There's nothing like forty bombs on a Middle-East metropolis to make you feel like your weekly widget report is meaningless. But we can't bring the economy to a screeching halt. If nothing else, we need to eat, we have to get paid. So we find ourselves making judgments each day about what is in poor taste and what reflects the needs of a workplace that must go on.
On September 11, I was working at a company located six blocks from the World Trade Center. I exited the subway right after the first plane hit. Took a look up at the burning building, and then walked to my office. That might sound strange, but I am one of thousands of people who did that, because office workers are accustomed to order, predictability and routine. Five days a week we exit the subway and walk to work. If you do something that often, you usually start to like it.
Even now, in the face of war, the predictability and stability of going to work every day provides a counterbalance to the unknown factors of battle. Some might say, “How can you sell widgets when people are dying in Baghdad?” But routine, really, is a way to cope. In the face of an unpredictable and violent world, the routine of the weekly widget report takes on near-spiritual meaning.
After the second plane hit the South Tower, there was a steady rain of papers out our office windows. There was a steady stream of employees saying, “Do we have a TV here? Do we have cable? Do you know what happened?” And there was my boss. He said, “Everyone should just go back to work. There's nothing we can do.” Even a half-hour after the second plane hit, my boss was in his office sending email to a department that ran around the office like over-excited school children at recess.
We will always remember my boss, locked up in his office, oblivious to doom. And this is the danger of our penchant for routine. It should be comforting but not a means of denial. When it was time for my boss to acknowledge that the day, in fact, would not be a workday, he could not make the shift in plans. Oh he shifted, but not until the office was engulfed in debris and the FBI had taken over the street in front of the building.
Working during wartime is a balance. We should appreciate the comfort of routine, but we should know when to make an adjustment.
Take a tip from advertisers, who know that airing commercials about familiar brands is comforting, but commercials rife with frat-house humor or on-sale-now jargon are a turn-off to a fragile population. McDonald’s, for example, will run branding commercials featuring children, and the company will save the hawking of value meal deals for a peace-time project.
McDonald's knows that people need comfort in consistency. These tactics may seem heartless, consumerist, or crass, but the reality is that we are all going to keep the economy going while the war rages. So when you show up to work, understand the value of consistency but know your limits. Know why you do what you do, and when it is time to stop.
And don't underestimate the stability work provides to a population on edge. Sure, we worry about another terrorist attack, especially now that the war has begun. But sitting in your duct-taped home, isolated, in a pool of nervous sweat will only exacerbate anxiety. We should all strike a balance between work and worry as a means to cope with war.