Christian Responses to a Post-COVID Workplace

Reprinted from Workship.

Recently I was asked to speak to a theological college about some of the changes happening in the wider world of work and how they might impact on Christian organisations, including churches, as well as the experience of workplace Christians in our congregations. The changes have been and continue to be massive.

Employees don’t want to go back to work the way it used to be

A large Australian company conducted a survey recently and discovered that only 7% wanted to go back fully to the office. Almost a third wanted to continue working from home, and 40% wanted some form of hybrid situation. These figures are extreme without factoring in that a further quarter of the workplace have to work in the factory, that is, they have no choice.

These figures are pretty consistent: if employees have a choice they want to spend more time working from home. A survey of 1,000 workers by Boston Consulting Group found that for those who can work from home, between 41 and 60 per cent surveyed revealed a preference that sees them doing two or three days a week from home.

The biggest reasons for this preference are people wanting to avoid the commute, and increasing their flexibility of balancing caring responsibilities with work. This means that the workplace is valued for very specific reasons:

  • Informal social interaction: catching up with colleagues, conversations at the “water cooler” and staff kitchen which provides the social capital for effective working.
  • Formal collaboration: working more effectively in tight groups on specific tasks.
  • Access to better resources: many offices have better technology and a more distraction-free environment than home offices.

Many people have lost jobs, are working less than they want, or have given up

The rate of unemployment has increased from 5.2% in March to close to 8% in June which represents more than a million Australians who are currently unemployed. Underemployment is also high rising from 8.8% in March to close to 12%, representing 1.5 million Australians who want, or are available for more hours of work than they currently have. These figures are currently buffered by Job Keeper payments that will eventually have to end, as well as various support payments for businesses in crisis.

The financial and mental health impacts are significant and widespread

McCrindle surveyed 1,000 Australians in May and reported that more than two in five (42%) believe COVID-19 has most negatively impacted them socially, as they have missed seeing friends and family. Almost three in ten (28%) have been most negatively impacted financially, while 17% have been most impacted in their mental health. A further 13% said the biggest negative impact on them has been physical – either fearing for their health or getting less sleep and exercise.

The financial and mental impact of COVID is expected to rise sharply as businesses fold, unemployment rises; and particularly in Victoria where a second lockdown is having dire consequences on households.

COVID-19 has challenged myths about work

There are four areas which have been challenged by the pandemic:

  • “If I can’t see you working, you aren’t working.” There is a large body of sociological theory which underlies this myth that we control people by watching them. A leader managing their team by watching them at work has been the norm. The pandemic has undone this myth by proving that productivity has actually increased with employees working from home.
  • “Work and looking after kids can’t mix.” This myth has been firmly buried by the necessity of working from home. It is closely linked to: “Admitting parenting struggles at work is unprofessional.” It is now much easier to talk openly about juggling care. The compartmentalisation of work and home has been broken down.
  • “Working from home is less effective.” While studies have shown for years that working from home is productive, the pandemic has ramped up our skills in providing technology to make it happen, as well as assessing that work. Working from home is effective if it is resourced and managed well.

The way we structure our workplace is changing fast

Steelcase is a furniture and design organisation that is at the forefront of mapping what needs to happen to enable workplaces to function moving forward. It suggests we are going to move through three stages:

  • Retrofitting our current work environments to reduce density; change geometry so that workers don’t face each other; add screens or panels to divide; ensure only single use of space per day; increase working from home; use visual cues to maintain distance; establish protocols for shorter meetings; clean frequently; consider making masks a norm.
  • Reconfiguring for the medium term: choice of own workspace but individuals responsible for their own cleaning; design smooth services for easy disinfecting; have barriers for deflecting the virus; have flexible furniture configurations; ensure technology for collaboration over distance; utilise standing meetings; put in systems for quick contact tracing.
  • Reinvention for the long term by designing for adaptability not permanence; using more hands-free/contact-less methods; using new materials that are easily disinfected; sensors to measure wellbeing; ensuring inclusive design for equal participation whether present or at home; policies for less travel / more video; seeing remote work as the norm; creating community and connection in spite of hybrid spaces.

All of this means we need to have some new conversations about work

  • Prioritising trust in relationships: With more employees working from home there needs to be greater trust both to ensure work is productive, and to enable effective communication. This is necessary for all working relationships, including with customers and suppliers.
  • Evaluating by tasks completed rather than hours worked: This is a better way of working generally, but there must be understanding for those impacted by sickness, impairment or caring responsibilities.
  • Prioritising employee wellbeing: We need to be creative to monitor employee wellbeing in hybrid working situations. Mental health issues may take a while to arise, and may be harder to spot in an employee that is not physically present. Further, some employees may not work effectively at home; and some employees may be cautious about returning to work, so flexibility is key.
  • Expect increased scrutiny from government, community, and for churches: the denomination and the congregation: Public health orders have gone further than we could ever imagined in curtailing our individual freedom to move and meet together, as well as for businesses and churches to operate normally. This is for the greater common good. However, moving forward, there will be increased regulations for a long period of time, and increased expectations from customers and congregations that organisations are providing a safe environment.

What does this mean for churches and Christian organisations?

  • It will be important to offer flexibility of working: for employee wellbeing, to minimise risk for all, and because it is an effective way of working. However, as Christians we value embodiment, meeting together—as celebrated in the incarnation—so flexibility needs to be balanced with what it means to be the physical body of Christ working together.
  • Work out when people are most needed in the office: to work effectively in hybrid situations we will need to be more strategic about when we insist everyone is together. How can we ensure meetings are tailored to maximise performing rather than just informing, when the latter can be done before the meeting? Training and delivery of frontline services are other reasons why meeting in person might be prioritized.
  • Be organisations more mobilised by compassion: We need to see how we can be mobilised to assist those who have been and will be impacted by COVID-19. The financial and mental health stresses are going to increase, and churches and Christian organisations are on the frontline of offering support and hope. A church in Kuala Lumpur has been offering business mentoring from experienced business leaders for small business owners who are struggling. A Presbyterian church in Sydney offered a support group for those needing pastoral care after experiencing unemployment.
  • Develop fresh expressions of neighbourliness: COVID-19 has reconfigured our experience of work from the workplace to the neighbourhood. This is wonderful news for churches who are geographically based. How can we make use of this greater access to people in their homes by reaching out and providing support? A church in Wellington, New Zealand, has been opening its doors as a work hub during the week for those who want to get out of the house. They also offer a space for those working from home to gather to have a lunch break together. These ideas work well for students as well.

We are a long way from ending the pandemic, as well as the unfolding economic crisis, but it is helpful to see the opportunities that lie beneath the surface to work more effectively and flexibly, build trust, focus on wellbeing, and be creative in reaching out to others with compassion.

Kara Martin is the author of Workship: How to Use Your Work to Worship God, and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work. She is also a lecturer with Mary Andrews College. Kara has worked in media and communications, human resources, business analysis and policy development roles, in a variety of organisations, and as a consultant. Kara has a particular passion for integrating our Christian faith and work, and helping churches connect with the workers in their congregations. She is currently conducting research on how to effectively equip workplace Christians to integrate their faith and work.

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