February 2: the misery of the virtual office worker

This is a guest blog from Boxette

The concept of going to the office is a bit 1980s these days. Habitual wearers of Stan Smiths are more likely to be found hanging out in places where the walls are stripped bare of plaster, manfully downing flat whites and broadcasting their achievements on the free WiFi, tweet by tedious tweet.

But what about the non-hipsters who also work virtually? They may not own a pair of rollerblades; they may not like Apple products; they may be sensitive to caffeine. But these refugees from Croydon, Dagenham and Merton still need a safe place to roost.

So it is for me, Nigel and Terry. For several years we’ve held strategy sessions in an eatery on the upper floors of Victoria Station. This café, named after one half of a 1960s pop/folk duo that is sadly no longer on speaking terms with the other member, is arguably the most dismal meeting place of its kind. No natural light; plastic booth seating you have to crawl in and out from; formica tables and wipe-down menus. All the atmosphere of an airport terminal. And service that can best be described as disinterested.

I used to ride the escalator to this place with a sinking heart. Here we would lay out our spread sheets, worry about Euro emissions legislation while I tried to catch the waiter’s eye to ask for green tea. They would never have green tea. Each time I toyed with the idea of bringing my own teabags for the next meeting, but would never remember. Within two hours I would feel lightheaded, suffering from sick-building syndrome, or too much hot chocolate. I would feel grubby. I would be questioning my career trajectory.

And then, one day as I rode the escalator past the mobile phone sellers, gold buyers and accessorisors, I had the shock of my life. The café was being ripped apart. Torn down. Remodelled. The one constant in our working calendar had closed.

At first I felt euphoric. That’ll show them, Terry and Nigel. Now we’ll have to go somewhere they don’t serve herbal tea with milk. Somewhere where we’ll feel in command of our destiny.

Real life isn’t like fantasy. The three of us were forced to traipse through shopping malls outside the station looking for somewhere to sit. Finally we found a popular café franchise with a French name. Magnifique? Non. The table was too small for Terry’s spread-sheets. We jostled for elbow room. The waiter cleared away our cups too quickly and the room was just too popular to hear yourself think.

That’s when I learnt to value what I had lost. The old café was so sparsely populated that you could have the table as long as you liked. It had all the ambience of a tired office building. Then I had an epiphany: an old-style office, with its broken ceiling tiles and tepid water cooler was what we had been subconsciously seeking all along, we peripatetic work-from-homers.

Out of nostalgia I climbed the escalator up Victoria Station the other week. A cosy little bistro had colonised the space, all soft fabrics and amber lighting. The kind of lighting by which you can’t read the small print menu. Background music that would distract from serious conversation, and a waiter with an expression that said ‘Come hither’. Not the kind of welcome I was hoping for.

I suppose they call it progress, but Terry, Nigel and I have been forced into a new kind of Odyssey as we search, in vain, for a new unfashionable space in which to ply our trade.


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