With office life dormant, white-collar Washington is adrift

Maura Judkis

THE WASHINGTON POST – Greg Crist is a DC lobbyist who used to wear suits, and go to lunch, and spend his days taking meetings on Capitol Hill, or in his nicely appointed office at 701 Pennsylvania Ave. Now that his office is closed because of the pandemic, Crist is a man who commutes a few hundred feet from his Alexandria, Virginia, home to his silver Audi, where he spends much of the day taking calls in the only place where the important people on the other end of the line cannot hear his toddler son scream.

“I get a lot of smirks of, you know, ‘Hey, Greg, what’s your car smell like these days?’” he said. “I’m living out of it for eight hours.”

And he will be, for the foreseeable future. Much of white-collar Washington has accepted the reality that it may be a long time before it returns to the office, or the office-adjacent customs of the city’s glad-handing classes: the power lunches, the networking receptions, the comped sports tickets and day trips to New York on the Acela. The silver Audi for commuting in style, not Zooming in peace.

The car does not smell great, by the way. A combination of stale, spilled coffee, chewing gum that has melted in the summer heat, and “cotton breeze”-scented hand sanitiser.

“Initially I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be back at work by Easter,’ ” said Crist, the chief advocacy officer and head of external affairs at AdvaMed, a medical technology trade association. Easter turned into June, which turned into Labor Day, which turned into a big question mark. The suit jacket that he keeps in his car for video calls? It lives here now. The firm support of an office chair? A faint memory. Fainter than the soreness in his hip, which he’s pretty sure is getting worse from sitting in the not-so-ergonomic car seat and looking down at his laptop.

Oh, how the mighty have swollen. The politicos and super-connecters are achey, stuck at home, stranded on the other side of the work-life divide. The lobbyists are without their lobbies. The conference denizens haven’t donned a lanyard in months. That infamous DC conversation-starter, “What do you do?” has a new answer: “I sit at home, stare at my screen, fend off my kids, try to keep it together. You?”

Greg Crist outside his office. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

For people like Alexander Reid, it’s been a lifestyle adjustment. Reid is a partner at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and has a Pennsylvania Avenue office with four monitors, a windowsill full of orchids, a Le Courbusier leather chaise longue and an Eames easy chair. His suits are custom-made in Thailand.

And now?

“We’re in my childhood home now, living with my parents and my brother, and we have six chickens,” Reid said. He and his wife fled DC in March, driving cross-country to his parents’ home in Sonoma County, California, so they could have some extra sets of hands with their two kids. They thought they would be gone for a month (ha ha ha). It’s been manageable, but a far cry from his DC office life. Reid wakes early to stay on an East Coast workday, often to the crowing of a rooster that can sometimes be heard on his work calls.

“My hair is down below my nose,” he said. “I don’t even have a tie.”

Moving away from the hustle and bustle of DC has had its challenges. Though Reid is grateful for his parents’ help, living with his nuclear family has meant that everyone reverts, at times, to their parent/child role – an odd dynamic for a grown man with a family of his own.

“My dad will say, ‘So what do you have to report today?’” said Reid. “It’s sort of like, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ “

The new normal is at odds with the old way of doing business: in person. Working from home has broken down the pageantry of Official Washington: the firm handshakes and receptions and private sit-downs in wood-panelled offices – the stuff of DC cliche and reality. For some people in this town, schmoosing is both a job requirement and a lifestyle. Where does the work-from-home era leave them?

“My fear is, we’re still in a business that’s about relationships, and you need to meet with folks,” said Executive Vice President of global public affairs for Citi Candi Wolff. The currency of Washington is political capital, and the pandemic has caused people to spend more of it than they can earn. “The question is, how do you build the capital? Washington is about having meetings and going out and being seen and interacting one on one.”

Zoom can be halting and awkward by comparison, she said, and it’s harder to read someone’s body language. “It’s just not as smooth as it would be if you were sitting in a room together,” said Wolff.

The move to virtual meetings has changed the way people interact with the Hill. “Advocacy is a contact sport,” said Crist, the health- care lobbyist, and it’s not easy to replicate online. When AdvaMed did a virtual “fly-in” – an advocacy event where members of a group typically do a series of face-to-face meetings on the Hill – “It had some hiccups,” Crist said, like bad connections and usual mute/un-mute drama.

On a rare trip into Washington earlier this month, he got a taste of the serendipity of being actually, physically on the scene. Crist was in the White House complex when he happened to run into two former colleagues and had an unplanned but fruitful conversation. “I got a question to a major issue answered just by being there,” said Crist, and that, he said, “is the essence of Washington.”

The virtual working world is a lousy place to practise the art of being at the right place at the right time. “I don’t think Washington has yet figured out how to recapture virtually the kind of sidebar conversation that were constantly going on with chance encounters and colleagues in the hallways,” said Josh Marcuse, head of strategy and innovation for Google’s global public sector division. And the after-hours networking is watered-down or non-existent.

What does Zoom networking look like, anyway? Some virtual networking events have paired random people up in video breakout rooms, but “If you get stuck talking to a person you don’t like, you’re stuck,” said Merritt Ogle, a management consultant who works in national security. “You can’t exactly leave.” Suffice it to say, it “doesn’t 100 per cent replace, ‘Hey, we’re meeting up at this place’,” she said.

Ogle is 24 and has temporarily decamped from DC to her parents’ house in Columbus, Ohio, where she sleeps in her childhood bedroom.

“It definitely feels like early high school, when you don’t have a driver’s licence yet and you’re stuck at home until your parents get home,” she said.

She has grown nostalgic for all of those generic Washington events: the post-conference reception, or the panel discussion that opens up to a Q&A, which inevitably produces a “this is really more of a comment” guy, which is your cue to get in line for your astringent plastic cup for a drink and elbow someone out of the way for a chicken skewer. “Even the awkward friend you make in the drink line – those relationships can be really beneficial,” she said.

Also beneficial, in her eyes: A professional uniform of nice pencil skirts, sheath dresses, and jackets. Their athleisure replacements are not cutting it.

“I’m like, oh my, Ann Taylor’s having another 70 per cent off sale?” she said. She has bought new work clothes. She has not worn them. “I’m still living in the mode of, someday I’ll like wearing this to work.”

She’s not the only one who misses her clothes. “I want to others to view me as like, a put-together professional woman, and I’ve put an effort into that,” said Christina Kanmaz, who started a new job in public affairs during the pandemic and spent the first week of it wearing business attire to work from her couch before succumbing to the inevitable athleisure. “I don’t like the fact that I sort of lounge around in exercise clothes all day,” she said. “I feel like it’s had an impact on my self-esteem.”

Kimberly Eney misses the commute. Yes, really. “I am someone who likes to have quiet time, and the commute offered opportunities for that in a way that I don’t have now,” said Eney, a lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her 45-minute drive gave her the opportunity to call a friend, or catch up on podcasts, but she never anticipated yearning for it.

“There’s just more competing with that time now,” she said, now that it’s harder to find those 45 minutes in her day. “It just needs to be more intentional.”

Amy Shope Manzi, a director of grass-roots advocacy for a health non-profit, is nostalgic for the days of lunch.

“Like finding a colleague, you know, ‘Hey, you do you have lunch plans today? Let’s go grab something.’ And chatting on the walk to lunch,” she said. She misses the nice prix-fixe lunches she would get at Le DeSales, but also the Sad Desk Salad from the Pret across the street. “We joke that it’s sort of our our overpriced cafeteria,” she said. It beats what she had for lunch today, and yesterday, and will have for seemingly every day until the end of time: “Leftovers.”

Not that some Official Washingtonians couldn’t stand to come down a peg or two. In a town inordinately preoccupied with appearances, five months of telework has worn down egos and allowed people to witness their colleagues in somewhat humbling conditions.

“Being able to see them dressed down a bit, it think it breaks down some of those walls or some of that mystique around people who are very successful in DC,” Kanmaz said.

Like when Marcuse recently did a call with an “incredibly polished professional lobbyist who I only saw impeccably dressed” in the Before Times. “I saw him today without a shirt on by mistake,” said Marcuse. “He thought he was turning his microphone on, and he turned his video on.”

It also normalises having a life outside of work.

“I was dealing with someone at the agency level where – I’d never seen this before. I saw an out-of-office reply from 11 to one. And the message was, I’m focussed on child-care right now,” said Crist. “I respected that individual immensely for having that on.”

What everyone misses, though, is being around people. People who aren’t related
to them.

“I definitely miss the social dynamic of an office,” said Manzi. “I miss the conversation that happens between meetings with colleagues.”

“I miss conferences,” said Ogle. “I miss going to something all day and committing myself and putting myself in that mind-set.” She misses her desk, which was in a high-trafficked area of the office, which meant everyone would swing by and say hi. She misses her work friends. “I also miss sitting next a Keurig that you don’t have to pay for.”

And the small talk! Yes, even small talk. Even the kind that has no angle – especially that kind.

“There is something that is so nice about having in-person relationships and getting that energy off of someone,” and hearing about their kids, their weekend, even the weather, said Ogle. “On the phone you’re like, ‘Oh sorry, I digressed, I didn’t mean to do it.’ The threat is that relationships can be very transactional.”