Is working from home making me a better person?

By Marta Rocchi, DCU and Caleb Bernacchio, California State University Monterey Bay

These last two years have seen a massive move of working life to the remote workplace for a significant number of workers. This changing work environment has brought new challenges from both professional and personal points of view. A completely new way of organising work had to be set up at different levels, and the home became the physical workplace for many.

This involved setting up a home office (where possible), changes in the daily schedules, rediscovering the morning time once dedicated to long commutes, new time for hobbies and exercise, different dietary habits, technological upskilling, meeting the neighbours, who were never at home before (since neither you or they were ever at home before), new child and elder care arrangements in light of different commuting habits, and different requirements for space at home. Remote working imposed radical changes in both the personal and professional spheres, as the location of work has a big impact on our everyday life.

In addition to all these organisational aspects, there are also ethical aspects that need to be considered. Is working from home enabling us to become better? Or the opposite? We believe that working from home provides many opportunities to develop virtuous dispositions or, on the contrary, to develop bad habits. Likewise, we seek to identify the traits of character that enable us to flourish while working from home. In particular, we focus on three virtues: moderation, integrity and mercy.

Moderation can be defined as the habit of resisting untimely pleasure. The working from home setting amplifies the presence and closeness of untimely pleasures. The presence of food and of a couch makes it important to exercise moderation, as one has to resist eating or resting when you are supposed to be working.

Moderation also helps when it comes to the use of digital devices. Scrolling, online shopping or checking social media are common behaviours that are not evil in themselves, but they can become a temptation that a remote worker needs to resist. These behaviours can stay undetected in the home setting so when social norms are not enforced, it is the person that needs to set her personal boundaries.

Some would argue that a major source of distraction for remote workers are the many house chores that never seem to be finished. If moderation enables us to resist tempting pleasures, we might need to clarify whether house chores are pleasures or just distractions or excuses to procrastinate. Doing the laundry or preparing meals, even if not immediately categorizable as "pleasurable", do represent a source of diversion from what we are supposed to do when working from home.

Working too much is the other side of a potential lack of the virtue of moderation. Keeping work within its balanced limits is also a challenge which is exacerbated within the context of remote work. Directly opposed to moderation is the vice of intemperance, which develops in those who consistently give in to diverting activities during their working day. This vice would likely also lead to laziness (directly opposed to industriousness, a sub-virtue of moderation).

The other virtue that we focus on is integrity. Integrity means showing the same moral character in different life spheres. Basically, it means to be the same person with the same moral standards when at home or at work, when with friends or with family, when seen and when unseen. It is a virtue that promotes and realizes the unity of a person's life.

Working from home provides an opportunity to develop the virtue of integrity insofar as the different spheres of a person's life may become merged into one. A manager that is often rude and belligerent when dealing with his employees may act differently if his or her kids are listening. What is more, this manager might even come to realise that this behaviour is inappropriate as a result. In a way, working from home inevitably provides occasions when we show more of who we really are and here, the virtue of integrity can find a place to develop.

The virtues of truthfulness, honesty and justice are connected to integrity. Truthfulness enables a person to be sincere and genuine in presenting herself and recounting her tasks. Those who hide their real workload in order to avoiding receiving more work, or merely to seem "very busy," fall into the vice of mendacity, directly opposed to truthfulness.

We can also consider working from home as an opportunity to practice honesty as opposed to falsity. The lack of external observers of one’s behaviour when working remotely might make space for gap to develop between what one says one would do and what one actually does (when unseen).

We also have the virtue of justice. The person needs to carefully consider the best and most appropriate use of the mix of personal and professional resources available when working from home. Injustice comes into play when someone habitually abuses both material resources and time that belongs to an employer.

Mendacity, falsity and injustice contributes to the formation of the vice directly opposed to integrity, which is compartmentalisation. A compartmentalised person shows different moral standards depending on the context where she acts and makes decisions. Being very careful with one’s own personal money while not being as accurate and sober when purchasing a good or a service for work is an example of compartmentalisation.

As working from home can unveil new vulnerabilities (technological or personal), this can be an opportunity to develop mercy, the virtue of taking care of the immediate needs of others. Many examples can be made in this regard. For example, online meetings remove the opportunity for more informal interactions, and there is a need for an extra effort in emphatically and sincerely asking a colleague if everything is fine or if any form of support is needed. Something that might be easily spotted when meeting someone in person might stay silent and undetected if the meetings are online and reduced to efficient professional transactions.

Selfishness is a vice opposed to mercy, and the isolation that may result from remote work can lead to a lack of interest in and concern for others. Selfishness is easily linked with presumption, a vice that is opposed to humility, which often involves an expression of overconfidence. It is also linked with impatience and insensibility, vices opposed to patience, which involve a refusal to accept and/or respond constructively with the limitations of one’s colleagues.

If you find yourself in one of the situations described here, it is important to keep in mind that these circumstances are not only issues that impact your organisation, but they are also a real opportunity for you to become the best version of yourself. Overregulation of remote working might have the effect of imposing overbearing norms and crowding out virtues, while trust between employers and employees can make the virtues flourish.

The stakes are high: would you prefer working with people frustrated by oversurveillance, or with people who efficiently deliver good results at work, because they enjoy what they do and are naturally respectful of their obligations and responsibilities at work? Research on the virtues of working from home can inform company policies, organisational arrangements, and educational programmes designed to help people develop good habits. There's a lot to gain when people embrace the opportunity to become the best version of themselves!

This article was written by Marta Rocchi, DCU and Caleb Bernacchio, California State University Monterey Bay for RTÉ Brainstorm. You can find the original article here.