Weekly Editorial

The Industry Is Facing an Existential Crisis

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • April 1, 2024

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I had a conversation with a friend recently that went a little something like this:

Me: “How’s it going?”

Friend: “I feel like I’ve been working hard all my life, doing everything right, and it still feels like I’m spinning my wheels. What’s the point?”

I don’t know about you, but since the pandemic, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of folks that are suffering from existential crises. I thought it might just be me noticing this, but when I spoke to a couple other friends, they confirmed my anecdotal evidence.

“It seems like everyone I know wants to go live on an oat milk farm,” a friend recently volunteered after I shared the story of my other friend’s comment.

The feeling is evident in the office furniture industry as well. We are suffering our own collective version of an existential crisis. We are searching for our meaning — how we might fit into this new world of work. And like a true existential crisis, these feelings are accompanied by anxiety and stress.

I’m not a psychologist, but I think we all need to take a deep breath. For all of you out there who are nodding your head about this issue and all the companies wringing their hands over the market shifts, it’s going to be OK.

Change is never easy and demands hard work. But it also offers a chance for reinvention and renewal, which is where I would suggest we focus our attention rather than worrying about what might come next.

Luckily, we have examples all around us of people who have made monumental changes in their lives despite the long odds. And we have a myriad of examples of companies that have completely changed gears and reinvented themselves.

The best example is Netflix and its shift from physical DVDs to digital delivery. Netflix succeeded because it considered itself an entertainment company, not a DVD distributor. Corning is another company with a story of reinvention. Instead of being satisfied with simply mass-producing glass for Thomas Edison’s lightbulbs, the company embraced the idea of being a leader in glass, ceramics and industrial material manufacturing.

We can get beyond our industry’s existential crisis by thinking beyond office furniture. Last week in this space, I suggested that our industry should reexamine co-working spaces. This week, I’m suggesting that we continue to look beyond furniture. The companies in this industry understand the workplace better than anyone. So why not become a workplace company instead of just an office furniture maker?

Believe me, I understand how painful these changes can be. I come from the daily newspaper industry after all. Anyone still have a daily newspaper delivered to their home each morning (other than me)? OI Publications is not a magazine publisher, though that remains at the heart of what we do. We are a media company. That means meeting our customers — our readers — wherever they happen to be, from video to podcasts to print.

The same opportunity to grow is available to the office furniture industry as well. But if you stand there flat-footed, you will end up in the corporate scrap heap with other companies that refused to budge (remember Blockbuster Video?).

I eventually pointed my friend in my existential example above to Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and social critic, whose words in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” resonate with me because they call for both change and focus. I’ll leave you with Merton’s words:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

“The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

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