By Mark Michael
News broke recently that the Diocese of Chicago plans to sell its 30,000-square-foot headquarters in the city’s central business district. The building has other tenants, but the diocesan director of operations, Courtney Reid, told our reporter, Kirk Petersen, that there is a lot of empty office space throughout the five-story building. After six months of working from home, she said, “We’ve learned that we don’t need to be there nearly as often.”
As midwestern U.S. real estate goes, it’s hard to find a better location, and the Diocese of Chicago will surely net a windfall. But these are not sunny days for those who deal in office space, because Chicagoland Episcopalians aren’t the only ones discovering that working from home can be just as productive as having workers commute to a central location. Green Street Advisors, a commercial real estate advisory firm, estimates that after the pandemic demand for office space will settle at 15 percent below pre-COVID levels.
In the short term, this is largely a means of cutting costs in a flagging economy. But it signals the prospect of deep changes in the meaning of work, and an opportunity for renewing local communities.
It’s easy to forget that large-scale office space is primarily a phenomenon of the last 75 years, growing out of a massive expansion of white-collar work, car-focused urban planning, mechanistic time and motion studies, and the need for miles of filing cabinets.
There have always been some offices. The papal chancery has been up and running since at least the ninth century, and even Scrooge coughed up a desk for Bob Cratchit. But the offices of former years were remarkably humble affairs. I was recently amazed to see the Old Treasury Building on the side lawn of the State House in Annapolis, once home to Maryland’s vault and its currency printing presses, as well as the treasurer’s office. It’s about twice the size of a large garden shed.
Most of us have become accustomed to going to work, allowing our homes to remain places of respite and pleasure. As even the psalmist says in his survey of the created order: “Man goes forth to his work, and to his labor until the evening” (104:24). He had field labor in mind, however, not cubicles or wall-to-wall carpeting. Many artisans and professionals have always lived “over the shop,” and old-fashioned clerical studies, as the denizen of any Victorian rectory knows, were usually just off the central hall, with lots of bookshelves, affording a fair, if passing, glimpse at domestic piety (and housekeeping).
Office space has cost us plenty. It drove a consistent flood of talent toward cities, leaving rural communities with fewer capable leaders. Ever-expanding rings of suburbs and all that car exhaust posed existential environmental threats. With long commutes, who had time for choir practice, coaching Little League, or turning up for daily Mass? Many of our cities, in turn, suffered from a shortage of affordable housing, with so much space gobbled up by asphalt and cookie-cutter high rises. Urban-planning activist Jane Jacobs told us nearly 60 years ago that the healthiest urban communities combined shops, small offices, and homes. Random encounters on foot eventually create meaningful relationships, civic responsibility, and a watchfulness that limits criminal activity. An hour of talk radio on the way to and from the parking garage, not so much.
Large office spaces create workplace cohesion and establish cultural norms that can aid or hinder the pursuit of a moral life. We have rightly been awakened to the problems of sexual harassment in the workplace. I’ve also spent plenty of time guiding parishioners through the agonies of office cultures that left no room for talking about personal faith, winked at petty theft, and encouraged cutthroat competition with neighboring divisions.
Would we trust people who worked from home to pilot drone bombers, design campaign attack ads, or invent credit-default swaps? Somehow, I doubt it. I’ve long loved Wendell Berry’s test for the work of our hands, from his majestic “Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
That’s a rule best tested while working from home.
Inevitably, many of us must leave home to work. Waiters, delivery drivers, and police officers won’t have choice in the matter. Until we launch a Rural Electrification Agency-style effort to get broadband into every community, it will be hard to stem the “brain drain.” There are legitimate concerns about “working from home” widening the gender opportunity gap, as many husbands aren’t being any more helpful as childcare demands have exploded. But the experiments of the last few months do offer a new way forward for many workers: the possibility of deeper integration between the different parts of our lives, more time with families, greater flexibility for serving on community boards, tending gardens, and serving the poor.
After the pandemic eventually passes, churches, too, will have a chance to restructure their use of time and space. I’m gratified to see so many tuning into my parish’s daily livestreamed services. It’s a time of unprecedented crisis and spiritual hunger, of course. But my parishioners are also no longer sitting in traffic on the beltway. Companies that do decide to scale back their office footprint will still need attractive and flexible settings for occasional joint meetings. What a great use for a parish hall or library on a quiet Thursday morning. For that matter, what about the old “Parish House,” turned into offices 45 years ago? Could it be time to turn it back into, say, a house?
The projects and meetings and ventures that fill our days aren’t just for earning our bread. They are the substance of that living sacrifice we render back to God, the giver of talents, strength, and creativity. Such tasks and those who share them with us form the habits and desires that make us who we will be.
The pandemic will continue to exact an enormous human and financial toll. But at least for some people, the chaos of these days may be a time for breaking yokes that will never be forged again. The prospect looms for a new kind of freedom, if we are prepared to use it faithfully. A life of work, prayer, and loving attentiveness to those among whom God has placed us: surely for such a vocation as this, Ms. Reid is right: “we don’t need to be there nearly as often.”
The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland.