A taste of the ‘old normal’: Reflections on returning to the office

The scene is playing out at thousands of offices across the United States: Many employees, emboldened by vaccination against COVID-19, are returning to their physical workplaces after more than a year of working remotely. Colleagues are seeing each other in person for the first time in 15 months—or ever.

That’s the story at Leff. In the week of June 7, colleagues from around the country gathered in the Leff Chicago offices for the first time since March 2020. And because the firm has practically doubled in size over the past year, many colleagues met face-to-face for the first time.

Upon entering the office, some colleagues shook hands. Some embraced, although first asking whether that was OK with the other person. The office was quickly buzzing with maskless activity: meetings, impromptu conversations, outbursts of laughter, and WiFi outages to a soundtrack of Blondie; Earth, Wind & Fire; and the Mighty Mighty BossToneS on the turntable. In other words, it felt like a totally normal prepandemic office environment. In late afternoon, we adjourned en masse to a restaurant along the Chicago River—the first indoor and maskless restaurant visit for many colleagues since March of last year. The drinks flowed, and the sadness and loneliness of the COVID times seemed to melt away, at least for a few hours, as colleagues got acquainted and reacquainted. Since we were on a roll and didn’t want to call it a night, after a few hours, we moved on to a nearby bar.

How did colleagues feel about getting a taste of the “old normal”? Here are some reflections on coming back to the office:

Jen, managing editor
Having joined the company in November, I hadn’t met at least half of my coworkers before this week. Getting together was like going to a family reunion—but one where you genuinely like everyone (and there’s no creepy cousin once removed to avoid). It felt good to hug all the people who previously had been only moving images on a screen.

Erik, design associate
It’s wonderful finally meeting everyone in person, but after being trapped in a WFH environment for so long, you sort of have to relearn how to socialize. Like a colleague mentioned earlier in the day, it’s like coming to school for the first time after summer break. In other words—nerve-racking.

Mimi, senior editor
I’m just relieved that I still more or less know how to talk to people who don’t use my in-group slang.

Caroline, manager of creative operations
If I’m being totally honest, I am patently more productive working remotely. But there is something to be said about getting a quick, in-person response to a question. And it was refreshing to be around new energy and to laugh in disbelief that we were occupying a physical space together for the first time—for that, I was particularly grateful.

Morgan, editorial associate
Meeting everyone in the office this week has been more human interaction than I’ve had since moving across the country to Chicago and starting with Leff eight months ago. I look forward to relearning how to talk to people.

Luke, SVP of thought leadership and content strategy
You know how astronauts return from the International Space Station and the real world just seems . . . weird? It was a bit like that. Wonderful to see (and meet!) colleagues; great to have the office buzzing. But I wasn’t sure whether to shake hands or not; hugged awkwardly, like I’d forgotten how; and felt like quarantine had withered my social skills in inverse proportion to expanding my waistline. On the bright side, being comfortable with human interaction should return, even if the 15 pounds goes nowhere.

Scott, founder
We have a lot of smart colleagues, but they’re also a great hang. One of my favorite parts of the day was repairing to a local establishment and talking with people about nonwork things such as TV series reboots, Malört, and the pros and cons of cheese curds.

Karen, senior editor
These last few days in Chicago—meeting everyone for the first time—have reaffirmed my choice to join the Leff team. I’m blessed to have found a new home among a group of incredibly diverse and talented professionals who share my passion for the work that we do. Together, we sweat the words and the images that bring our clients’ ideas to life. It’s a labor of love, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Allan, senior adviser
A new colleague said to me, “I couldn’t tell you were so tall from the video.” “I’m also wearing pants,” I responded.

Brittany, editorial director
It felt so great to hear laughter ringing out throughout the office all day and into the evening’s happy hour. It was particularly rewarding to watch my colleagues who hadn’t met before get to know one another and bond over everything from family to beer to keeping dead dogs in freezers.

Annie, senior editor
My colleagues are one of the many things that make this job great. And interacting remotely really doesn’t approximate being together in person; that became clear this week. I feel more connected to everyone after our time together—in particular, the people we’ve hired in the past 15 months who I’d never met in person. I hope to get to spend much more time in the office—and out drinking—with folks going forward.


Cover photo credit: www.dietzstudio.com

Allan R. Gold

Before joining Leff as a senior adviser, Allan was a longtime executive editor at McKinsey & Company, collaborating on content with every function and sector practice, with a concentration on emerging markets. Over the years he also served on the board of editors and as editor-in-chief of the McKinsey Quarterly. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an MSJ and BA from Northwestern University.

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