Acton Institute Powerblog

Workplace as community in an age of isolation

Despite the countless blessings of modernity, expansions in freedom and economic prosperity have been accompanied by a widespread decrease in community involvement and steady increase in loneliness. As Michael Hendrix put it, “Prosperity has afforded our independence from neighbors and networks.”

Thanks to thinkers such as Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and Yuval Levin, as well as politicians such as Mike Lee and Ben Sasse, our attention has shifted to how we might reignite the vibrant civic and associational life of our past. As we pursue those efforts, seeking to revive the “mediating institutions” of civil society, we shouldn’t forget or neglect the social and communal role of our workplaces and the spheres of economic exchange that we inhabit.

“You might not like your job, you might not care for your co-workers, you might even hate your boss, but your workplace is a community, and it’s shaping you,” writes Brian Dijkema in an article for Comment Magazine. “…What if we recognized that a workplace is always more than economic — that it is a relational space that creates some kind of community? Might we be more intentional about the ethos of the office, the factory floor, the faculty lounge?”

Indeed, as our communal life continues to compress and diminish in other spheres, our relationships in the workplace continue to wield significance in our lives (sometimes a bit too much). But do we recognize this shift and all that it implies? Are we fully attending to the social and communal aspects of our workplaces? Are we actively seeking to steward the social and relational value of our economic environments?

Despite the reality and hope of healthy community in our workplaces, we face plenty of risks if we aren’t mindful of the social implications. “Our failure to attend to the ethical dimension of work, and the social character of our dignity, will contribute to social isolation even within the workplace,” Dijkema cautions. “This places special onus on those with authority in workplaces, but also presents workers with a challenge to see their workplaces as communities and to act in a way that takes that seriously.”

As for how we approach and address those challenges, striving to see greater solidarity, Dijkema argues that the answers aren’t conducive to simplistic tip sheets or practical 5-step how-tos. Instead, they require a more fundamental shift in our economic imaginations — among owners, managers, and workers alike — leading to individual adjustments in social relationships from the bottom up and structural, enterprise-level shifts from the top down.

Drawing from his own work experiences, Dijkema highlights a range of areas where we might manifest those changes, working to decrease isolation and improve solidarity and community across our economic endeavors. I’ve summarized some of his key points below, with quoted excerpts that follow:

1. Elevate Humble and Hard-Working Ownership

The first element is that the owners were themselves hard workers, and we often found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with them. It was itself a small-to-midsize firm, which prevented huge levels of disembodying bureaucracy from getting in the way of relationships, but that too wasn’t quite it. The owners were extremely modest in their living, and generous in their giving to causes both secular and religious so workers did not feel that their labour was being used to fund someone else’s ego.

2. Find Human Connection in the “Breaks” of the Work Day

Daily—whether we worked in the fields or on a site—we would take breaks in which we would sit, share food (the company had a tradition of having some sort of daily baked good and coffee), and talk. This conversation began with work, and meandered around to anything from politics to hockey to children and family life to, often, the meaning of life. In many ways, these breaks were a distillation of a workplace culture that embodied the most important insight from John Paul II’s Christian social teaching on work: “The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.”

3. Avoid Micro-Managed Surveillance Cultures

When you work in a place where your ability to “decide for yourself” about what to do and how to do it is severely constrained, when you are monitored like a dairy cow in a factory barn, your response is likely to find a way to hide from those directing you. Workers who are surveilled—which is effectively a system in almost complete opposition to the idea of the worker as a conscious subject (surveillance means you can’t be trusted to decide for yourself)—see themselves as “unnoticed as individuals by management.” This in turn leads the employees to see their managers and their techniques “as coercive and to engage in invisibility practices to attempt to go unseen and remain unnoticed,” as a recent study notes. These self-isolating habits are highly reminiscent of the unemployed worker who isolates himself from others.

4. Dismantle Modern Notions of “Management”

Our attempts at “managing people” assumes a view of the human person that is dehumanizing. The word “manage” is itself derived from horse training, which gives some indication of the view of people that it takes. …If metaphors are thing we live by, a governing structure premised on one person putting an animal through its paces is not likely to be one that fits with a vision premised on the human person as the end of work. Firms do need to find ways in which employees are given a voice—an effective voice—in shaping their work if they are to structurally address social isolation at work and, moreover, if they want to be communities that meet the test of dignity imposed by a Christian view of work.

Dijkema concludes by pointing to a renewed form of unionism as a possible path for execution, while acknowledging the mixed results we’ve experienced with unions in the North American experience. “Our goal should be to use the power of workers as a tool of service aimed at a workplace where the boss is the workers’ partner in making the endeavours shared by both worker and boss as fruitful as possible,” he writes. “…The power in the union comes not from the law, or the picketer’s cudgel, but from their dignity.”

I have plenty of skepticism about the plausibility or effectiveness of that solution, due in part to the reality of the existing union culture and political environment in the United States, but also to the range of new paths to organizational transparency and employee empowerment in the modern economy. Given the fast-paced expansion of industries, careers and opportunities, I would expect a much wider and varied mix of solutions for solving the enterprise-level issues. Such a view does, of course, involve an idealism of its own.

But regardless, whatever the particular solutions, the most effective and fruitful will begin with that basic shift in imagination that Dijkema points us toward: cultivating the communal in the workplaces we inhabit, challenging the status quo in the unhealthy environments we encounter, and recognizing the social value of all that’s possible across the economic order.

Image: Eat Sleep Work Die, Jordan Richmond (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.