Loving Work in the Time of Coronavirus

Loving Work in the Time of Coronavirus

I wanted to read Andy Crouch’s Love in the Time of Coronavirus  as soon as it crossed my social media feeds. I’ve followed Andy’s work with Praxis Labs for several years, because his vision for redemptive, uniquely Christian entrepreneurship and work is one I share. I’ve tried to live out this vision in my own work for a fast-growing software startup in Silicon Valley for the past eighteen months.  But I wasn’t able to read the article, or the ones that followed it, until two weeks ago. In the two months since my company closed its physical buildings and sent everyone to work from home, I’ve been putting in 50 and 60 hours per week at my job.

The slow tsunami of quarantine restrictions from the coronavirus that washed over Silicon Valley businesses, schools and homes, struck the symbiotic populations of tech workers like me, and contractors who support us, in very different ways. For the hourly workers who clean our cubicles and conference rooms, stock our kitchens with organic snacks, and serve our meals, the shutdown of our offices has meant lost income and lost jobs. For salaried engineers and other types of knowledge workers, working from home –  once a status symbol perk of tech working life – has simply become the status quo.

 And status quo is what many technology companies have been desperately trying to maintain. The timing of the shutdown occurred as many were within weeks of closing the first fiscal quarter of the year. Sales organizations scrambled frantically to get every committed yen, Euro and dollar booked, while simultaneously looking to the following quarter with existential dread. Companies in almost every industry announced they would halt all but essential spending. Slowed spending meant that a significant percentage of the second and third-quarter revenue coming to businesses who sell technology infrastructure to them had just evaporated into the COVID-clouded air.  

And so the layoffs and hiring freezes began. 

Today, the stresses of working in the tech sector are mirroring the stresses felt in innumerable other industries. Large swaths of workers are being laid off.  A smaller percentage are the technological equivalent of essential workers, employed by the cloud and data infrastructure providers whose software and services are as fundamental to modern business as electricity and running water. The pressure to continue to serve customers, and even to capitalize on this moment, has been enormous. And with the transition to “WFH”-life so fast and relatively efficient, the corporate impulse to signal “business as usual” has been strong. And yet for all but the most reclusive engineer (for whom social isolation is a way of life), usual is the last thing daily work life has been.

Young, single workers are struggling under the emotional load of social isolation, unable to gather at any of the innumerable meetups, happy hours, barre classes, or bars that are the loci of their after-hours life. For workers with working spouses and school-aged children, there has been the circumstantial load of the transformation of their homes into all-purpose co-working and distance-learning spaces. Added to an already crowded workday must be multiple hours of teaching and childcare previously supported by nannies, daycare workers, and teachers. For working parents, the former routine of 8-5 with an hour for lunch now looks something like 7-10:30; 12:30-3:30, 4:30-6:30 and often 8-10 or later as well (especially workers in globally distributed teams). 

The additional load has been heavy for workers in even the most ordinary of families.  And for workers “outside” the ordinary – those who are single parents, who have children with special needs, elderly parents with compromised immune systems, or marriages and family relationships that were already in crisis, the load can feel impossible to bear. The usual places where the circumstantial burdens can safely be set aside for a little while – the restaurants, parks and gyms, the concerts and malls and movie theaters, the church sanctuaries and therapists’ couches – are all unavailable.

With my circumstances somewhere in-between ordinary and outside it, the pendulum of my workdays (and nights) swung between times of relative productivity and calm, to times of tears and frayed tempers, in ever-increasing arcs. It was the same for my husband (who also works in high tech), and for each of my three teenage daughters.

As new cares and trials of “everything from home” life washed into my work, the trials of work grew greater, and they washed back into my home life. Like a sailor clings to a mast on a storm-tossed ship, I clung with desperation to two truths:

The first was that the things that hadn’t changed – God’s love for me, His promise to never leave me or forsake me – were the things that mattered most. 

The second was the realization that all that we’re experiencing only feels unprecedented. 

The dominant storyline of the Bible is not God’s people enjoying long seasons of peace and tranquility punctuated by occasional moments of difficulty; it’s the opposite. Ever since Adam and Eve squandered the blessings of the garden and were cast out of it, God has regularly manifested His presence and His power to His children in wildernesses, pits, caves, prisons, plagues and storms

Few of my coworkers know or believe these things. And one unmitigated blessing of this season was the way the barriers to talking about them have been lowered with all the others. Tethered to my laptop  for 10+ hours of Zoom calls each day, I had more opportunities to give my beloved co-workers the reason for the hope that was in me, than in the entire previous year. Every one of them was a joy.

But what I gained in ministry to my co-workers, it felt like I lost with my family. Even when I was able to physically emerge from my office at different times of the day or night, I was often emotionally absent and exhausted, my mind weighed down by the burdens of deadlines and fragmenting relationships with peers and managers. 

The urgent deadlines eventually came and went, and my workload abated just enough to offer space to recover spiritually and emotionally, and to reconnect with my family. Long walks with my daughters and my husband revealed the ways they too were wrestling with the utter upside-down-ness of their lives. Our callings as workers and students and spouses and siblings and church members and neighbors hadn’t changed, but the contexts and ways in which we were living them out had completely. 

The times in which we’re now living are not merely unusual – they are anti-usual. The spheres of home, church, and work are now intricately conjoined. Their orbits – the paths we navigate to and between them, and the habits we practice inside them –  have dramatically shifted. Most importantly, the signs of when and how they’ll return to their previous states continually recede. 

Anti-usual times require anti-usual strategies to navigate our callings.

Learning how to love well through our work and service in a country ravaged by more virus-related deaths in months than in all sixteen years of the Vietnam War, and by the worst unemployment rates since the Great Depression, requires much more than well-intentioned tips on how to work more efficiently and productively from home.  We need comprehensive, compassionate,  and clear-eyed strategies, like the ones the Praxis Labs team has been publishing.

But along with the anti-usual strategies, we need anti-usual voices, too.

Christian theologians, academicians, and business leaders with established platforms, protected paychecks, always at home wives and limitless schedule autonomy will no doubt continue to offer well-intentioned thoughts from the comfort of their well-appointed home libraries on how to navigate this crisis. But we need the wisdom of actual experience as well – insight from men and women for whom so-called “reversals of fortune” in their homes, vocations and churches, has been a way of life:

Finding and amplifying those voices won’t be easy – it’s the nature of their experience that leaves little energy and even less time to write, tweet, or post stories on their own.

But if we’re going to come on the other side of this crisis faithfully, we need more than the usual sources of help. 

We can ask the One who is our ever-present help to lead us to them.