Where is the Water Cooler in a Virtual Work Environment?

(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog and the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.)

Saturday, I got a phone call out of the blue from an old friend that I hadn’t seen for 20 years.  Matt was one of the high school ministry volunteers when I was a church youth director in the mid-80s.

The radio station where he works as a producer had recently undergone some restructuring.  He was given an exciting new role, to work virtually with a group of people he has not met from around the country.  He was no longer going to be around the folks he has worked with for over thirty years. 

My good friend had a theology of work related question for me.  He wanted to know, “How do I glorify God and make Christ known when I only have contact with people via phone and video?”

Interpersonal communication around the water cooler

Back in the day, there was a water cooler in a central location in an office space.  There was a big clear jug full of purified water that sat upside down on a stand that had a blue lever used to fill a paper cup that was provided in a silver tube attached to the side.  This was before everyone started bringing their own water bottles to work.  It was a place of social interaction as workers took a short break from their duties.  It was where we caught up with what was going on in people’s lives.

Those in other career fields who do not work in an office environment have often found similar places to take a break such as the back of a pickup truck, at the lunch room, or sitting under a tree.

For the Christian, this place of informal communication provides an opportunity to get a glimpse into a coworker’s struggles at home.  It is there, when the boss isn’t around and we can just freely chat for a bit, that we learn about their marriage difficulties, their child’s cancer, or financial woes.  This then becomes a chance to love our neighbor by listening to them and offering to pray for them.

Loving our neighbor virtually

How do we do this when we work from home, and our co-workers are across the country?

I have to admit.  As I have teleworked myself off and on for seven of the past twelve months, it is much harder for me to find a moment to ask people how they are doing and to give them the time needed to listen as they open up, showing genuine compassion and concern as we are called to do.

Jesus said that what He wants from us is just two things: love God, and love our neighbor.  And so, we have to be intentional to pursue relationships with those that God has placed in our midst, even if they are 1,000 miles away, and our interactions are limited to phone calls, emails, or video chats.

My friend provided a great illustration of recent video chat with a client who was a young mother.  When he contacted her to answer some technical questions about a project she was working on, he found her with a restless two-year old on her lap.  She desperately tried to focus on the issues at hand, but it was too difficult.  At that point, all my friend could do was to offer some understanding as a father himself about the needs of toddlers and speak compassionate words to her as a Christian.

Even without the proverbial water cooler, there will always be opportunities to minister to our co-workers, customers, and supervisors in a virtual environment.  We just have to open our eyes.

Tackling projects as unto the Lord

In most jobs, you can place responsibilities into two bins: people and projects.  Some workers deal with one more than the other, but most of us do a little of both.  In the same way that our ministry with people is still a priority, although the way we do it is different in a virtual environment, the projects we are given are also top priorities, although the way that we do them may be different.

In Matt’s case, I emphasized that even though his responsibilities were going to change in many ways in his isolated virtual office space, I believe there are still just as many opportunities to “work as unto the Lord” on behind-the-scenes projects as there was in an actual office.  In his case, his client base has been expanded exponentially.  He was producing radio advertisements for his local station.  In his new job, he will be coordinating creative production efforts on a national scale.

Doing projects from a home office has its own rewards and challenges.  On the one hand, you are away from the distractions of people popping in to your office occasionally.  On the other hand, it can be more difficult to get the guidance you need from superiors and help from subordinates.

The apostles as virtual workers

In previous articles I have written on teleworking (click here and here), it never occurred to me to highlight the work of the Apostle Paul.  He spent much of his ministry as a New Testament epistle writer in a virtual work environment.  He was not physically with those churches.  He wrote his letters to church leaders while he was in prison, teaching his clients and coworkers via snail mail. 

The Apostle John, another writer of NT epistles, expresses some of his internal conflict with being limited to virtual means of communication.  He wrote, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.  Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).  I totally get it.  There is just no substitute for physically being there.

Closing challenge

So, how can we glorify God in a purely virtual environment?  We do it in the same manner we have always done it.  We keep looking for ways to love our neighbor and work heartily as unto the Lord.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 110 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

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