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Remote work has real ramifications for society

We cannot enjoy our newfound flexibility when it is built on the backs of those who can never have it.
Catholic Voices

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal provocatively proclaims that the “lonely office is bad for America.” Pushing back against the trend toward remote work, the author suggests that we overlook many “intangibles” in our immediate attraction toward the conveniences of working from home. She notes first the damage for people just starting out, who “need offices to learn a profession, to make friends, meet colleagues.”

She goes on: “There will be less knowledge of the workplace, of what’s going on, of the sense that you’re part of a burbling ecosystem. There will be fewer deep friendships, antagonisms, real and daily relationships.” Finally, she notes the erosion of any sense of shared mission and of common goods. Remote work may seem good for the individual in the short run, but it may turn out to be detrimental to both workers and society in the long run.

Is remote work a moral question? Some may treat it as an inevitable consequence of advancing technology, but as Pope Francis reminds us in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), technological choices “are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” Thus, at the very least, it is a question with real ramifications for society that may outweigh individual cost-benefit analyses. We need to reflect on how our own responses are shaped by an implicit definition of the purposes for which we work.

Catholic social teaching does not make determinations about something as specific as remote work. But it does identify the purposes to which we should aim in carrying out our work. St. Pope John Paul II articulates three purposes in the 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). One is familiar to us: earning our “daily bread,” as he puts it. We expect to get paid for doing what we call work, even when we enjoy it, because we also have to support our lives. This purpose is external to the work itself. Thus, work is merely instrumental to it. But the other purposes are intrinsic to work. They are bound up with the activity itself.

Second, work serves the society in meeting its needs. This is part of why we get paid—because we provide something to someone who wants it. Work benefits society directly by producing goods and services, but work also contributes indirectly to the “continual advance of science and technology” and to the “[elevation of] the cultural and moral level . . . of society.”

Finally, St. Pope John Paul II highlights what he calls the “subjective dimension” of work. This is the dimension in which our work makes us a better person. We realize ourselves as full persons created in God’s image in and through work, not least because, the pope says in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (Commemorating the Centenary of Rerum Novarum), any business is first and foremost a “community of persons.”

Certainly this is an ideal picture. The pope doesn’t mean that every day at the office is going to unproblematically realize these goals. We sometimes prioritize the instrumental goal of earning a living and rightly so. However, the intrinsic purposes are much more morally and spiritually engaging—and more relevant to the questions raised by remote work.

We should notice a few key things about these purposes as we consider the place of remote work. First, work really is meant to be instrumental, serving goods in our lives outside work. Some remote work obviously has great spillover benefits: more time with family, less transportation time and hassle, flexibility in accomplishing tasks around other things in life. This sort of flexibility is good and unlikely to go away. But this isn’t remote work, strictly speaking.

As one business commentator notes in an episode of the podcast As We Work, “When employees think about flexibility, what they say is it’s great I can work from home when I want to work from home and when I need to come into the office, I can come into the office. CEOs and employers have a different perspective, which is with flexibility people can work from the office and when they need to work from home, they’re able to work from home.” The question is: What’s the default setting going to be?

There are reasons I believe the default setting for most should be toward in-person work. The intrinsic purposes of work reveal spillovers from in-person work. When people talk about remote work, they often focus very much on their own satisfaction. They don’t have to share space, talk to people who are annoying, or negotiate a common refrigerator for lunches. While these all may be legitimate beefs, avoiding them does not actually help people grow in virtue.

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From a virtue ethics perspective, we can see that the office requires us to become better people. We learn to share the world with others. And, of course, this sharing can be about more than refrigerator space. As one worker notes in a letter responding to the aforementioned editorial, her coworkers at a new job in a new city became her best friends and support network when, immediately after the move, her husband was tragically diagnosed with cancer. Catholic social thought wants us to see the workplace as a vital, social space for living out the social nature of the human person.

Additionally, plenty of workers don’t have the option of remote work. From Amazon delivery drivers to farmworkers to custodians to construction workers, people have to go out to work. Society absolutely depends on these workers—and on nurses and teachers and first responders, whose vital work we expect to be in person. In this way, seeking remote work can lead to a “laptop class” division that is ultimately destructive to the social fabric.

The Catholic virtue of solidarity is a commitment to be responsible for all.

The Catholic virtue of solidarity is a commitment to be responsible for all. We can’t just enjoy our newfound flexibility when it is built on the backs of those who can never have it. Part of this solidarity is not maximizing our own privilege, but it also includes supporting laws and social programs that give these essential workers the ability to plan their nonwork responsibilities effectively. For example, a number of cities have recently passed predictive scheduling laws that require employers to post work schedules two to three weeks in advance.

Clearly, we are entering an era in which the question of work flexibility will be very important in the development of our society. Many benefits to a newfound flexibility might make work less of a “daily grind.” But we need to be wary of placing our own convenience above every other consideration. We need the workplace not just instrumentally, but for goods intrinsic to work: cooperation, innovation, virtue, and relationship. 


This article also appears in the November 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 11, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Desola Lanre-Ologun

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About the author

David Cloutier

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com.

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