Employees are being asked to return to the office. Should they?

In light of working-from-home debates in the media, Anna Grummitt writes about how we might best frame this conversation.

On 10 December 2021, I woke up with a knot in my stomach. With COVID restrictions easing, my husband was about to spend a day in the office for the first time since June – which also meant, for the first time since our baby was born.

‘You’ve got this,’ I tried to convince myself, pushing down intrusive thoughts of everything that could go wrong. In the end, it was fine. My best friend came over, which helped. But when my husband came home in the evening, I felt a palpable sense of relief. A year and a half later, and my husband still rarely goes into the office; his workplace continues to allow employees to work from home.

But now that lockdowns are behind us, should those of us who have been working remotely return to the office full-time? This question has been doing the rounds in the media over the past few months. Recently, Randwick City Council’s controversial new mandate for staff to return to their workplace five days a week from mid-September made the news – as did former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s suggestion that public servants who work from home should be paid less than other government employees.

Many stories on this topic follow a similar pattern: Employer orders employees to return to the office, but employees resist, as a majority like working from home (or a hybrid work model). And while employers mostly focus on the benefits of in-person meetings, some are even framing this as a moral issue.

In mid-May, CR Commercial Property Group CEO Nicole Duncan made headlines for describing young people who want to work from home as ‘selfish’. And around the same time, Elon Musk labelled working from home as ‘morally wrong’ because it’s a privilege not everyone has.

It’s true that not everyone has the option of working remotely – a recent Deakin University study estimated that only 39 per cent of jobs in Australia could be done from home. And sure, some people may work from home for selfish reasons. It doesn’t work well in every situation.

But blanket labelling people who work from home as ‘selfish’ – or even immoral – ignores the experiences of those for whom it’s been the exact opposite.

As my own colleagues will tell you, I’m not the obvious candidate for championing remote work. As an extrovert, I enjoy going into the office and seeing people. (It certainly helps that my commute is an easy 15-minute walk.)

But in September 2021, I became a mum.

And my transition to motherhood was … bumpy, to say the least. Navigating breastfeeding, sleep deprivation, birth injuries, postpartum hormones, and caring for a tiny human with no instruction manual meant constant feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. (I would later be referred to the wonderful Gidget Foundation Australia for professional support).

While I was going through all of this, having my husband work from home was an absolute lifeline.

In many ways, it would have been ‘easier’ for him to go to the office. He traded a peaceful train commute with time spent changing nappies and cleaning vomit off the couch. Catch-ups with his colleagues over lunch were swapped for soothing a crying baby (and mum!).

Far from being selfish, working from home opened his eyes to the reality of day-to-day life with a baby, and – when you factor in his long commute – gave him an extra two hours per day to care for and bond with our son. (And according to the Australian Institute of Family Services website, ‘children with highly involved fathers experience positive outcomes in socio-emotional, behavioural and cognitive/educational domains.’)

Human flourishing looks like investing our time in activities that develop us in all these dimensions – many of which take place outside work hours.

Importantly, he did this, all while still kicking goals in his paid job. And for a struggling new mum, his help – and the mere fact of his presence, even when he was busy at work – made all the difference.

There are downsides to remote work, of course. And it’s right that as a society we discuss the future of work in a post-pandemic world. But surely we can all agree than calling people ‘selfish’ and ‘morally wrong’ isn’t going to get us very far.

How might we better frame this conversation?

In his 2022 book The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, author Andy Crouch offers a striking definition of what it means to be human. Drawing on an ancient notion from the Bible, he describes human beings as ‘heart-soul-mind-strength complexes designed for love’.

By this, he means that each of these qualities are fundamental to who we are. We are heart: filled with emotions, desires, and longings. We are soul: we have a sense of transcendence. We are mind: we have the capacity to rationally think our way through the world. We are strength: we have physical bodies, and these bodies matter. And on top of this, we are designed for love – wired to seek out relationships of interdependence and trust.

If that is what we are, then human flourishing looks like investing our time in activities that develop us in all these dimensions – many of which take place outside work hours.

Many employers claim to value these aspects of human life, and not just their employees’ paid work. If they mean it, all these elements need to form part of the discussion on future models of work.

Anna Grummitt is Youth & Schools Coordinator at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in Eureka Street.