Malachy Clerkin: Unpopular opinion - I miss the office

For those of us hamster-wheeling through middle age, not having to go to the office every day is a wonderful thing ... but the pure idle osmosis of being in rooms with people is hard to replicate at home

To begin, a list. It’s not a comprehensive list. It wouldn’t survive any sort of forensic audit. But nonetheless, a list it is, comprising sundry topics of offhand conversation in the office over the past month or so. It is going to be exactly as dull as you imagine it might be so feel free to skip to the third paragraph now.

Succession. Manchester City. Audiences for movie reviews. Nuts. The 3.40 at the Curragh on Sunday. Jerry Springer (RIP). Joe Brolly. Online transcription services. The Spar up the street closing down. Fantasy football. Our Eurovision shame. The Grass Ceiling by Eimear Ryan. Sun cream tolerance. Ulster football. Traffic. Cricket (it is The Irish Times, after all).

You get the picture. If you spend any time in an office at all, your own list may or may not be more interesting or entertaining. We are all our own walking blobs of ephemera, digesting and dispatching endless kernels of nothingisms as we go. In any tribunal over the usefulness of an office, this is the sort of stuff that would be entered into evidence.

Ah, but by which side? On the face of it, the answer is obvious. As the working world becomes ever-more data-obsessed and rationalised, any such list looks like a slam-dunk argument for turning offices into basically anything but places of work. Imagine the efficiency on offer if we simply cut out all that empty wittering, all those piled-up five-minute slices of bloodless, stakeless guff.


But back in the actual world of work, we know it’s not that simple. It’s obviously true that the pandemic gave everyone a sense of how working life could change. It made the previously rigid, unyielding strictures of office life instantly a nonsense. Whole industries had their snow globe shaken and even now, three-and-a-bit years on, it’s still not entirely clear where everything will settle.

The one thing that seems certain is that most people are spending far less time in offices than they did pre-March 2020. How many people do you know who do five days a week any more? Do you know 20? 10? Seriously – do you know anyone who does it? And if you do, would you say they’re happy about it?

This is the thing. The new arrangements have, on the whole, been a positive development in the lives of people. Certainly for those of us hamster-wheeling through middle age, portioning out our precious time, checking and rechecking to make sure there can’t be an eighth day slipped into the week somewhere to make everything fit – for those of us in that specific loop, not having to go to the office every day is a wonderful thing.

I miss the office. More just the office as a concept. A place of small, casual encounters that go to make up a working life

It means doing the school run at your ease. It removes the commute, allows you to make a lunch that doesn’t require a credit union loan to pay for. It gives you the time to get up and get out to do some exercise. Or at least removes the excuse not to. Above all, it means scheduling your day as it suits you. Work is work, always. When you don’t have to go to the office to do it, it naturally feels more like you’re doing it on your own terms.

But for all that, I miss the office. Not even specifically the literal one in which this piece is being written – I came in today, I might even come in tomorrow. More just the office as a concept. A place of small, casual encounters that go to make up a working life. Where the pure idle osmosis of being in rooms with people has an effect – at best sharpening ideas, at worst simply passing the day quicker.

That list of nonsense small talk at the top of the article is, of course, altogether pointless and almost completely without impact on anyone’s working output. But it would be a lot to do without, at the same time. You’re not going to ring up a random work colleague to talk about the Eurovision or Jerry Springer – although I reckon I could knock a good 10 minutes out of Patrick Freyne on what factor of sun cream we both favour. High, I suspect. Extraordinarily high.

Office gossip. Gentle piss-taking. The occasional slice of birthday cake. For most of our working lives, these things happened organically. You didn’t have to put them into a Google doc or send around an email. They didn’t require picking a far-off day when you could be sure everyone would be in. They were knitted into your working life without anyone having to lift a needle.

It’s not that they’re gone now – just that they take so much more conscious effort. It’s harder for younger workers in particular. There are fewer of the random ah-sure-we’ll-go-for-ones that end up being five, the accidental nights where they find out more about the job than a fortnight at their desk would ever teach them.

If you’re lucky, a job is more than the transactional equation between hours you put in and output wrung from you at the end of the week. Offices, for all their faults and flaws, can be places where the rest of that picture gets coloured in.

Now. Did you see the Succession finale yet?