It seems an appropriate time to reflect as we approach the one-year anniversary of the arrival of Covid-19 to Ireland. Our lives have changed in ways previously unimaginable. For many, the initial lockdown proved surprisingly pleasant, and was marked by a slower pace and pared-back way of life, more time spent with family, and the disappearance of tedious commutes. The benefits were obvious. However, having wintered one of the longest Januarys in history, the flaws of the model are becoming more apparent. As the dialogue continues on the future of the office, I thought it vital to highlight, from the perspective of a graduate, the absolute necessity of the office in society.
For me, the pandemic coincided with my entrance into the world of commercial property. Following a number of years studying, optimism filled my being as I was finally welcomed through the doors of Savills’ Dublin headquarters at 33 Molesworth Street last September. Unlike many of Ireland’s 62,000 graduates, I was particularly fortunate as my employer prioritised the on-boarding of its 2020 intake – for which I will be forever grateful.
Whilst intermittent and short-lived, my time spent in Molesworth Street has been most valuable. In fact, my personal development during these periods is unquantifiable. There is so much to be said for immersion – those silent breakthroughs that take place simply from listening to colleagues’ discussions, learnings that otherwise may not have taken place.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can appreciate the ease with which I could swivel my chair or catch the eye of a team member for some much-needed guidance. Retrospectively, I can now see the value of those moments of spontaneous collaboration as I walked the office floor in tandem with a colleague (socially-distant of course) discussing, brain-storming and overcoming matters that were concerns upon departure. As the threat of a second lockdown in mid-October became increasingly likely, an unwillingness to leave at the end of the day could be detected from my peers. This was obvious through further discussion, deliberation or even the retelling of a funny story.
Nevertheless, we laughed because we were happy to be there and unsure as to when we would have the opportunity to regroup again. And then there’s the learning through mistakes – like mistaking a face mask for construction site PPE because that’s the only type of PPE you’ve ever known. But these are the best lessons of all – and whether forgiven or not, the solidarity of others working nearby is comfort enough.
Learning from home
I know I am not alone when I say that my office on Molesworth Street is so much more than my place of work. It’s full of my kind of people – experts in their field – people whom I aspire to be like some day. And I’d be lying if I left it there. The life that goes with being a graduate in Dublin city centre has also been put on pause. That revitalising trip to Kehoes on a Friday evening, meeting friends for dinner, or taking a walk through Stephen’s Green are all things that have been temporarily suspended, highlighting the much wider impact office closures are having on our city.
That’s not to say learning hasn’t continued from home – it certainly has, with the unwavering support of colleagues and access to the most precious commodity of our generation, a reliable internet connection. But despite one colleague’s best efforts to assuage feelings of angst by remarking nonchalantly how “a pit in your stomach is unsustainable for the next 40 years”, feelings of isolation, bewilderment and confusion tend to recur as a graduate, particularly one confined to a bedroom. And with the unforgiving capabilities of HD cameras, so too comes the requirement to regularly neutralise confused facial expressions – something perhaps previously camouflaged by the buzz of an office.
And so, as we begin to recognise teammates’ backdrops as if they were walls in our own homes, I think it is now vital to begin planning for a safe and prompt return to our workplaces in whatever form that should take. As with all experiences, important lessons can and should be learned, and Covid-19 is no exception. There is no denying that now is an appropriate time to re-evaluate our working arrangements and the future role of the office in supporting those arrangements. Perhaps a blend of both office and home will constitute “normal” by this time next year. And I write this not just on behalf of graduates, but for all those “new starters” whose start has been hampered and overlooked. It is equally important for a junior infant to master those ever-useful ABCs, a secondary school student embarking on the Leaving Cert process, and for the employee commencing a new role within their own organisation. The common denominator here is the absence of our place of learning and I dread to think what impact that could have should it persist for much longer.
Hence, as we navigate this next chapter of change, certain things remain fixed: our undeniable need for regular social contact; the high-yielding benefits of face-to-face collaboration; and, finally, the irrefutable advantages of learning through working on site.
Ellen McKenna is a graduate surveyor at Savills Ireland