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Staff Photo by Alison Gerber / The newsroom of the Chattanooga Times Free Press appears empty Wednesday morning, March 18, 2020, as most of the staff works from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

So, I'm back at the office.

Happiness.

At this moment, I'm sitting inside a glass-enclosed room in one corner of the Times Free Press newsroom. As I look out across a sea of desks and cubicles, there are three people huddled outside the editor's office. Glory. It's the first time I've seen some of my friends in more than a year.

I guess I'm using the conference room as a sort of decompression chamber as I ease back into office life.

I just heard a co-worker answer her desk phone enthusiastically: "Newsroom!"

Music.

For the past 16 months, I have worked mostly at home sitting at our dining room table. My companions have been my dog, Boise, who lies coiled beside me on a chair; and Jack Lambert, a former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker who looks down on me from a signed photograph hanging on the wall.

Sometimes I ask Jack for advice, but he just scowls.

Jack also doesn't have the phone numbers I need, nor does he remember who was the mayor of Chattanooga in 1984. For those kinds of facts, I need my boomer buddies Dave Flessner and Chris Vass.

We are in transition at the Times Free Press. Vaccinated people are now slowly — voluntarily — filtering back to the newsroom.

The TFP is like a lot of downtown office buildings, I gather. Other parts of our lives are back to normal — church, school, sporting events — but offices are among the last places to reopen.

Most of my friends at other companies are pointing to Labor Day as the end of COVID-19 isolation. We'll see. Businesses are working out the details of the post-COVID workplace, trying to get it right.

Here's an open secret: Lots of people like working from home. No morning commutes. No face-to-face accountability. Heck, at home you might even catch a 20-minute nap at lunchtime and nobody looks at you sideways. Well, nobody but Jack Lambert, who doesn't believe in naps.

One of the things I liked about working at home was the privacy. Newsrooms are big, noisy places, which can be both good and bad. Noise is good when you are one of the merrymakers, but bad when you are trying to interview someone over the telephone.

There's also the matter of personal privacy. When your doctor's office calls to give you lab results in the newsroom, everybody knows your business. Or when your son or daughter calls upset about a hard day at school, it's not a conversation you necessarily want to have within earshot of your co-workers.

On the other hand, I haven't spent most of my life in a newsroom for no reason. Newsrooms can be uproarious, irreverent, joyful places. On the list of reasons to be a journalist, the camaraderie of a newsroom is right at the top.

As more and more people filtered into the newsroom this week, you could feel the energy build. At the same time, I have yet to hear one of the room-shaking group laughs that sometimes explodes from the morning news meeting. But that will come.

I do know this: I never once in 16 months saw anybody do a full-body laugh on Zoom.

We humans are social creatures. We need huddles, hugs and handshakes.

It may take us a few weeks to shake off the rust from our COVID isolation, but, before long, things will be back to normal.

And laughter will fill the newsroom like a song.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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