(Note: This article was published on the Coram Deo blog.)
Dr. Grant Howard, one of my favorite seminary professors from Western Seminary, taught that you can start with a portion of God’s word and apply it to a variety of issues. Or, you can start with a small slice of life and then go to God’s word in a variety of places to find relevant truth.
I ran into an article someone posted on social media a couple of weeks ago that grabbed my heart and head. I wanted to tackle this topic from a biblical, theological, and practical perspective and reflect a bit deeper on the long-term impacts of teleworking on employees and employers.
Let me summarize some of the fascinating data points, observations, and implications I took away from this article written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, who is an expert on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic. This piece was published on Forbes, and is entitled, “Workers Are Less Productive Working Remotely (At Least That’s What Their Bosses Think).”
This discussion was eye-opening. It stated that Microsoft released a new study that concluded that over 80% of leaders said that the “shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.” As a result, “50% of the bosses of knowledge workers intend to force them into the office by Spring 2023.” Why? Nearly half of managers of hybrid workers “struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.” This lack of trust seems to be especially felt by traditional, older managers (age 50-60), which I did not find at all surprising.
This common fear by managers is in spite of years of research since the pandemic, which has consistently shown that remote work improved productivity. One study among call center employees indicated that “work from home resulted in a 13% performance increase, due to a combination of fewer sick days, and a quieter and more convenient work environment. Those working from home had a 50% lower attrition rate.” Other studies assessed it at 5-7%.
However, this concern about the lack of productivity at home ignores data about workplace behavior. The author asks, “are workers all that productive in the office? Studies show that in-office employees only work between 36% and 39% of the time.” What does he believe workers are doing instead? He speculates that they are shopping on Amazon and checking social media.
Additionally, the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind” has a real impact on employee evaluations and promotions, which was not surprising to me. It was reported that “researchers found that remote employees who work just as hard and just as long as those in the office in similar jobs end up getting lower performance evaluations, decreased raises, and less promotions.”
The author credits the Harvard Business Review with their assessment that “leaders are trained to evaluate employees based on ‘facetime.’ Those who come early and leave late are perceived and assessed as more productive.” This due in part to “proximity bias,” which they define as a mental blind spot that causes managers to “have an unfair preference for and higher ratings of employees who come to the office, compared to those who work remotely, even if the remote workers show higher productivity.” He adds, “The face-to-face interactions between managers and employees lead to managers having more positive impressions of these employees.”
Dr. Tsipursky advises, “To succeed in our increasingly hybrid and remote future will require retraining managers in evaluating performance and addressing proximity bias. Companies will have to teach them to trust the data over their own gut reactions. They’ll also have to learn a new approach to performance evaluations, one customized to hybrid and remote work.”
This article has several relevant implications that should be of interest to Christian employers and workers: How do we build trust between employers and employees who work remotely? How do workers maintain a culture of dedication and productivity, whether absent or present? How can employers ensure fairness between those who work in person and those who work remotely?
Building trust between employer and employee
This article highlighted the lack of trust between employer and employee. When I worked virtually for several months, this was my biggest challenge. The best part of the experience was not seeing my boss all the time. The worst part was not seeing her often enough. There was a lack of trust on her part. She could not see what I was working on and assumed I had time to do extra projects.
In the OT Scriptures, the way of wisdom included the importance of submission to one’s boss. In Prov. 10:26, we read that a lazy employee is an irritation to his supervisor. Later, we learn that a trustworthy employee brings refreshment to his boss (Prov. 25:13). It would seem from reading these verses that the burden is on the worker to show their diligence and trustworthiness.
In a virtual or hybrid work environment, it is critical when both employer and employee are “out of sight, out of mind” to be intentional on scheduling regular opportunities to communicate to eliminate any doubts in the employer’s mind that the employee is worthy of his or her trust.
Building a culture of dedication
The statistic cited above where office employees only worked “between 36% and 39% of the time” was astounding to me. I cannot imagine this percentage would be applicable to many other fields of work outside an office. Every job has its share of down time. However, if folks are working less than 40% of the time, that indicates systemic laziness, which Christian workers should avoid.
In two of the Apostle Paul’s letters, standard expectations for employees are raised to a higher level, as Christians know who it is they ultimately work for. In Eph. 6:5-8, we read, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” He expresses something very similar in Col. 3:22-24.
The Theology of Work Bible Commentary explains, “Paul reminds slaves that their work is to be done in integrity in the presence of God, who is their real master. . . Slaves are to work ‘fearing the Lord’ (Col. 3:22) because ‘you serve the Lord Christ’ (Col. 3:24).” They conclude, “Paul reminds us that the Ultimate Boss is always watching and that reality leads us to work in ‘sincerity of heart,’ not putting on a show for management, but genuinely working at the tasks set before us.”
When I worked from home for a bit three years ago, I knew God was present in my new workspace. It did not matter where I worked or who was watching me; I was working as unto the Lord.
Ensuring fairness between in-person and remote workers
It is easy to understand how employers would naturally lean towards giving better evaluations and might choose those employees whom they see in person as being better suited for a promotion.
However, if hybrid or virtual work is going to continue, and all indications tell us that it will, employers are going to have to adapt to new ways of communicating to ensure that equal time and attention is given to all employees, whether they are sitting in the office with us or on a Zoom call.
Perhaps, the commandment to love our neighbor that Jesus said was on equal footing with loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength might be applicable for the Christian employer. For the Apostle Paul, much of his teaching to the neighbors he poured his life into was virtual. He longed to see them face to face (1 Thes. 3:10), but he had to be content to exhort them through letter writing. The Apostle John felt the same way. (See 2 John 12.)
Where do we go from here?
I trust that both Christian employers and employees have been confronted with some new thoughts that can be translated into good habits in this hybrid work environment. If we continue to serve our employees, submit to our bosses, and work wholeheartedly for the Lord, we will bless others.
(Note: I invite you to read previous articles I wrote about my experiences with teleworking during the pandemic here and returning to the office after a season of teleworking here.)
About the author:
Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 42 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of the book, 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 passionate about helping people with ordinary jobs experience God’s presence at work. Russ 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 teacher and youth minister. He served for 20 years on active duty and has worked for 15 years as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Since 2015, he has written over 200 articles on faith and work topics. Over one hundred of these have been published or posted on several Christian organization’s websites, including the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, The Gospel Coalition, and Christian Grandfather Magazine. (See complete list of published articles on Linktree.)
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