Not going back

For those who are planning for the future, I have a simple word of advice: Don’t expect things to go back to the way they were. The disruptions caused by the pandemic and the George Floyd protests are a couple of signs that things are changing. Here is a simple example: On Thursday in a phone conversation and official for one of the Boards of our church promised that we would receive an important document by close of business on Friday. We did receive that document, but not be what we call “close of business on Friday.” The document was sent at 1:48 pm on Sunday. That’s 3:48 pm in the time zone from which it was sent. When the employee responsible for sending out the document was given the instruction “before close of business on Friday,” it was translated to “Before opening of business on Monday.” And the employee, working from home, no longer is working the same hours that were worked when that employee was working from an office 9 - 5 each day. I know nothing of the personal life of that employee, but now that the employee has gotten used to working on an altered schedule, it is not going to be easy to go back to working from an office.

And there is another thing I’d like to point out. This story comes from a church. The employee was clearly working on Sunday (and didn’t seem to be working on Friday). Now that the people who work for the church don’t go to church, I suspect that some of them won’t be coming back.

Were it not for the pandemic, we would have received a packet of forms weeks ago. They would have been paper forms that needed to be filled out and returned in the mail. What we received instead was an email with a combination of attachments, which can be printed and forms inserted into the body of the email, which print with page breaks in the wrong places. We’ll figure out how to get the necessary information returned, but quite frankly the haste with which the paper forms were scanned and inserted into the email is a real pain. There are ways to create secure electronic forms that can be filled out on a computer. That’s not whaat happened in this case. We are forced to respond with paper forms, but we have to create our own forms in order to get the information returned.

As things go on, they’ll work out that kind of bug in the system. Someone will know how to create the correct kind of computer-based forms. But that person probably doesn’t want to work 9 - 5 in an office. Now that people have been allowed to se their own schedules, they aren’t going to give up that freedom easily.

The assumption behind much of the way business is operating during the pandemic is that workers are independent individuals. But there are plenty of jobs in this world that can only be performed by teams working together. A half-hour Zoom conference doesn’t create the kind of trust that is required for people to collaborate. The result is that there is a lot of top-down decision making going on. Bosses order workers to accomplish tasks, but they don’t ask workers to participate in creating solutions to problems. Workers do the tasks assigned, but don’t pay attention to the larger processes.

And customers and people served by businesses are forced to be patient and expected to understand that when phone calls aren’t answered and promises aren’t kept and messages are muddled it is just part of the response to the crisis.

We’ll get better at this. We always do. We’ll learn better ways of doing business. But it won’t go back to the way it was before.

Yesterday we had a few more people in our sanctuary during worship than usual. We invited the families of confirmands to attend. We have a large room that seats nearly 500, so accommodating 25 allowed us to maintain physical distance. During our livestream there were another 25 or so watching at the same time. By the time I went to bed last night, the video on Facebook had been viewed 180 times. Just now while I was looking, a member of our church commented on a video I recorded on Thursday. Our congregation is viewing some of the same videos, but we aren’t viewing them together. We don’t all watch at the same time. Our experience is very different from forming community by worshiping together. As much as I prefer face-to-face worship and have no aspirations to be a media preacher, I have to admit that things will not go back to the way they were. Some of our people are not going to want to get up and get dressed and show up at the church at 9:30 in the morning when they can watch the service at 11 or in the afternoon, or even at 5 am the next day. They are going to continue to want to have control over their schedule and are going to be less willing to adapt their schedule to the group. Why mark the effort to get together when we can watch the video later?

Under that set of rules, we can’t sustain a choir. A choir requires a group of people to gather in the same place at the same time to rehearse and then return to the same place at the same time to lead worship. That goes for a lot of other things we do as a congregation. I remains to be seen which parts of the community can be re-started once physical distancing is ended.

I don’t think that churches are the only institutions that will be radically reshaped by these times. I expect that colleges will be a very different experience going forward. I have a friend who is a college professor who already was thinking, “Since I am teaching online, it doesn’t matter where I live.” Students, too, are going to resist having to move to campuses. Individual instruction is a long weals from collaborative learning. The name of the institution, “college,” derives from collegium, which is a group of people who choose to live together for the efficiency of joint living in order to have more time to devote to study and learning.

The pandemic will one day end. The rules will be relaxed. But we’re not going back to the way it used to be.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!