in the creaking chair beneath him. “It took a lot of energy simply to interact with people. I couldn’t immediately shut off and regroup. This is going to take a while for me to get used to this again. Also, everyone got old.”

Being Awkward is No Longer Just for the Dorks

As she approached the intersection, the crossing guard’s excitement to interact with an adult and not a child who had just gotten off school was evident for all to see. On my way to the appointment, I was sitting in traffic, as one does in Toronto, as construction season started ramping up. I saw the woman quickly glance up to see the crossing guard smile at her. The enormous and cavernous smile was not menacing, per se, but her colossally impacted wisdom teeth could be seen even from my lowered vantage point. The approaching woman tightened the straps on her luxury leather backpack and quickly pivoted her position to place a light pole between her and the crossing guard.

“I can barely see you there,” said the enthused crossing guard.

Embarrassed, the woman telegraphed her disappointment in leaving her headphones in her bag. Sheepishly she looked up, gave a brief smile, and looked straight back down to her feet. Seeing this happen in real-time, another approaching pedestrian stood behind the first woman and took shelter behind her.

I made eye contact with the crossing guard, who, at this point, was flabbergasted at what lengths people would go to in order not to speak with one another. All I could do was return her smile, albeit a much milder smile showing far fewer visible teeth.

Ten minutes later, entering the office building, I held the door open for three people who were all going to the same floor to which I was destined. Two were wearing heavily creased dress shirts, and the other was a construction worker donning a crisp new safety vest.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Morning! With a day like this, I really wish I was working outside,” said the construction worker as the other two continued to stare ahead.

“How long are you stuck in here,” I asked.

“Who knows? I lose track of time while here. Everything’s the same.”

He had a point. Every corridor, hallway, office door, and even human looked interchangeable to each other. The other two simply stood in place and did not pay any attention to those in the elevator. As the door opened, they rushed out, nearly taking each other out as the construction worker and I quietly laughed in harmony at them.

Changing Workplaces Require an Adaptable Approach

After my meeting with my client, I left the twisting hallways and eventually out into the bustling intersection. Immediately the change in behaviour was evident as people greeted each other as they passed. As I sat in traffic heading to my next appointment, I was struck with the utter indifference that everyone had shown each other in that office building. I was reminded of the difference in how renters treated each other versus homeowners. In my experience, those in Toronto who are committed through a hefty mortgage to stay where they are, are forced to go out of their way to get to know and interact with their neighbours. The lack of ownership and agency of their workspace had resulted in a cold existence where the office served only as a place of utility.

A workplace and its coworkers offer a place where a group of people share a common goal and identity. No matter how inhumane the corporation that they work for, having to work together on projects that either are centred within the silo of their departments or that reach far past their immediate office creates a sense of community and comradery. Birthdays, anniversaries, and the joy of a co-worker returning from maternity leave beaming with the pride of a new parent are important milestones and sources of joy in our lives. Our coworkers are not simply people we work with but people we come to trust and rely on. Without having to go to the trenches with their co-workers, there is a vacancy in the lives of those who are forced to downsize their offices to such an extent.

This brings us to the prevailing issue of managerial machismo (speaking of mindset, not that of gender) that immediately springs forward on this topic. The “tough it up” and “deal” with my decisions regarding how the workplace will be physically structured moving forward misses the key point. This is of empathy and recognizing that outside of a few statistical outliers that will do fine in any scenario save for an extinction-level event, no one is on better footing now than they were in March of 2020. If there are no plans for one’s department or company to dissolve anytime soon, a new task for managers and business owners is to foster a sense of community across their teams moving forward as their surroundings continue to shift. This is not as much of an issue for larger firms, whose gravitational pull drowns out the voices of individuals who have contrary notions of how things should be run, but for smaller companies, they can be a severe source of stress for everyone involved. Blanket statements and mentalities cannot be applied to an entire department. Knowing that certain factors, such as the times and routes (and the specific threats they may impose on your employees) for their commutes, have proven in many cities to be indicators of whether you can retain employees onsite. Thus, a dynamic and continuously adaptable approach needs to be taken. On a smaller scale, if you have been forced to reduce your physical office to that of the scale of these entrepreneurs in this lunchroom, do yourself a favour and get to know your neighbours. Even the manager or owner needs to interact with humans regularly in order to function properly socially over time. Your employees and clients will thank you.