In 1970, when Joni Mitchell slumped in her hotel room in Hawaii and noted down the lyrics for Big Yellow Taxi, she can't have imagined that, 50 years on, those words could be crudely reapplied to the prospect of being unable to share a Colin the Caterpillar cake, paper thimble of champagne and an awkward side of, "So, what are you up to over the weekend?" at the end of a bank of computer monitors.
But alas, here I am, because don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?
For weeks we've been hearing about a "new normal" in our workplaces after the lockdown is lifted. If and when restrictions are eased, we were told, it would be a case of learning to live with the coronavirus, rather than revelling in life without it. This week, just what that might mean for our professional spaces is finally becoming a little bit clearer.
According to a draft of the UK Government's plan to reopen workplaces, our shift start and end times could be staggered to reduce overlap; desks might be placed more than 2m apart and divided by screens; lunch breaks may be allocated to avoid cross-pollination; "one way" lanes could be imposed; working from home will be encouraged; and contact, in general, will be kept to a minimum.
Essentially, office culture as we know it may be over for the foreseeable future. They're paving paradise, and putting up perspex safeguarding screens. For years, we complained about our old office life, we mocked it, spent Sunday nights dreading it, but now we might just end up missing it. Some parts of it, anyway.
Have you ever tried to whisper, "Did you hear? Hugh from Outreach has been quarantining with Nicola in HR – and she is not his wife..." to a colleague, while maintaining a safe distance of more than 2m, or through a screen, and not been heard by others?
It's difficult, I imagine. Starved of face-to-face counsel over the past few months, gossipy teammates, work husbands and wives and all others will be desperate to confide in one another about work – and personal – matters in person, meeting for conspiratorial chats at the water cooler/tea kitchenette/stationery cupboard/vending machine/in the toilets as soon as possible.
But how? A one in, one out system doesn't lend itself to dawdling. Rumour-mongers, tattletales, snitches: you may need to move onto WhatsApp. And where's the fun in that?
2. Sharing snacks
Have M&S furloughed UK shared morning tea favourite Colin the Caterpillar? He has a long-suffering wife, Connie, and lots of spongey children to support, but until we're allowed to share snacks in offices again, there will be little work for him. The same goes for those tubs of brownies and flapjacks, so many packets of biscuits, high-quality teabags and lifeless lemon drizzles.
Surprising desk mates with sugary snacks was one of the few ways to guarantee you could elevate their day from "disastrous" to "bearable, in the scheme of things". In an environment where genuine acts of affection weren't always possible (or encouraged), snacks were the lingua franca: the gesture of a bland chocolate larvae log with a middle-aged name was as capable of articulating "happy birthday" as it was "best of luck at the tribunal hearing, Maureen". What are we to do now?
3. The passing-in-the-corridor Paso Doble
You had picked your path, knew your route. There was the end of the corridor, here you were, and in between was an unknown colleague. Both of you are slightly in the middle of the walkway, the left-right lanes yet to be established. Perhaps one of you was reading your phone as you walked, meaning absolutely anything could happen when the confrontation started.
As you came within 5m you'd lock eyes, maybe nod, smile a bit. One of you went one way, but – no! – it's the same way as them. "Sorry!" you both said, diving to the opposite side. But – agh! – you've both gone there, too. A panicked laugh. "Sorry!" You repeated this dance for 13 rounds and four minutes until one of you gave up, stood rigid as a maypole, and just waited. There just won't be as much fun in a one-way system, will there?
4. Competitive presenteeism
"Well, good evening. Nice of you to join us," you used to be able to say, loudly, as your colleague arrived eight minutes late. You too were late, by six minutes, but they didn't know that, so you decided to make A Thing of this all day. Eight hours later, if they left even 30 seconds early, you could admit, uproariously, that you were unaware they were doing a half day today.
They had a social life but you had the high ground, and that's all that mattered. With staggered shifts, will those dad jokes ever be possible again?
5. Harmless sneezing
There are – or were, I suppose – several people in Telegraph Towers who had such thunderous, ear-splitting sneezes that it would create office-wide conversation every time they detonated. One would be emailed the words "Bless you" by a colleague sitting more than 100m away, buffered by three walls, a kitchen, a breakout area and a stairwell.
Another, a feature writer who should remain nameless, warmed up with a series of support sneezes, achoo-ing with steadily increasing volume until the deafening headline act was ready. The prelude gave you some time to run for cover, but like any great force of nature, you were a fool to think you'd ever find safety.
Before corona, those sneezes were grossly anti-social but, if pressed, most of us would also have said they were a key part of the culture and so belonged there – like an offensive graffiti mural, or a charismatic local street thief. Post-corona, the same sneezes are going to terrify anxious people anywhere within a 1km radius. And there won't be a plastic screen in the land tough enough. I am scared.