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People are finally returning to the office — and their desks feel like time capsules from March 2020

Post-it notes from projects of yore. Old snacks. Mugs once filled with liquids that all but evaporated. Stepping into our cubicles is a blast from the past.

People returning to the office were confronted by newspapers and calendars dated March 2020.
People returning to the office were confronted by newspapers and calendars dated March 2020.@kenjimallon/Alex Raffol

When Peter Calves returned to his Burlington office last month for the first time in more than a year, it was like stepping through a portal to the past.

The liquid in the mug he had left on his desk — tea, maybe coffee — had all but evaporated, notes and reminders that dotted his cubicle were for projects long since completed, and the calendar hanging on one wall showed a date that will forever be burned into our minds as the month everything changed — March 2020.

“There was an empty can of seltzer on my desk. Everything was exactly how I left it,” said Calves, a traffic engineer. “I was searching through my desk drawers like, ‘God, I hope I didn’t have a snack stored somewhere in here from a year and a half ago.’ ”

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After 16 long months of living through a pandemic, some workers are finally starting to trickle back into the office after initially believing they’d be gone only a few short weeks.

But as they take stock of their desks and bid farewell to their work-from-home routines, employees are being thrown back into another world — one that almost feels like a different lifetime.

While many workers are not returning to the office until September and October, some have begun the slow transition back, and others have stopped in to pick up supplies or get a computer fixed.

Those shedding sweat pants and slippers for slacks and shoes say returning to the office has been a bit jarring, especially sitting at desks that feel like time capsules. Their papers, scribbled notes, pictures, and favorite pens, all frozen in amber.

For Laura Gramling, a software tester, returning to her Boston-area office this month was surreal and bittersweet. The world is slowly reopening, and life is beginning to feel normal. But as she sat down at her dust-covered desk and opened a drawer, she was struck by a sad memory: a vacation that never was.

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In March of last year, Gramling, 29, was getting ready for a trip to the Scottish Highlands. In preparation, she had been snacking on Lorna Doone cookies and sipping English breakfast tea, which she kept at her desk.

“Before I travel I like to get in the zone of the place I’m going to,” said Gramling, whose desk calendar still showed the circled date of her April trip. “But I didn’t get to go.”

She stared at the biscuits and tea for a little bit, reminiscing about how excited she had been for an adventure overseas. Then she dumped them in the trash.

Gramling said there were other odd reminders of her last time in the office, including a HydroFlask filled with water that “smelled like my grandparents’ basement” and an assortment of lollipops from Colombia that she was “obsessed with” at the time.

“I was like, ‘I probably shouldn’t eat these,’ ” said Gramling, who hasn’t fully returned to the office just yet. “But I did eat one.”

Others said they sorted through untouched notebooks that had faded with time, and tossed away Post-its that weren’t relevant or no longer even made sense. The fear and uncertainty from last March came creeping back.

Alex Raffol, investment director in the private client practice at Cambridge Associates, said he was greeted by a copy of The Wall Street Journal from mid-March 2020 when he walked into his office for the first time this month. The headlines screamed, “Virus Batters Economy,” and “In the U.S., Threat Upends Daily Life.”

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“That headline and reading that newspaper served as a time capsule bringing me back to that point in time,” said Raffol, who also left behind shoes that went unworn for 16 months. “That immediately brought me back to the extraordinary uncertainty and fear we were all grappling with last March, and really brought those emotions back to the forefront.”

But he was also reminded of our resiliency in the face of doubt, and just how far we’ve come over the last year.

“It was a moment of reflection,” he said. “It was good to be back.”

Raffol certainly wasn’t the only one transported to a very different time. In one instance, a woman who recently returned to her job made a TikTok video that showed her proudly throwing away a framed picture of herself and her husband on their wedding day.

“When you got divorced during the pandemic and today is your first day back in the office,” she captioned the video, which has been viewed more than 1 million times.

For Tristan Davies, the experience of briefly popping into the office for the first time since the pandemic started was decidedly less dramatic. But like others, he found himself stepping back in time.

At his office space at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there was a whiteboard with ideas and projects scribbled on it. Nearby, the corner of a folder was bleached by the sun coming through the window.

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It had been 488 days since Davies, 56, last sat there. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

“It was like a space I once lived in, but didn’t live in anymore,” said Davies, who will be returning to the office a few times a week in the fall. “It’s a place that used to be, as a location, so important to me. To realize it didn’t have that same place in my life anymore was kind of interesting.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.