One of the significant changes to come out of the COVID pandemic was the increased prevalence of working at home (or remotely at other locations). Many of us have now experienced prolonged periods of work at home, and as might be expected, people have varying opinions on how much they like it. The phenomenon of working at home has brought about major changes in the labor market as well as the economy as a whole. Many workers are beginning to see the ability to work at home at least part of the time as an important job characteristic with regard to employment decisions, and we see increased instances of people working in one state and living in another.
Polling data suggest that workers of all ages are interested in working from home. For those aged 25 to 34, forty-two percent prefer to work from home, while twenty-nine percent of those aged 35 to 44 prefer it. For those 65 and over, thirty-four percent prefer to work from home.1 Economist Paul Krugman suggests that the work at home phenomenon has helped cause increases in housing prices. He quotes research that suggests “60 percent of the increase in home prices was caused by the rise in remote work.”2 This past summer, the Dutch Parliament passed legislation to make working from home a legal right.3
Several prominent businesses and business leaders have responded by pushing back on the desire for more remote work opportunities. Elon Musk famously sent a memo to his Tesla employees insisting that they spend at least 40 hours a week in the office, and said, “If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.”4 Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, stated that remote work “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle,” and argued that working in the office is better for diversity.5 The New York Times has recently told employees that they need to return to the office three days a week. In response, over 1000 of their workers signed a pledge stating that they would not.6 General Motors informed many of its salaried workers that they need to return to in-person work, but almost immediately softened this message in the face of a worker backlash.7 Within higher education, work from home has been allowed to a substantial degree, but most institutions now expect their employees to come back to campus.
In the wake of this explosion of work at home opportunities, there has also followed a great deal of reflection on whether this new trend is on balance positive or negative. Certainly, such a major change in the nature of work and where it happens will have both benefits and costs. For those of us who have medical issues or are disabled, remote work can be a godsend. For others, working at home can save commuting costs or allow for the care of a young or elderly family member while working. It can enable workers to live in locations with lower housing costs or in places that are nearer to family members or other desired amenities. It can even save on laundry costs as workers can wear the same shirt several days in a row if they so desire–don’t look too closely on my future Zoom calls! Employers can experience a variety of savings when they allow remote work, as they may no longer find it necessary to rent as much office space as before. At the same time, remote work can have significant costs. Businesses may suffer reductions in worker productivity, and remote work can make collaboration more difficult. Workers can miss out on opportunities to be mentored and can experience loneliness being apart from their colleagues. Customers can sometimes experience poorer service.
Although there has been a lot written about the costs and benefits of remote work, there hasn’t been as much reflection on how working at home impacts the fulfillment of a worker’s calling and sense of vocation. Of course, our paid work is not necessarily our only calling, but for many, it plays a key role. One of the most famous statements about calling and vocation comes from the late Frederic Buechner. He suggested that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”8 Although there have been criticisms of this formulation, it does emphasize how our activity needs to respond to the needs of our neighbors. Another description comes from Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Christians follow their main vocation by playing a lively part in institutions and endeavors that, consciously or not, seek the interests of the kingdom. Of these the church is first, but others – including governments, businesses, professions, and non-profit service organizations – are crucial as well.” Plantinga encourages Christians to ask, “What would my career do for ‘the least of these’”?9
As we ask this question, we need to consider the location of our work. How will our ability to seek the interests of God’s Kingdom be affected if we work remotely? Where can we best serve our employer, our students, our co-workers, and our customers? Life can be easier when we don’t have to deal with other people. But we are called to be present, to be with others. Having a calling or vocation means that we must look outside ourselves when we evaluate our work and make decisions about it. Christians cannot uncritically accept that work should be done remotely if it is possible. Certainly, we need to consider our own interests, needs, and requirements when we think about working at home. But that doesn’t mean that we always put our needs first. This is a hard truth, and I struggle to put this into practice myself. I don’t want to be casting stones here. I worked at home for a while during Covid because of a medical issue. I didn’t see many of my students face-to-face for a significant time. But I also feel the responsibility to get back to campus where my students and colleagues reside.
The Bible is full of images of people working together; we can read there that it doesn’t always go well. And we see that in our own lives that working together and being present with those we serve doesn’t always go well, nor is it always enjoyable. But the analogy of the body of Christ emphasizes the interdependence of all of God’s people and their gifts in different roles. There are arms and legs and heads and feet, and they all work together and with each other. As we anticipate Christ’s return, we look forward to a place full of activity and service. It is hard to imagine the new heavens and new earth—and the city, the New Jerusalem, as a place where people would sit in their own houses and conduct their work independently from their neighbors and remotely from those they are trying to serve. Redeemed work will emphasize presence rather absence, and dependence rather than independence. When we work together now and serve others face to face where we can, we provide “signposts” to this future Kingdom coming.
As I write this post, I am currently at home and on sabbatical. College and university faculty are some of the most independent people I know. We love our flexibility, working at home, and being able to do this with little supervision or without asking anyone for permission. In no way am I condemning all remote work; in many cases it is very appropriate. There is no doubt that it has provided many blessings, for workers themselves but also for others impacted by their work. However, in many cases, our desire for remote work focuses on maximizing our own non-work options and opportunities and is less interested in enhancing our service to others through our work. Christians, however, as part of their vocation and calling, should see the workplace as more than just a place of personal reward and development, but as a vital avenue of service to students, colleagues, institutions, and communities (and to customers, clients, and businesses). If working at home diminishes our ability to love our neighbor and provide a fair day of work to our employer, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions.
- See https://www.theologyofwork.org/key-topics/vocation-overview-article?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI1d-C3fDa-gIVowKtBh29gQLeEAAYASAAEgLjrPD_BwE. Different versions of the quote can be found in various sources.
- Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002, p. 113.