The office needs you – or at least your work colleagues do

WFH a poor substitute – humans want to belong!

I am one of those annoying people who talk to people in the coffee shop, in the street, in the lift, queueing at the airport to get through security. I am blown away by what people will tell me. It is a place of wonder and privilege. And so, as I listened to my colleague, Dr Justine Toh, give one of the plenary presentations at the CMA (Christian Ministries Advancement) conference in Melbourne last week, I was saddened to hear about how many people have no contact with others, casual or otherwise!

Justine, Senior Research Fellow with CPX (Centre for Public Christianity), was speaking on the future of work, a very relevant topic as employers continue to wrestle with the WFH (working from home)/office divide. So how healthy is it for human beings to spend increasing time staring at a screen at the expense of face-to-face contact with fellow humans?

Head, hand, heart workers

And what about those who do not have a choice? Justine talked about the three different types of workers – head, heart, hand. Both she and I are head workers. We spend most of our time in front of a computer. The ‘head’ implies brain work and it also means such workers might have choices. We/they survived lockdowns as they could simply work in front of their laptops in their PJs if they wanted. (Although survival is a loose term, as for many people the pressure of WFH in lockdown came with other family members also WFH, on top of homeschooling, caring for tiny children/elderly parents, etc – you get my drift because you were there too.)

This is a very different scenario from the heart and hand workers. The hand workers are customer-facing, or they could be garbage collectors, or other workers the rest of us rely on.

“Hand work requires more of your physical presence on the job,” Justine told the conference.

“You might drive a bus, a truck, or a forklift. You might stack supermarket shelves or clean offices. Or you might be a plumber, tradie, or mechanic. If you wear some kind of uniform and you often get dirty on the job, then you might be a hand worker.”

Some of these roles became essential workers during lockdown, but for others, their work was banned as they could not enter a customer’s home to fix their shower or install a television or some other service.

The heart workers are those in the caring professions, either paid or voluntarily. You might care for your elderly mother. You might be an aged-care worker, a church pastor, a childcare worker, a nurse, doctor, and the list goes on.

Justine came across these head, hand, heart descriptors coined by British journalist David Goodhart when she was researching her book, Achievement Addiction. Goodhart suggested that head workers often command the highest pay and can, understandably, be resented by the heart and hand workers.

But why is this relevant to the future of work as we will always need all three categories of workers?

A crisis of belonging

Well, Justine is paid to research and think, and she has been reflecting on issues of loneliness, productivity, and what she describes as a crisis of belonging.

In her research phase, Justine came across the writings of war correspondent Sebastian Junger, who had made a documentary at Restrepo, in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, where 20 American soldiers were manning the outpost under fire by the Taliban.

Thankfully, most of those reading this are not in such a terrifying situation, but what attracted Justine to Junger’s documentary was his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

“The burning question for Junger: What is it about modern society that’s so repellent – even to people that are from there?

None of these soldiers knew each other before deployment and yet, what Junger discovered was that they did not want to return home. “They missed being at Restrepo together,” Justine said via Zoom as she addressed the delegates.

“The burning question for Junger: What is it about modern society that’s so repellent – even to people that are from there?

“Junger’s story of the soldiers at Restrepo is a vivid example of the pull of the tribe: a smallish group of people you feel intimately connected to,” Justine explained.

“The tribe tells you who you are, what role you have to play. And so deeply do you find your identity in the tribe that – if it comes to it – you might even sacrifice yourself for it.

“We need to belong to something bigger than ourselves – our survival depends on it. But it’s also true, I think, that today we’re experiencing a crisis of belonging.

“Given this era of rolling crises we seem to be living through – fire, floods, pestilence, war – ‘crisis’ doesn’t seem the right word to describe our difficulties with belonging.

“Crisis seems immediate, visible, attention-grabbing, whereas unbelonging is more haunting – more likely to be a vibe, a mood, a feeling, that is ever-present and influencing us, even if we can’t always identify its impact upon us.

“But belonging is key to the strange paradox Junger explores in his book: there is a surprising – and tragic – human toll to modern life.”

Here lies the rub. How can modern life be tragic? We seem to have everything at our fingertips. We have unlimited entertainment at the push of a remote. We can order food night and day via our mobile device. Why do we need to belong?

We are in a loneliness epidemic

The CPX senior research fellow has dug up some startling statistics. It appears we are in a loneliness epidemic. Researchers have found that:

  • 24 per cent of people say they don’t feel as though they have anyone to talk to
  • 35 per cent say they ‘rarely or never feel like they’re part of a group of friends’
  • 48 per cent feel embarrassed about admitting feelings of loneliness.

“So we need to belong to something.”

“The experience of the soldiers at Restrepo and our loneliness crisis tell us that despite the enviable freedoms of modern life, people still crave belonging. And they’re prepared to sacrifice their own wellbeing in order to feel part of something bigger than themselves,” Justine said.

“So we need to belong to something.”

And in case you hadn’t realised, Zoom calls don’t count as belonging. We need encounters with real flesh-and-blood human beings.

Even Justine, the ultimate homebody, recognised that there are enormous strengths in being with others.

“Life and death aren’t at stake for us in the workplace – or the church. But…[Junger’s documentary] captures the X factor of teamwork that holds those soldiers together,” she told the conference.

The strength of the body of Christ

Justine then took us to the body of Christ, which offers a powerful vision of what belonging can look like – one that overcomes the hierarchies that often afflict our communities as well as the unequal status of head, heart, and hand work in our world.

“In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about the ‘body of Christ’. In the church,

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so, the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

“There is something here for any organisation that seeks to unite a group of different people around a common cause.”

“This is a beautiful picture of the church – and it’s worth saying that workplaces aren’t churches,” Justine said.

“But there is something here for any organisation that seeks to unite a group of different people around a common cause.”

“Paul writes: ‘We were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body.’ He emphasises the unity we enjoy because of Christ. But this doesn’t mean we’re all the same, or that we do the same work, or that we work out of the same office.

“In our terms, you could be at the beginning of your career or the end of it. Nonetheless, you belong.”

“Paul pictures the ideal community as unified – centred in Christ – and yet diverse: made up of people with different interests, skills, abilities, backgrounds. That blend of unity and diversity calls us to work together – just as the human body acts as one being, even if it is made up of different members.

“In our terms, you could be at the beginning of your career or the end of it. Nonetheless, you belong.”

Justine is in the home stretch now. Let me hand over to Justine for a powerful finish.

Dr Justine Toh:

“I wonder what could be possible if we bring a ‘body of Christ’ spirit to work every day, regardless of whether we’re physically in the same office or not.

“If you’re having feelings about returning to the office or returning to in-person meetings at church, I hear you. But consider what Michael Schur, that secular prophet of the office, has to say. Even if working remotely has its perks,

“… a world where we never encounter other people, no matter how annoying or boring they might be, is not the world that humans were designed for. We’re meant to be around each other, gently bumping into each other, exchanging small moments of conversation and mutual interest. We’re meant to share experiences, bond over common annoyances, celebrate each other’s birthdays with dumb hats and cupcakes. The shared office is one of the last places where we can practise being around other people.”

“At its best, the church is the place that bonds different people together.”

“He’s talking, of course, about working in an office. But he’s doing theology without realising it – because he’s also describing the church – and perhaps the Christian organisation that brings a ‘body of Christ’ spirit to work.

“At its best, the church is the place that bonds different people together and helps us learn to live and work well alongside each other. Where, despite our differences, we can be ‘in Christ’ together.”

Final, final words!

Okay, not quite final, Justine. For those extroverts out there, keep talking to people in the lift, street, coffee shop, or office; the world needs you, as Justine has just explained. Every life matters, and we all need to be seen and valued as God values us.