Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, conversations about the tradeoffs between remote work and work in the office have intensified. These tradeoffs are usually framed in terms of power, preferences, and productivity. We talk about the power struggle when employee preferences and employer preferences conflict. We talk about how work arrangements affect the enterprise as a whole, and whether working from home works.
These ways of framing the conversation have their place, but they don’t show the whole picture. For one thing, workers whose jobs can’t be done remotely often get ignored. Whenever the topic of remote work comes up, my carpenter/general contractor uncle quips, “They haven’t figured out how to make my job remote yet.”
For those of us who seek to follow Jesus, there’s another dimension to the conversation that we need to consider: How does where I work serve God’s purposes in the world? Does where I work make a difference in loving God and loving my neighbor? Or, to put the same question another way: Where does my work make a difference?
In addition to considering power, preferences, and productivity, we need to consider presence. Our choice of where to work can be framed as a choice of where to be present. Choosing to provide the most loving presence we can may lead us to work from home or to work in person, depending on the priorities God has entrusted to our care. When we choose our tradeoffs based on pursuing deeper union with God himself, we’ll find the right place to work.
[Today we continue our series Work: Who, What, When, Where, Why. We’ll be looking at these questions:
- Who am I working for? (Service and Motivation)
- What work can I do best? (Callings and Fit)
- When can I work? / When can I rest? (Setting Boundaries)
- Where does my work make a difference? (Proximity and Community)
- Why work? (Purpose and Meaning)
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The Continuum of Connection
Before considering the exact spiritual tradeoffs we face in working in one place or another, let’s consider the idea of connection. Part of what makes a person a person is their capacity to connect. As persons, we can form connections or bonds with objects, with the natural world of plants and animals, with other people, and ultimately with God.
For each of these, there is a continuum of connection. On one end of the continuum, we have union—a profound togetherness. On the other end, we have alienation—a profound separation.
Scripture uses the terms of life and death to convey these opposites. The prodigal son was “dead” to his father, but when he returned, he was “alive again” (Luke 15:24). Apart from the grace of God, we were “dead through our trespasses,” but now we are “alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5 NRSVue).
The language of being “in” Christ also predominates descriptions of union. Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NRSVue). Jesus prayed for his followers “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21 ESV). This idea of being “in” draws on our capacity to be located in an environment. In Christ, God becomes our environment, our home, our dwelling place.
An Analogy: Mediated Connection with Nature
This spiritual language describes union or alienation in terms of our connection with God and each other (or lack thereof). But a parallel continuum exists in our other relationships. Our relationship with the natural world provides a useful analogy for our work conundrums.
Although it’s a different kind of union than our union with God or other people, we can still speak of being in union with nature. When I am out in the woods and have to crane my neck to see the top of the oaks that tower around me, I feel awe. I also feel small, but that smallness also gives me a place, an environment to inhabit. I am in the forest. Or, when one of our two cats bounds up to disrupt my reading and sits in my lap, something seems rather right and good about it.
We can also speak of alienation from nature; studies show that human beings suffer when they are removed from trees and other plant life.
In between these two extremes, we have degrees of what we could call mediated connection. As I write these words, I’m not out in the woods, but I can see trees through the window. The window is mediating my connection with the trees. I’m craning my neck, but I can’t see the tops; the window is too small. When I scroll through Instagram and see a photo that a friend took of a tree, it’s one step further removed from union—but still better than no connection at all.
Work as Connection
Now let’s consider the idea of connection as it relates to work. In your line of work, what and who are you connected to? My friend Jessie, a labor and delivery nurse, is connected to her patients, their families, and her colleagues. She inhabits the hospital, walking through the halls, breathing the air, hearing the noise. My carpenter/general manager uncle is connected to the materials of the construction projects, and to the team members he supervises. He inhabits the construction sites, and the end result is buildings that others inhabit as they work.
But what about my friend Jacob? He works from home as a data analyst, employed by a university several hours away and across a state border. Like other remote workers, he misses out on the unplanned conversations that come from bumping into colleagues in the hallway or the breakroom. If he’s on a video call with his boss or team, he misses out on the nuances of nonverbal communication that he would get in person. He does not inhabit the university the same way that Jessie inhabits the hospital or my uncle does a construction site.
At the same time, he’s just as connected to the data itself as he would be if he worked in an office. He wouldn’t interact with the embodied, real-world things that the data represents there anymore than he does here. The work of analysis can be done just as well from home. That analysis also really does serve the work of the university. It makes a difference there, even though it’s done from afar.
Jacob has a mediated relationship with his colleagues. A video call is more like the Instagram photo of a tree than like being out in the woods. But he has an immediate connection with the data. In his line of work, there’s no forest where he could go that’s better than home.
Too Much Connection?
A mediated relationship with colleagues also may not be such a bad thing. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that remote workers name two top advantages to the arrangement: Balance and focus. Remote workers say working from home helps them “balance their work and personal lives” and “helps them get their work done and meet deadlines.”
That second advantage is telling: At least for some workers, being less connected to colleagues means being less distracted from work tasks. Those unplanned conversations in the hallway or the breakroom take up time and energy. For some jobs, if you cut the relational demands, you can focus on your work and get more done.
Consider Jacob again. There is no forest he can go to get “closer” to the data. But if he did work in an office, he might get interrupted and distracted from the data more often. His work tasks might, in this sense, move “further away” from him. For some tasks and roles, working in the office is one step closer to alienation from the work itself.
When Remote Work Doesn’t Work
But for other tasks and roles, it’s just the opposite. Roles that require creative collaboration tend to suffer in a remote-work format. If the nature of your work requires you to spark unexpected connections between ideas, working from home may prove to be a drag on inspiration.
Similarly, if your work is highly relational—like that of a therapist, pastor, or teacher—the efficiencies of remote arrangements are offset by the loss of interpersonal connection in an interpersonal endeavor. When my wife and I went to therapy together, I’m glad that we could go in person. Our therapist could read the cues of how we were relating to each other and the nuances of our emotions in our body language. It wouldn’t have been the same on Zoom.
What—or Who—Is Your “Tree”?
Taking all these tradeoffs into account, the question isn’t remote work or return to the office. The question is what—or who—is your “tree”? If you’re going to be “out in the woods,” in full union with something or someone, who or what should you prioritize?
As we’ve seen, working from home may mean we’re “looking at a photo of the tree” when it comes to our relationship with colleagues, but we’re “out in the woods” when it comes to getting the work done itself.
Or, for those creative or relational work roles, working from home may mean we’re “looking at a photo of the three” in our relationship with colleagues and in the work itself, a double loss.
Even that loss might be offset by a different priority: our home relationships. The Pew survey noted work-life balance as the top advantage voiced by remote workers. Rather than thinking of this as a consumer-style preference, we as Christians could say that remote work can allow for an unequaled flexibility to be present to family, friends, and neighbors. The story of one father interviewed recently on Humans of New York comes to mind:
I chose a job that allowed me to work remotely for thirty years. It allowed me to be home a lot with my wife and three daughters. Never missed a game. Never missed a school play. I picked them up from school every day at 3:30, unless I was traveling. . . They still want to spend time with me. Maybe because they trust me. I try to be supportive and non-judgmental. But I think it’s mainly because I was so involved with their daily lives: all those plays, all those practices, all those trips home from school. That’s a lot of conversations. It really accumulates over the years. I really got to know them.
Remote work by itself doesn’t produce that kind of intentional fathering. But in this father’s case, a remote work arrangement sure helped. He chose to be “out in the woods” with his daughters rather than his work, and it paid off.
Pick Your Problems
If we’re in a position to choose whether or not we work from home, we would do well to be honest with ourselves about the problems inherent in either choice. For certain jobs, one option may be the clear winner, with few drawbacks. But for most of us, we stand to lose something with either decision—if we even have a choice.
On the continuum of connection, either work situation inevitably moves us a little bit toward alienation on some dimension, whether it’s in our relationship with our colleagues, our work tasks, or our friends and family. We have to square with what the problems are, and then pick the best arrangement. We have to pick our problems.
In his teaching on humility, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 NRSVue). When we consider picking our problems, we are not constrained by selfishness. We don’t have to adopt a consumer mentality, angling first for our own preference. In Christ, picking our problems is picking our presence. Who has God most entrusted to our care? What work has he given us to do? How can we best love God and neighbor in our situation?
Scripture’s priority on family relationships is striking (see, for example, 1 Timothy 5:8). But that doesn’t mean the solution that worked for the Humans of New York dad will work for all of us. We may find ourselves with an in-person job and a hefty commute and have to get creative about protecting time at home. Either the opportunity for a situation we might prefer hasn’t opened up, or we feel a conviction that God has called us to the work, even though it’s far from home.
We need to practice discernment, asking God to purify our motives and help us choose the path that will most serve his purposes. We also need a true north to orient ourselves by as we work through all the relevant considerations.
On the continuum of connection, our place of union with God through Christ provides that true north. Even if we feel alienated from work, or strained in our attempt to serve our families, or displaced from an embodied environment that would give us a sense of place, God is with us. With the psalmist, we can say, “the Lord has become my stronghold and my God the rock of my refuge” (Psalm 94:22 NRSVue). Regardless of where we work, we can be at home in him.
Reflect and Practice
- If you work in person, have you ever wished you could work remotely?
- If you work remotely, have you ever wished you could work in person?
- What do you think about framing the question of where to work in terms of presence?
- Who has God entrusted to your care?
- What work has God called you to do?
- On the continuum between union and alienation, where is your relationship with your work tasks? With your colleagues? With your friends and family?
- What changes, if any, is God inviting you to make in your work based on these reflections?
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