This was at the height of the pandemic. The news was all bad and experts everywhere were telling us all to work from home, be socially distanced, wash hands, wear masks - and whatever you do, don't take public transport.
The best advice said that only those who were in essential industries should enter their workplaces. We all knew what that meant. The health workers, those we relied on to feed us, those who educated our children (although in some instances, teachers and schools were able to make magic by teaching primary kids online). Bless them all.
But what about the bosses in the non-essential industries who insisted on their staff coming into the office?
The boss was in his 50s. He wanted to be able to monitor everyone in the office in the way he had always done. He issued an edict to staff which said something along the lines of: "You are expected to be working from the office while maintaining working-from-home readiness should government guidelines change or there is a specific requirement." This was at the same time as governments across Australia were guiding us to work from home.
I can't see into this bloke's mind, but I can say, unequivocally, that this was work which could easily have been done from home.
How has it all worked out for us during COVID-19?
A new report by AlphaBeta's Andrew Charlton shows that around 25 per cent of industries experienced an increase in productivity during lockdown, and 25 per cent reported a decrease. The other half? Exactly the same as it had always been. A huge whack of those in media and telecoms, government and public administration and education reported increased productivity during this time.
And what about while working from home? Of the businesses which were technology-ready, the news was good. Productivity outcomes during lockdown were better for more digitally advanced firms, especially those that had employees working from home. In other words, if you support your staff, they will do a really great job.
Charlton says the key to working from home success is clear: "What is the business doing to support you as you work from home to be supported, to be connected, to be trained, to be equipped?"
He also says that there's been a lot of loose talk about how our working lives will be transformed by the pandemic. You know, the kind of thing which says that everyone will be working from home now because that's what workers want.
Not so fast. The workers united may never be defeated, but their desire to work from home will certainly be curtailed if productivity drops. As Charlton says, it is how we prepare and adapt. And when I say we, I mean bosses.
It is about now, having taught and written from home since March, that I have to give a giant shout-out to Suman Laudari. He's an educational technology specialist (with a PhD in the area) who saved me from a screaming breakdown on a Sunday before I was due to teach first thing the next day. Turned out it wasn't user error, and having that connection and support made it possible for me to do my part of my job well. Then I started teaching others to do what Suman had taught me to do. This is what Charlton means by connection and support.
And I want to send a giant shout-out to all the folks who worked to support all of us working from home. From the call centre IT teams and those who worked on collaborative documents trying to nut out difficult concepts to the folks who explained how to make the gas-lift chair actually lift, thank you. We need more of you.
We also need our bosses to trust us more. I have heard so many stories of those forced to go to the office for no other reason than their bosses wanting to keep an eye out. The young woman who was expected to travel long distances on public transport? She worked in the media industry. There was absolutely no need for her to be at work, and indeed in Australia's biggest news organisations, folks worked from home. The words continued to turn.
Well before the pandemic, seven years ago now, John Hopkins, an academic at Swinburne University, researched working from home. In April this year, he saw a big shift. For six years, the percentage of staff working from home regularly was 25 per cent. This April? Boom! 80 per cent.
The view of managers changed as well. Gone were the days of managers wanting to have everyone in their sight.
Wrote one: "The business case for sustaining expensive CBD offices has been largely lost due to the success of ... working from home during the pandemic. I think the workplace will have been changed forever, even tho' I was not a big fan of working from home for my teams beforehand."
Another said COVID-19 had shifted the thinking: "We will be using this option more in the future." Other managers too said the pandemic had called into question their status quo.
But Hopkins reminds me that the new normal isn't really about workplace flexibility. Most of us didn't have that. There was no choice, no notice, no training, no resources, no support.
So is there a working-from-home moral to the pandemic? Sure. Employers will see what's possible and they will want to assure productivity if we, the employees, want to work from home. Already business lobbyists are starting to say employees will need a reason to work from home.
But it could happen now for all of us.
Sure, pretend you want resources and support in case, Gaia forbid, there is another pandemic. But in reality, employers and employees should work together to build a flexible future. We shouldn't need disease and death for this to work for all of us.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.