Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Saying Goodbye to the Traditional Workplace

By Jean Marie Johnson

I broke up with the traditional workplace in 2008. Well, what really happened is that the traditional workplace broke up with me. A casualty of the financial crisis, I became an overnight freelancer for the very same company, an organization I loved. Wham, bam, and just like that, everything was different. Don’t get me wrong, losing that nearly three-hour, round trip commute was a welcome relief, but the rest of it was surreal. Back then, work had a significant place in my life, albeit, not in my home. Back then, the lines of demarcation were as clear and absolute as the goodbye. Eventually, those lines morphed. But that took time and, even more significantly, letting go.

That’s true of many “endings” in our lives, no? While we are well-practiced in “goodbye,” we are ill-prepared for the necessity of letting go. Familiarity fuels our holding on and some measure of fear tends to hold us back.

I found ways to keep the office “alive.” To keep the invisible cord of connection intact, I sent a morning email to our office administrator – “Hey, it’s me. Just checking in…again.” I placed an arrangement of faux peonies near my desk to replace the fresh flowers I usually carted in on Monday mornings. I checked my email fiendishly, not wanting to miss anything. Because I had always thrived on working in quiet solitude, my makeshift home office afforded me that. But what I missed was something I couldn’t magically recreate: the casual camaraderie and the spontaneous synergy that fueled my thinking, my performance, and yes, even my loyalty.  Besides, I now had a closet chock-full of beautiful work clothes with no place to go. That pained me.

Over time, I realized that the slimmed-down staff, mostly the owners and administrative folks, were also learning to let go while learning how to carry on. I realized that while I had been removed, I hadn’t been replaced. And that is what mattered. My contribution was still respected and without question, counted on. My relationships, forged over the course of thirteen years in the office and on the road, were alive and well. Making this new “work arrangement” work was about my holding those two truths in the forefront of my consciousness and figuring out all of the rest. From the perspective of time and experience, we understand that we are amazingly adaptable. Looking back, I now think, “What was the big deal?”

Fast forward to 2020 and we are all living in a disruptive COVID world. While some welcome the opportunity to work from home, many are struggling with letting go. They and their employers are scrambling to figure things out and to make work from home, work. Still others are waiting and wondering if or when they will return to the workplace, and assuming they do, what they will have to “let go of” once there. The new workplace will likely reflect our new normal, complete with social distancing and mask requirements, temperature checks, limited shared space, rotational, and clutter-free desks that are cleaned and sanitized after every use. Let’s not forget that you can kiss that coffee maker and water cooler a reluctant goodbye as they are replaced with hand sanitizing stations.

My heart swells with pride knowing that American workers are rising to the challenge of letting go, adapting with equal parts heart and determination. Recent studies give us ample reason for confidence: McKinsey research indicates that 80% of survey respondents say they enjoy working from home and 41% report that they are more productive. The added “bonus”: liberated from the daily commute, they have more time and greater flexibility around how they spend it. The funny thing about letting go is this: it creates the space for something new and with that, personal renewal. Priceless, no?



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