The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we work, but it’s also telling us something about what work means to us and our communities. Just a day after my roommate insisted that he would continue to travel to the office regardless of any outbreak-related restrictions, he was moving his desk into the space opposite mine in our living room.
We are far from the only ones whose work has been affected by COVID-19. As a result of social distancing measures, those in flexible occupations have resigned themselves to the uncertain realities of working from home. Many more people have lost their jobs, as business closures have left millions without any work at all.
This radical change in employment conditions comes at an interesting time. While just a few months ago we were wondering whether robots were going to make our jobs obsolete, the challenge now is that the nature of our working relationships has fundamentally changed. Many remote workers must learn how to move those relationships into virtual spaces, while others who are without work have been cut off from working relationships entirely.
In changing how we work, COVID-19 is showing us something important about the social functions our working lives fulfil.
Contemporary philosophers Anca Gheaus and Lisa Herzog think work is necessary because of the social goods it provides, such as social contribution, social recognition and an experience of community. For example, when I work with my fellow graduate students to run the weekly graduate seminar, I have the opportunity to contribute to my community in a way that others recognise and value. The seminar series, which provides a physical space for students to interact professionally and socially, also offers an opportunity for everyone who participates to build a shared sense of community.
In a world where most average adults spend 40 hours per week at work – more than one third of waking hours – working relationships are often the ones that dominate our social lives. And we don’t just spend time with our work colleagues: we also collaborate, deliberate and make decisions with them. For many people, this is a very different sort of relationship – sometimes a more active one – than those we enjoy with our friends or family members.
Another philosopher, Andrea Veltman, suggests that work can fulfil our social nature in more nuanced ways. Meaningful work, she argues, not only satisfies our explicit social needs but also helps us develop as individuals by enabling us to build a diverse repertoire of human capabilities, such as intelligence and autonomy. And by exercising these capabilities, I am able to meet many of the previously mentioned social needs, such as recognition and contribution, as well as self-respect and self-expression, all of which are foundational to positive psychological health.
Work also enables us to pursue excellence by mastering a skill or developing certain competencies. And excellence is invariably connected to my personal values and the values of society.
It helps us gain a sense of purpose, even through something as simple as finding a way to be genuinely useful to others. And finally, meaningful work allows me to see my work as part of the narrative of my life, integrated with the lives of people who matter to me. In that sense, it helps me integrate the separate parts of my life into a cohesive whole.
Need to connect
Veltman argues that all four of these elements highlight the fact that, as humans, we are inherently social creatures. People don’t necessarily need to physically work together to reap the social benefits. But alone in my home office, I have found some difficulty in doing so.
The fact that my work matters to others has become less obvious, since collaboration has collapsed into a chain of individual decision-making over email. The opportunities for casual or informal recognition are few, since it is difficult to approach a speaker after a Zoom presentation to discuss the implications of their ideas or congratulate them on their work.
The sense of community is less tangible, since virtual opportunities to connect socially can be so one-dimensional: on a video call, I can see and speak to my colleagues, but there’s little else I can actually do with them. In between these explicit social goods, I have also lost many of the small, daily interactions, such as a genuine smile, a heartfelt thank you or even a cold shoulder, which remind me that my life and work are integrated with the lives and work of others.
Perhaps the lessons of COVID-19 may lead us to preserve some forms of work against the tide of technological progress. The internet allows us a great degree of connectivity, but it simply cannot satisfy all of the complex and diverse ways in which we express our social nature through working with others. Even if we replace productivity with robots, or compensation with a basic income, work is still valuable as a shared activity through which we exercise our most basic human needs for connection.