by Matt Grant
It was the Tuesday after a three-day a weekend. At the educational non-profit I work for, mid-winter recess had just begun. For most of the year, my colleagues and I split our time between our WeWork office in lower Manhattan and the 22 middle schools sprinkled throughout the city in which we run after-school programs. We looked forward to anytime the students were out of school, like this week. It meant we had more time at the office to catch up on things.
Most of my co-workers had taken off, heading for warmer climates where the sun wasn’t hidden behind slate-gray clouds. A handful of us, those without vacation days left or the hoarders saving them for hotter seasons, shuffled in later than usual. Clutching deli bagels in paper bags and chipped mugs holding lukewarm coffee, we greeted each other with the usual salutations. We tried to pretend like it was any other workweek, that we weren’t somehow being punished for not being more proactive in our self-care. And for a while, it did feel like any other workweek. But after spending twenty minutes checking our emails, we looked around with blank stares. What to do now?
By the end of the day on Tuesday, it was clear that we had to come up with a plan for the rest of the week. Otherwise we’d drive ourselves crazy from boredom. Eventually, someone suggested that we spend some time in the next few days cleaning and rearranging our office. The idea immediately got everyone excited. It was long overdue. Our shared office is a space built for fifteen desks, yet we somehow managed to cram in nineteen. At the beginning of the school year we’d expanded even more, and one desk for a new co-worker was shoved into a back corner by our storage shelves and printer. As a result, the room felt even more crowded than usual.
We wanted to change it, but there was so little time. Everyone was always so busy. But this week, we had time. Not only was a sprucing up needed, it was something we could all work together on, an opportunity we rarely got when focusing on our separate after-school programs. On Wednesday, the anticipation of our shared project brought a new energy into the room. There were even less of us than the day before—only five had come in, down from seven. We half-jokingly grumbled about those who didn’t show up like we had agreed, dismissing their lack of commitment to our shared space.
After lunch, we got to work. We moved around shelves, printers, and the mini-fridge. We re-organized the office supplies, throwing away junk that had accumulated over the last three years that no one had bothered to do anything with. We’d all been working so hard that we had all just accepted the realities of our environment – the piles of unused brochures, the box lid of discarded ink cartridges – as normal. Like with all large-scale projects, things took much longer than expected. After moving one shelf, we realized we needed a new place for a printer. Moving the printer meant we needed more outlets available in one part of the room. Having more outlets meant we opened up new possibilities to where the fridge could go. And so on.
We put on music. We sang. We laughed. We solved problems and took on challenges together. I felt especially grateful when one of my co-workers took on cleaning out the fridge, a task that badly needed doing.
The entire process was extremely cathartic. It was also a lot of fun. The most satisfying part came when we managed to fit our new colleague’s desk in between two others. He no longer had to feel shoved into a corner, but part of the group. While he wasn’t there that day, we were excited to reveal it to him when he came back, like a present you buy for someone that you can’t wait for them to open. When he did see finally see it, he emailed us all a picture to show his gratitude.
The impromptu project helped me remember how important environment is in a coworking space. It wasn’t until after we had taken it on that I realized how much we all had just accepted the reality of our space without imagining what could make it better, how much more practical and workable it could be. Not only that, but it felt good to have autonomy over our office and to collaborate together on how it looks and how it feels.
It would have been tempting in our precious few days off of program to continue with the status quo, to retreat into useless side projects or busy work. We could have left our colleague in the corner, leaving the issue of where he sat a problem for him alone to fix. Instead, we decided to take ownership of the space and to create something new, something better.
It was one of the best weeks of work I’ve had.