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The Conservative Case for Remote Work

If conservative organizations want to promote an economy that centers around the family, one that rebuilds the small town and restores a healthy culture, they need to do more than promote the right family policies and tax credits.

What was until recently a niche question for a few special employees or particularly cutting-edge companies is now, in a post-COVID world, fair game for the white-collar professional class: Should employees be able to work remotely, or is the physical office the proper work environment? Plenty of opinions have been penned about whether companies should stay remote, return to the traditional in-person offices, or implement some type of hybrid arrangement. But the arguments are typically limited to a few repetitive back-and-forths about the benefits of the physical office such as “culture, collaboration, team bonding, [and] communication”—and the responses from remote work proponents about the opportunity for “increased employee productivity, reduced attrition, and access to a global talent market.”

The practical considerations of efficiency, communication, and productivity are legitimate concerns for companies and employees alike. Companies need to be profitable and so figuring out where workers are most efficient, and what work arrangement allows for better recruiting, is necessary to navigate a world where many employees have the technology (and strong desire) to work from home.

But, if a healthy (and profitable) alternative is available, is it worth considering?

The Modern Novelty of the “Workplace”

A much more interesting aspect of the remote work problem emerges when one considers how recent this whole business of working outside the home really is. Mary Harrington makes an easily forgotten historical point in her excellent book Feminism Against Progress: In pre-industrial society, most of the economy, and therefore most work, was based in and around the home and the family. The subsistence economy meant that many families created what they needed to survive on their own property: they grew food, raised animals for meat, eggs, and dairy, and made and mended clothing at home. Many also kept the shops where they sold their goods, or the offices from which they offered professional services, in (or very close to) the family home. Of course, this was not universal: many poor people who did not own property would have traveled to work on the farms of others, and some people did commute into town to operate stores and offices. But “going to the office” was not the norm, especially not for the class of persons who owned property.

This changed rapidly with the Industrial Revolution and the massive movement from producing goods at home to producing goods in factories. Technological changes meant that everything from food to clothing was much more efficiently produced by machines. These machines were too big and expensive for individual families to own, so all of a sudden the subsistence economy was undermined, and most people were moved from their homes to “workplaces” to earn their livelihoods. With this growth of technology came the emergence of ever-larger corporations and firms, in which wealth increasingly was concentrated. It thus became more efficient to centralize not only manufacturing but professional services as well. Over two hundred years, the norm became less the lawyer practicing from his home office with a shingle out front and more the large law firm; less the woman who sews and weaves from home and more the factory; less the local shop and more the department store.

Thus the economy has been steadily moving out of homes and into centralized locations for the last two centuries or so. Yes, this has meant mass production of cheaper goods, including those essential to keeping people alive. But there has been a massive downside: it has become the norm for people to spend more of their waking hours at a workplace than at home. Critics of feminism (properly) lament that the cultural norm for new mothers is to leave their children in another’s care in order to work outside the home (and they face increasing pressure to do so in light of a poor economy). Conservatives also speak (correctly) about the disastrous effects of fatherlessness on children and family life. Might it not be worth asking, then, if there ought to be a conservative case against normalizing traffic-jammed commutes and long hours in an office when it isn’t strictly necessary?

Remote Work: A Return to Family-Centered Life

The massive move to remote work has opened many eyes. All of a sudden, fathers spent their lunch breaks with their wives and children rather than alone in a cubicle or with colleagues. Work breaks meant stepping outdoors with children or holding babies, rather than idly gossiping with co-workers. Working professionals realized that it was possible to fulfill their professional responsibilities, get their work done . . . and still live in the midst of their own families. For many workers, remote work is not primarily about cutting out commuting time or luxuriously working in sweatpants, but about a return to a family-centered economic life. This is about much more than an equation to properly achieve “work–life balance”; it is about an opportunity to rediscover a properly ordered life.

Of course, there are jobs where remote work is not possible. Policemen must be on the streets, pilots must be in the cockpits, and laborers must be in the factories where things are actually made. But for white-collar workers, the “laptop class,” there is no universal reason why they must leave their homes and families to do their laptop work in a central office rather than at home—at least not every day.

As this question presents itself to employers, typical for-profit businesses will of course have to analyze questions of efficiency, profitability, and the like. If there is real evidence that a company’s particular industry or business model truly suffers without the regular interaction of employees in a physical workplace, then perhaps limiting or eliminating remote work makes sense for that company. But even these companies primarily concerned with their bottom line should make sure this question is not being taken lightly. With all the talk of work–life balance, rebuilding culture, and making space for working mothers, employers should take the option of remote work seriously. A more flexible approach to remote work would also open such organizations up to many more qualified candidates from around the nation, even around the world.

Creating a Healthy Remote Work Culture

There is a legitimate cultural counterargument to the call for remote work: the in-person office is not simply about efficiency, but about creating a healthy work culture that fosters community. After all, not all workers have families; for them, wouldn’t remote work further the loneliness and isolation that are already prevalent in the culture? Plus, how would employees receive the proper training and mentorship necessary to succeed at work if they are never in the office to meet, interact with, and learn from experienced leaders and employees?

Before addressing these questions, it is worth pointing out that the workplace should not be one’s primary source of socialization and community. It is true that the unmarried single worker may prefer the office to a remote work arrangement. But unmarried single people should be part of a church community, book clubs, local organizations, and a variety of other healthy social outlets. If one is looking to the workplace as the primary solution to his loneliness, something is amiss.

That aside, there are two ways to address the question of how to implement remote work. The first is to adopt a flexible model, one that maintains an in-person office to accomplish all the social and professional benefits listed above, but that offers generous remote work policies for those who prefer them. In this case, those with young children and growing families, those who are particularly pressed with caretaking obligations or are otherwise going through a “busy season” of life, or talented employees who simply live far from the office, are free to work remotely. Those who are new and require in-person training, who live alone and therefore would be isolated by remote work, and those who simply prefer the experience of the in-person office, are free to work in the office. This model accommodates both approaches to work, but it also presents the challenge of effectively having to manage two very different types of work arrangements within a single company.

The second approach is to lean into the remote work model completely: that is, the entire organization works remotely. If remote workers are an exception rather than the company-wide rule, it is easy for them to slip through the cracks. Everyone else receives training, has team lunches, and chats around the water cooler, while the odd remote workers miss out. But effective communication and team building are quite possible in a remote work environment, as long as they are developed intentionally. My own organization has a Signal thread where we communicate daily; this medium allows everything from questions about a work project to sharing personal stories and pictures of our families. Each team member has a weekly check-in with his supervisor via Zoom. We have regular team “coffee house meetings” that do not have a formal agenda, but where the team just socializes. By intentionally forming a remote workplace where communication and socialization are built into the culture, the threat of isolation can be overcome.

By intentionally forming a remote workplace where communication and socialization are built into the culture, the threat of isolation can be overcome.

Conservative Organizations Should Lead the Way

The potential for cultural renewal via remote work should be championed by conservative institutions in particular. Right-of-center think tanks, nonprofits, policy institutions, and other organizations in this country have a chance to lead on a major conservative cultural issue. Failure to do so is quite striking. Many of these institutions rightly call for a focus on families, more involved fathers, the importance of local communities, and an emphasis on rebuilding strong towns across middle America rather than allowing a few big, blue cities to dominate the nation.

These are all good priorities. Yet many of these organizations require their employees to work in a centralized office location. Therefore, to work for such conservative institutions, people often have to leave their hometowns, move to big, blue cities like Washington, DC, live in overpriced neighborhoods where they wouldn’t ordinarily choose to live, fight rush hour traffic through brutal commutes, and spend eight to twelve hours a day away from their families in order to work in an office. All organizations should take this cultural issue seriously. Conservative organizations that fight for cultural and family values should be at the forefront of encouraging this family-friend work reform.

If conservative organizations want to promote an economy that centers around the family, one that rebuilds the small town and restores a healthy culture, they need to do more than promote the right family policies and tax credits. Imagine a job posting that says, “We want the best and brightest scholars to work on the policies that will shape the future. But we want those scholars to be pillars of their families and communities. Remote work is welcome.”

I understand the hesitancy. Employers are used to physical offices, to seeing what their employees are doing on a daily basis. But in the era of modern technology, minor adjustments can address most concerns. The work product of the laptop class is easy enough to track: if the essays get penned, the spreadsheets get completed, the projects get published, then clearly the employees are being productive from home. And in an age of Zoom calls and Signal threads, it is easy enough to keep remote employees in constant communication. It is surely not the same as an in-person workplace, but we can adapt.

This is not a call to return to a subsistence economy or the pre-industrial era. This is not a call to return to the past at all, but to take an opportunity provided by present technology and circumstance to improve the future. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, employers have the opportunity to allow vast segments of the workforce to work and live at home, in their communities, among their families. This is not just an attractive recruitment option, but an opportunity for massive cultural renewal. Conservative organizations should lead the charge, embracing the best opportunity in centuries to return more workers to a family-centered home economy.

Author’s Bio: Frank DeVito is an attorney currently serving as Counsel at the Napa Legal Institute. His work has previously been published in several publications, including The American Conservative, the Federalist, and First Things Online. He lives in eastern Pennsylvania with his wife and children.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily his employer.

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