The new language of the office, from al Desko dining to zoombies
Consider the denizens of the office – those figures hunched over their desks typing, pinging, barking into phones, scarfing down salads, sometimes closing the loop, always circling back. They’d love to touch base. They’ll do a deep dive, if it moves the needle.
Office lingo signals affiliation with an in-group. But that isn’t its only function. “Corporate language serves the purpose of papering over the messiness of being a person with emotions and contradictory impulses,” said Aparna Nancherla, a comedian who played a human resources representative on the Comedy Central show “Corporate.”
During the pandemic, Nancherla noted, as lives and routines were upended, that sleek language didn’t always meet the demands of the moment. “Corporate life is so tied to time and efficiency, and none of that felt like it mattered anymore,” she continued. “It felt like playacting, like keeping up this charade.”
Still Nancherla, like millions of other Americans, found herself going through the motions: sending Google calendar invitations, logging onto video calls, adjusting her ring light as the world fell to pieces. New phrases cropped up to label those jarring experiences. There was social distancing, Covidiot, Zoom fatigue. Lexicographers took note of that gloomy vocabulary. In 2020, the digital word of the year was doomscrolling, according to the American Dialect Society. In 2021, burnout made Dictionary.com’s shortlist.
Employers relied on jargon more than ever, according to André Spicer, a professor at Bayes Business School, City, University of London, because the usual tools they had for building workplace community had disappeared. That meant inventing fresh terms as well as leaning on the classics, like disruption and road map. Then there were oldies that got an update. “I hope this finds you well” gained the addendum, “in these trying and unprecedented times.”
“In the past you could communicate culture through physical stuff,” Spicer said. “When you go virtual you don’t have artifacts around, whether it’s a foosball table or office canteen, so you’re left with people on screens and words.”
As some workers prepare to return to their physical workplaces, and many others settle in for a long remote winter, here are the words they may find handy.
Al Desko dining
Remember the dash outside to buy a prepackaged sandwich, whose contents would end up nestled in the crevices of your laptop keyboard? Or the icy gazes directed toward colleagues who dared to bring in tuna? “Nostalgia about the office seems to have popped up in the hybrid age,” Spicer said. “What was ever so good about Lunch al Desko?”
Some have a copy of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” on display for video calls. Others opt for something subtler – maybe “Jude the Obscure,” which actor Paul Rudd chose, or Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” featured behind Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Seeing into every person’s home, no matter how well you knew them, felt intrusive,” Nancherla said. “But it was also bonding in that you’re like, ‘You’re stuck at home like me.’” Stars: They’re quarantined just like us.
When people sit in morning traffic, they owe themselves a treat. Maybe it’s a scone or a smoothie. Maybe it’s one of those egg white wraps from Starbucks that probably dates back to the Paleolithic era. Cameron Parkins, who started a new job during the pandemic as a graduate programs administrator in Richmond, Virginia, impressed his co-workers by making banana cheesecake for his first day at the office. His team appreciated it, he said, maybe even too much: “They joked around that it was the real reason they hired me.”
That office colleague who inexplicably lowers his mask when he has to cough, as if he is the only person in the room. At least he filled out his Covid symptom self-scan.
Working flexibly means more time away from your day job to sell crafts on Etsy, trade cryptocurrencies or write the 2021 twist on “King Lear.” “When you’re not in the office, it’s a lot easier to switch back and forth between tasks,” said lexicographer Erin McKean, who noted a recent spike in usage of the word “polywork,” a more official-sounding form of the side hustle.
Who knew three little letters could contain so much angst? They became ubiquitous this year, as bosses promised a triumphant Return to Office, only to have their plans hijacked by coronavirus variants. Still, better to talk about a return to the office than a return to work, according to Chris Herd, a technology entrepreneur. “People are genuinely offended about being told they’re returning to work,” he said, “when they’ve been working their socks off for the last 18 months.”
Show and tell
When offices disappeared, the boundaries between the professional and domestic went with them. Alexis Gay, a comedian who used to work at Patreon, realized early on that the seven employees she managed would become intimately familiar with her kitchen. “It was like, here’s my mug, here’s my plants,” she said. “You were forced to be a little more yourself by nature of the office coming to you.”
In pre-Covid times, we used to call those moments when we communicated directly with our colleagues the regular old workday. Now, with people scattered across time zones and more apt to set their own hours, those opportunities for real-time conversation are a scarce resource. “We’ve learned to cherish the synchronous time,” said Joshua Zerkel, head of global engagement marketing at Asana, whose staff members are spread around the globe.
To bra or nah
For 18 months, while everyone got newly acquainted with their couches, some said a gleeful farewell to underwire. Now, as blazers and stilettos reemerge from retirement, the critical question becomes: Does leaving the house mean a bra mandate? “Saying ‘I’m not going to put on a bra today’ is something people have control over in a time when we’ve had little to no control over the world,” said Ilana Dunn, who is the host of a dating podcast.
Anyone who has entered the eighth hour of staring at a co-worker’s pores and wished to be back under the fluorescent lighting of an open floor plan knows what it’s like to turn into a Zoombie, Spicer said. It’s almost enough to make you wish the office would come back from the dead.
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]