What are offices for?

The traditional parental visit to a child’s new job underscores vanishing office life.

A law firm’s Manhattan office space.

How can parents embarrass their children by marching through their new offices, once, if they don’t have any colleagues there?

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“We should have both worn babushkas,” I whispered to my wife, after the guard scanned our IDs, took our photos and directed us toward the bank of elevators, one already open, waiting to whisk us to the 39th floor. “I should be carrying a chicken.”

Well, not both. I was being succinct. My wife’s hair would be in a kerchief, but I would wear some large, sincere peasant hat. Plus a scattering of straw on our clothes.

“That’s how I felt when my parents came to see my office,” my wife remarked.

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Of course she did. Most kids do. While not as culturally prominent as traditional rites of passage, like communion or commencement, the parental office visit is no less real. The pivot between the first quarter of life — childhood, education — and the subsequent half century of adult employment.

Though like everything else, the Mom and Dad Inspection Tour takes on new meaning thanks to COVID-19, and our often depopulated workplaces.

It’s less traumatic, for starters, when your new colleagues are mostly virtual. There is nobody to cringe before. Our inability to embarrass our unflappable older son, even a little, sapped some of the fun.

“These are my parents!” he called across the polished wood and granite vastness, to a group of well-scrubbed young people.

“Nice to meet you!” one young man shouted back, though we hadn’t met, or even broken stride.

“He’s my summer associate,” our boy explained.

I’ve been in my share of swank law firms, with glass conference room walls that turn opaque at the touch of a panel. But this joint, in New York’s financial district, took the prize. It had the quiet immensity of a pharaoh’s tomb, or an unused set for the movie version of an Ayn Rand novel directed by Fritz Lang.

It went on and on, several full floors. I marveled at what this Manhattan real estate must cost. And for what? What’s the point of an office anymore? COVID taught many of us we can do our jobs fine from anywhere. Yet companies are still trying to corral their scattered employees and herd them back into their pens. At the Sun-Times, we were supposed to start this week. Then COVID, spiked, again, and the big homecoming got pushed back, again, for one week.

Why ever return? My hunch is, companies are still paying for their spaces, and applying the “If You Got It, Use It,” rule. Not a classic business success strategy. I have a brass pica pole, on my desk, for nostalgia and back scratching. But I don’t insist anyone use it to lay out pages.

Although newspapers might be unusual, in that reporters are supposed to be out in the world, reporting, not sitting at our desks, hands folded. Now other professions have also discovered the savings of not coming in — the average commute time to work is almost a half hour, by car, just over an hour, by public transportation. Two full hours a day.

And the benefits of spending the time and money to gather in a central location are ... what? Conviviality? Snacks? The theory is that working together creates collaboration, innovation, synergy, whatever. But it could just as well create friction, dissension and time-wasting meetings.

I’ve been to the office maybe three times over the past two years. Pre-COVID, I tried to come in once a week, to collect my mail, clap eyes on my coworkers, and remind my bosses that I am employed here. But it didn’t seem essential and, honestly, nobody seemed to care whether I was there or not. Going to the office could feel, even then, like an old-fashioned ritual, almost an affectation, like carrying a handkerchief.

Technology wins. You’d think we’d know that by now. When the Slack office app was introduced, I was reluctant to bother using it. Then it quickly shifted from an option to a necessity, and now it’s where our office really exists, whether we go in or not. I could unfurl a banner at the City Desk and it wouldn’t make a fraction of the impact of a note on Slack.

Maybe that will sink in when employees are finally forced back downtown, grumbling, only to find themselves sitting a few yards from each other, facing in different directions, silently communicating with their thumbs through Slack.

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