The author’s latest book is ‘Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition’
At a conference in central London recently, I finished giving a talk and watched the audience stream out of the room, faster, it seemed to me, than in pre-pandemic times.
Couldn’t wait to get away from me? Probably. Or just being practical about the precious ticking minutes in which you must go to the toilet, grab some overbrewed coffee and a stale pastry, “network” with a colleague you have worked with for two years but only just met and quickly plough back to your seat to receive yet more in-person downloads about wellbeing, self-care and psychological safety? Definitely.
It was the first break of the day and the time-sensitive lanyard of the first speaker (me) was about to turn into a pumpkin so I was ushered, briskly but good-naturedly, out of the building.
Outside, I was amazed to turn the corner and find several familiar faces from the audience using the break for what I can only assume is known as “a cheeky vape”. I was surprised but also impressed.
Back in the day we used to have “a cheeky fag”. I gave up 20 years ago, but it was my life as an early career office smoker that offered both the only chance I ever had at some fragmentary alone time — and a cementing of many of the work relationships I cherish years later.
Sometimes it was about wanting to be by yourself. Other times it was about having a chat away from the watchful eye of the boss. There is a glorious unspoken code during those interactions: you can communicate with a glance whether you want company or not.
Since then, in different cities, I’ve noticed more workers loitering in nooks and crannies outside offices, more chefs and servers heading round the corner to escape the gaze of employers and customers. Post-Covid rebellion? Camaraderie? Allergic to being back at work? Bad habits arising from chronic stress? Or just an expression of the idea that there are certain moments where you just have to get away? Well, the pandemic has certainly reinforced all that.
Perhaps this behaviour just stands out because we had forgotten about the benefits of the good old fag break of yesteryear. It certainly doesn’t reflect a sudden significant rise in vape use, although there are 3.6mn adult vapers in the UK and 82mn worldwide.
I suspect instead it is a rise of something more difficult to quantify: workplace-itis, the overwhelming itch that you need a moment to yourself. And if it takes developing a bad habit to get that downtime, then so be it.
I keep hearing from so many people in all different walks of life that they are simultaneously craving face-to-face contact but are also overwhelmed by it.
In many industries, meanwhile, there is a growing exhaustion around meeting culture, both online and face to face, especially now that many working days involve a dizzying combination of both these things.
If you’re a freelancer and/or a person who doesn’t really belong anywhere, you can even end up — as I did just last week — in the ridiculous position of rushing into the centre of town for a “real life” meeting which falls back to back with a Zoom meeting which you could easily have done at home but which requires you to hire (yes, hire) office space by the hour in order to be in a quiet enough professional space.
You find yourself desperate for respite, for pockets of calm, for a moment to catch your breath, for the opportunity to switch between “in-person-sociable” mode and “professional-behind-camera-on-screen” mode.
They say that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Well, in the kingdom of hybrid, the person who finishes the meeting early truly is the messiah. As for the person who cancels the meeting . . . that is the definition of a legend.
Hybrid has already come to mean not only splitting the week between different places of work but also “being in two places at once”: present both in real life and digitally at the same time. No wonder we want to create a gap, a breathing space, an ersatz fag break where we are present only to and for ourselves and our fellow escapees.
An instant to step out and check your phone or grab a proper coffee can provide just that, even without having to develop a craving for frozen blueberry vape juice or get back on the Marlboro Lights I mainlined in the late 1990s.
And indeed, as I’ve realised, most of the people you see taking a break in the street outside work are not even smoking or vaping. They’re often just checking their phones. It’s simply a moment of blissfully uninterrupted, personally-elected muteness. I mean, it’s hardly shinrin-yoku (Japanese forest bathing). But in these desperate times, it will just have to do.