One Year Later: Waiting to Meet Her Team
A week before she was scheduled to start her new job as a Senior Designer at O+A Cathy Barrett was wondering if it was going to happen. It was middle of March 2020 and the World Health Organization had just declared the frightening new ailment then popularly known as coronavirus a pandemic. The word itself felt ominous. It evoked a calamity of wanton destructiveness on a mythic scale. In San Francisco the chaos had already begun.
“There were scarcities in the market,” Cathy remembers. “Toilet paper. Suddenly there’s no meat or there’s no vegetables. I was supposed to start on a Monday and things were getting kind of bad. It’s Thursday, it’s Friday and I had this gut-wrenching feeling that this new job I had wasn’t going to be a job.” On Sunday she got a call from O+A: We’re going remote tomorrow. It’s not going to be a good time to start. Why don’t we push this back?
One of Cathy’s strengths as a designer is her ability to navigate complications by breaking them down into manageable parts. Pandemic exploding, shortages in the stores, her new job evaporating—“My coping mechanism was—this is so hysterical. I started planting. I called it The Armageddon Garden. It was like, I can’t live without vegetables. I want a salad for my last meal!”
For about two weeks she puttered in The Armageddon Garden and waited for a call. When it was beginning to feel like the call wasn’t coming she checked back, graciously prepared to withdraw. But no, the new job really did exist. Could she start on Monday? It was one year ago last month that Cathy introduced herself at O+A’s weekly staff meeting or rather the Zoom version of that staff meeting: 40 heads in a gallery, smiling and waving from the digital ether. When the meeting was over, she clicked off and poof! The mirage disappeared.
“In a strange way I feel lucky coming on when I did,” she says now. “Because I was not the only person who was new to this work approach.”
“My coping mechanism was—this is so hysterical. I started planting. I called it The Armageddon Garden. It was like, I can’t live without vegetables. I want a salad for my last meal!”
Pictured: Cathy working from home in her garden
Lucky, too, perhaps that she was joining a company that took on as a principle goal during the work-from-home period figuring out what workplaces were going to be when everyone got back to the office. One of Cathy’s first projects was “A Toolkit for the Times,” O+A’s deep-dive guide to post-pandemic design—part research paper, part pep talk, part practical handbook on socially-distanced space planning and COVID-safe facilities management.
“I think to a certain extent it was my first introduction to the way O+A jumps into things,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself, Oh my gosh! And having this thought that the firm is fueled by optimism. We would be looking at what I considered a disastrous draft and it would just get better. Each time it would get better. I would say, Hm… it isn’t quite working, but because there was a framework it would sort itself out. To me I think the lesson was the trust factor. I had to learn to trust the process.”
Gradually over the course of Toolkit development and other projects Cathy got to know her colleagues. “It’s interesting having to learn about the place you work via social media. Oh, this person rides a bike or this person likes to bake—those things that you would know if you were in the office. This desire for community and meeting people in person—all of that is true. It would be so much easier standing around the kitchen or sitting out back on the patio and having these conversations. But there was a different kind of intimacy this year. Like, I’m in Lauren’s closet! How often does that happen? Or when the pet jumps into someone’s lap as if on cue. Courtney’s about to talk so the dog will appear. There were lovely things that were tradeoffs for what you get from in-person experiences.”
Even so she’ll be glad to finally report for work. When that will be remains uncertain, but with vaccinations accelerating in the Bay Area it feels close. In the meantime, Cathy has been speaking with recent new hires to welcome them and offer tips on hanging in there. “I’ve reached out to a couple of them as the poster child for people who have never seen the office. Because it’s easy to feel isolated. If you’re trying to figure out the O+A Way and you’re doing it using your old toolkit from past jobs, it’s easy to feel like it doesn’t apply.”
One of the concepts Cathy helped formulate for the post-pandemic guide was the hybrid office, that mix of work-from-home and work-on-site that the design world promises will give us all a better shot at work/life balance. Does she agree? “I think it would be great not to have to commute two days a week,” she says. “Or one day a week. On the other hand I miss the commute because I’m a public transit gal and I like the walk at either end of the bus ride.”
Like most designers she takes pleasure in the tactile realities of the ordinary. “I’m definitely anxious to be in the office partly because I miss the stuff. I miss the library and seeing things develop.” Only in the office can a designer get away from digital image boards and virtual renderings and look at a tray of actual wood samples, carpet samples, swaths of fabric. Even on someone else’s project, the lure of the tangible is acute. “You think, wow that tray is gorgeous,” Cathy says. “I wonder what that’s going to be?”
“I’m definitely anxious to be in the office partly because I miss the stuff. I miss the library and seeing things develop.”
Pictured: Cathy working from home in her garden