Coming Home to a Place I’ve Never Been
I’ve never been so excited to stand in line.
As I joined the snaking security queue at Dulles Airport, I could feel my heart begin to flutter. The return to work is finally here, and I was in the business travel vanguard.
The nostalgic halo around air travel dissipated pretty quickly once I got on the plane. To my left was a classic man-spreader: arms akimbo, legs splayed into my footwell, muttering “sorry” as I shifted but not moving one millimeter. To my right, a chit-chatter– if anything, worse. I love my Kindle, but if I miss physical books for one reason, it’s the opportunity to warn off friendly extroverts by draping my cross-stitched lace bookmark emblazoned “F*ck off, I’m reading” across my lap. Still, my heart hummed; even as the less-glamorous reality of travel reasserted itself, I was a bundle of nervous energy. No longer able to blame the stress and excitement of travel itself, I had to admit – I was pretty nervous to meet the Caster crew.
I’ve been here at Caster nine months. Fully a quarter of the team is newer than me. But I’ve always been remote, literally admiring my colleagues from afar. There is a unique intimacy to being in the same physical space as other people—one I’ve grown unused to. I’m sure this feeling is shared by many who started new jobs or gained team members during the pandemic. We’ve been working together well online, but how will things feel in person? Will we mesh? Will the expectations change? Will this feel more like a homecoming or an arrival on an alien shore?
My answer came pretty quickly. When I got to the Caster office and saw our SVP Alex Crabb in-person for the first time, tears rushed to my eyes. Alex and I work together on a few accounts, and while I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all of my teammates, I regard her especially as a mentor. When I saw her, it felt like a bunch of free radical emotions swirling around in my heart were instantly attracted to a magnet. This was obviously someone who had come to mean a lot to me, in ways I hadn’t yet reckoned with.
Before this trip, I disdained the term “return to work.” I’ve been at work: can’t return if I’ve never left. Now, writing from the Caster office, I can admit that the past nine months have felt like a bit of a limbo. As long as we all remained faces on screens, the connection I felt to my co-workers was building up against an invisible barrier of resistance. In person, the walls are down.
There have been a lot of laments over the past year about the dissolution of work/life boundaries. As work colonizes the home, American and Canadian workers report the highest stress levels in the world. I think there’s honesty in admitting that those boundaries were always a bit of a fiction, though. The people and projects that occupy most of my waking hours have always been a big part of my life. I suspect that a lot of the last year’s stress is due not just to workload, but to pent-up emotion.
Business is personal. At Caster, we have a culture of deep investment in our clients’ success. We grind hard for them and celebrate their media wins as our own. As a natural consequence, we think about the job all the time. When I read the news, a part of my brain is analyzing what it means for my clients. When I watch TV, I’m subconsciously tracking instances of their technology and messaging themes. Even when I hear a joke, I sometimes think to myself, “The Avnu team would love this.” That degree of personal investment means we form strong interpersonal bonds, sometimes without even noticing.
I suspect I’ll be reliving my maiden voyage to Caster quite a few times in 2021. I work as closely with my clients as I do with the Caster Crew. Many of them, I will have known for a year or more before I visit their offices or meet them at a tradeshow. I’m going to have to get used to the taste of that cocktail of excitement, nerves, and emotion.
Bigger trips – wilder homecomings – are on the horizon. As we speed towards CEDIA Expo, InfoComm, and CES, we should all be prepared, on top of the normal excitement and intensity of the tradeshows, for how emotional it will be to see each other. If I’m a little bit misty when I see you, don’t mind me. It’s just a year of my feelings, leaving my body at last.