The Future of American Business
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
“There are places I remember, all my life though some have changed. Some forever not for better, some have gone and some remain."
The Church of my childhood is up for sale.
I thought this would never happen. There is no other structure like it in my original hometown of Cumberland, Rhode Island. It is a massive structure built in the 1800’s with gorgeous stained glass windows. Real stained glass windows. Not the kind that people make today. They are the windows that comforted me as I strained to make it through Mass with my parents. Every conceivable color found its way through those windows. The stars that someone painted on the walls that mimicked the night sky also helped. It was like a Disney ride in which we felt as if we were outside when we were inside. The choir and huge pipe organ boomed from the balcony. Their sounds were prolonged by the reverberation in the cavernous space. We thought the sounds would last forever in some distant universe.
Every significant religious event in my family’s life occurred in this Church. Weddings, confirmation, confessions, and funerals. My parents’ wedding in 1938 produced one of the most prominent photographs of my family’s history. They were on the steps of the Church, posing for photographs on a cold winter’s day. Behind them were the steps we climbed every Sunday to attend Mass. We would climb them to say goodbye to the people we loved.
The huge granite blocks that form the outside walls of the Church make me think of the Pyramids of Egypt. I wondered who moved them into place without the help of the latest Kubota earth moving equipment. I believed they would be there forever. I was wrong.
The Catholic Church has been on a long, downhill slide toward this day. Like tumbling granite blocks. First there was the “Problem That Shall Not Be Named.” People went out the door for good, and so did money. Properties were sold. Some parishioners even squatted in a few of them in a futile effort to avert the sale. It was like home to them. They thought their church would be there forever. They were wrong.
The changing nature of work itself would land a major blow to religion, as it crumpled to the canvas. Sunday was no longer the “day of rest.” It became the day that overworked families tried to catch up on the tasks that they could not accomplish during the week. My Dad would come home at 5 PM, exhausted. He often shared a beer with his friends at the local pub. Mom wasn’t home. She worked on the second shift in the local textile factory with loud machinery that would eventually damage her hearing. It kept “clacking” in her head even beyond her shift. Sunday? It became just another workday, when Dad worked his second job. Or third.
Life had changed.
And now our office buildings are emptying. On a recent visit to Providence, RI, I saw that the large office buildings in the city center were dark, long before they should have been. They used to be occupied by one business. Now they are occupied by a few businesses. They may never be fully occupied again.
So what will happen?
It’s obvious now that post-pandemic business life in the buildings that we all trudged to way too early in the morning, way too far away, are empty. Way too empty. We are hunkered down, quarantined, isolated, jobless, less jobbed, lonely, masked, claustrophobic, and hopeless. Not at the old level of hopelessness, but at some dark multi-level bottomless pit of hopelessness that we never knew existed. It sounds like an old Dylan song to me from an earlier era when we entered the first disruptive “changin’ times” of our lives.
Life has indeed changed.
Some people have jobs that they perform in those difficult places where children try to adapt to the new world reality of what is now “school.” It is not school. It is a new, ugly concept of school. Mom is there trying to do the “Very New Math,” and helping her child write in a new language: English. It may be a great language for writers. But it’s a horrible language for young children to master. All they want is to be with their friends, speaking another language: the language of love and friendship.
But it’s worse than that.
You see, that Mom was faced with “Sophie’s Choice.” In our modern version of that fabled impossible choice, Mom is forced to choose between the job she had and helping her child at home. She chose her role as Mom. God bless her.
In a post-pandemic world, if there is one more, or many more pandemics (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have a re-emergence of the Ebola virus, as reported today, 2/15/21), business organizations will have to decide who works at home, and who works in the office building. It will be a new working model for business. It may or may not work. It most certainly will be less productive.
I know someone who has been allowed to work at home for many years (pre-pandemic) due to his medical condition. He is a reliable distance worker. But I called one day and could hear the Golf Channel playing in the background. What a great gig.
We will probably be masked for some time. I used to love it when I could see a woman’s whole face. The makeup-enhanced cheek bones of a beautiful woman. It just seems like that is how life is supposed to be. Now we have to settle for two dimensional faces squeezed into a Zoom box. It’s just not the same. But I must admit: I love seeing them anyway. I can now identify the female cable news broadcasters by their eyes alone. It’s not a special skill. It’s just how bad it has gotten. I’m not proud.
Those who must work in the office will probably be “hoteling.” In this concept perhaps three to five workers share the same office at different times. This saves office space, perhaps in that smaller building the company acquired when it realized it didn’t need all that big space anymore. There go the rents.
At home our clothing has devolved from all of the business suits we acquired for the variety of it all, to increasingly casual clothing: sweatsuits, sneakers, pajamas, a shirt, to an embarrassing level of undress. Maybe the propped cardboard cutouts of us in front of the computer screen that have been the focus of humorous TV commercials will be next. I hope not. I’ve got a lot of business suits that I’d love to wear, but I’m running out of time to use them. I miss them.
Now we use Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex distance communications technology. Tell me this isn’t permanent. Please. Or have we grown to accept it? This could be the new world of business communication. I hope someone will study the drop off in communication effectiveness and the loss of productivity and tell us to go back to work where we belong. I’ll be the first in line.
And don’t forget the damage to our mental health. Mental health counseling, as a profession, is “hot” today. Straight from a counselor’s mouth. Why? Because we are social animals who can’t be social. We are caged.
In studies of workplace violence, in which workers lost their jobs, and returned to commit atrocities, their violent trigger was not the loss of money, but the loss of the workplace “family.” As Barbra once told us: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” To think that we once needed convincing.
My old church? Perhaps it could be used as a giant shelter. Or maybe as a vaccination center. We should re-purpose it. Isn’t that what we do today?
I thought that it would last forever. Like business.
I was wrong.
“All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all”