Years ago, I had a boss who moved to New Mexico from a coast. They’d occasionally talk about how they knew no one in this small town, especially come Friday, when we’d discuss plans for the weekend.
It is a hard town to develop friendships, but what I didn’t know, coming out of my teens then and a college environment full of people, is that adulthood is an even harder place to develop new friendships.
One day, that boss dropped the line that they were looking forward to the massage they had scheduled at the end of the day.
“The massage lets me just be touched by another human,” they said. “I don’t even have anyone to hug here.”
Another co-worker and I paused in our work and looked at each other to see if we should reply. Our boss continued on typing at their computer as if nothing had been said.
It was one of the first times for me when humanity broke through the cracks of decorum in the workplace hierarchy, and for that boss, it let their other personality traits — and hints of sadness — make more sense.
Even as a millennial, I had been taught that you keep your personal life out of your professional life. Sure, work friends can grow into more, but those watercooler friendships stayed at the cooler, and your boss, and the company, should always be kept at a distance.
They might know you can tend well to a spider plant in your cubicle, and they may see the hand-me-down sedan from your family in the parking lot, but your personal problems should stay at home. Until you can’t pass off the bump as too many late-night tacos.
Still, it seems like the last two years blurred lines, but maybe not in the worst ways possible. COVID-19 forced us to bring our humanity to work, and maybe we should keep more of it there to help us realize we may share more things in common than we thought and that our power comes from us together, not us divided.
Early in the pandemic, I heard it on the radio: a host was guiding a story from a White House correspondent. A dog unfamiliar with radio barked in the background.
The correspondent was stalwart in trying to ignore that barking dog. While the host took it with a huge amount of grace and humor, the correspondent wanted to strip away that idea that her personal life exists, lest it mar her professionally. That need to be cold, that was the norm.
But slowly, us work-from-homers developed at least the etiquette of: If we see a tail or hear a woof, we’re going to want to see that extra co-worker up close for a minute.
There are personalities we saw through screens that forced us to see each other as human and not just as co-workers. Now it’s not just the quiet receptionist with the cardigan, it’s the receptionist who has an enormous drooling Rottweiler on their lap. It’s also the father at home alone with three kids under 5. It’s the grandmother with the disabled child just within arm’s reach.
The intermingling between personal life and professional life has offered a look at our humanity in more ways than people are comfortable with, but it offers a shot at seeing our commonalities that can unify in ways that traditional institutions have failed us.
Perhaps it can uncover a little secret that has been kept out of work as well — that each of us are well-rounded individuals, full of meaning and purpose, even without a place in the productivity line of the rodent marathon created by others.
— Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma, and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. She is also executive director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and can be contacted at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @TheCMcClure. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.