Since we have all been working at home since March 9, we have to go clean out our desks before we retire June 30. The campus is closed except for a few essential workers, so HR scheduled 2-hour shifts to clean out our desks and say good-bye. My day was Thursday.
The parking lot was weirdly empty. Three cars were scattered about when I arrived. I was met at the front door by our facilities person and “shot” with a temperature gun to make sure I didn’t have a fever. She asked me a series of screening questions about Covid-19, showed me the hand sanitizer and sanitation supplies and handed me a cardboard box for my belongings.
I walked down the hall to my desk and took some time to look around. While I’ve only been back up here four years this time, I had another stint at Whirlpool in this building, and it’s been “home” for quite a few years of my life. I remember the first time I walked through the doors of the contact center in June of 2000 hoping for an interesting career at our corporate headquarters. The first time I left under my own steam and for my own reasons. This time I’ll leave because I was asked – very nicely.
The building was dark. I couldn’t find the light switch so I unpacked my desk in the light of the window. A masked coworker came by to say hi and to agree that it felt really weird in that building right now. I felt so disconnected from my belongings. I had literally moved on and didn’t even remember having half that stuff. I salvaged tea, a few books and a few decorative quotes that made me chuckle when I was having a hard day. It was only a year ago that I moved to that desk in a reorganization. I had so much hope that I’d spend my last five or six working years right there in the light of that window with my team.
It’s all unraveled so fast. One day we literally shut the world down. I walked by the training room and saw a sign that my team had taped up over a year ago. The trainer who made them is now gone from the company, the training room is silent (I hope there was no food in those refrigerators… ewww), and those heroes are all working from home. The building was a time capsule from a world where people crazily hugged in the hallway, sat side-by-side in cubicles and passed around germs like it was nothing. How naive we were to think that was normal.
We were told at noon on March 6 that we would not return to the office for three weeks. We packed up the essentials and left. Now we know that employees may not return to the office until the fall if at all this year. Work life as we know it has completely changed. Now coworkers are in a frame on a screen with bad audio and without pants. Most of us are fatter. I know their kids, spouses and pets. I’ve seen their bedrooms, basements, kitchens and offices. We are more intimate than ever even though we are farther apart.
I waved good-bye to the Maytag repairmen who must have been really lonely the last few months. But this time I know my departure is for good. There will be no “next” career at Whirlpool. With the status of “retired” that door will close forever. With me, the last of my long-time Whirlpool friends will be retiring. And the places where all of those memories were made are boarded up and hidden in the dark. One day they may re-emerge with dividers between people and “lanes” to walk in to social distance, but they will never be the same. The carefree way we chatted and walked was from a past life, a life when we were innocent and free.
I would have liked my last days to be different. For one, I wish they were five years from now. I would have liked to have walked over to the Global Headquarters and said good-bye to the few friends I had over there and spent my last day walking around hugging folks that I truly will miss. There would be cake and stories and laughter and maybe even a parting gift. On my drive home I’d “take a picture” in my head to remember what it was like to drive home from my last day of work.
I was overcome with emotion as I walked down the hallway to exit on Thursday. My friend and co-worker walked me out to my car with my half-filled box, and we said our good-byes. She mentioned that she was saying good-bye to people with whom she had worked with over 30 years in the parking lot. “Poof. They’re all gone,” she said, trailing off. I promised to send her my phone number and not disappear. I shut my car door, started my car, dried my tears and drove away.