Does a Remote Worker Have to Put in 40 Hours?

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Editors’ note: 

TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question about how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected]

I’m a remote knowledge worker with a full-time job and three young children. I’ve been super conscientious about putting in 40 hours each week, but the other day my friend (who’s in much the same situation) told me her schedule. I was surprised to learn she does not put in 40 hours a week, but I know she is quite productive and does good work. Am I old-fashioned to think that full-time means exactly 40 hours? Am I cheating my employer if I put in less time? What constitutes full-time for a remote knowledge worker these days, anyway?


Now that’s what I call a tricky question! I’m old (and old-fashioned) enough to remember how the 40-hour workweek used to be pounded into us as a basic ethical imperative. We were told: if you take a paycheck, you owe your employer 40 good hours of work.

You don’t hear much of that nowadays, do you? Where did all that moral certitude come from?

Where Scripture Speaks

Scripture is clear that we need to be just in the earning and paying of wages. It does not, however, lay out specific content for the employment agreement—how much money for how much work. We see this freedom in action, for example, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The employer uses his freedom to pay some of the workers more than he could have gotten away with if he chose to be tightfisted. Other workers complain this is unfair—if some people get more than they’re entitled to, everyone should. The employer’s rebuke to their resentful envy, while couched in friendly language, is crushing:

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? (Matt. 20:13–15)

Of course, Jesus is telling the parable to make a point about the kingdom of God. But the parable nonetheless entails a lesson about economic ethics. If Jesus tells us God is like an employer who uses the freedom to set terms inherent in contract negotiations (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”) as an opportunity to show generosity, this implies the freedom to set terms really is inherent in contract negotiations.

Such freedom is necessary for the gospel to go forward in every cultural context. God designed the church to follow Jesus faithfully in every time and place, from first-century Rome to eighth-century China to 14th-century France to 21st-century Malawi. You can’t impose a single set of wage and price controls across all those economies. There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all set of terms for what constitutes a fair exchange of work and wages, beyond the overarching rules of honest negotiations, agape goodwill for each other, and structural justice.

Historical Context

The 40-hour workweek was the result of a social movement protesting the long hours of factory work in Britain and America during the Industrial Revolution. The stern moral admonitions—you’d better work your 40 hours for your paycheck—were part of an implicit grand social bargain. In effect, employers agreed to shorten the week to 40 hours, and in return, workers agreed to adopt a firm 40-hour work ethic rather than pocketing the employers’ concessions and immediately demanding a further shortening of the week.

If the workweek can legitimately be shortened to 40 hours, obviously it can legitimately be shortened again—at least for those able to deliver a valuable work product to a willing employer in fewer hours. In other words, if we fuddy-duddies condemn today’s whippersnappers for not living up to the standards we were taught, what’s to stop the 19th-century fuddy-duddies from rising up and condemning us as whippersnappers for failing to live up to the even stricter standards they were taught?

There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all set of terms for what constitutes a fair exchange of work and wages, beyond the overarching rules of honest negotiations, agape goodwill for each other, and structural justice.

Before we conclude that cultural contextualization destroys all ethical boundaries, however, let’s see what limits Scripture might justify.

Clear Expectations

Rather than setting rules for the amount and price of labor, the Bible focuses on prohibiting employers and employees from cheating or coercing one another. Kings and other big shots must not use their power to pressure people to “agree” to terms they don’t really accept (Ex. 5:6–11). And when employers and employees reach an agreement about how much work will be done for how much money, they both had better deliver whatever they promised—on time, in full, no shenanigans (Prov. 12:24; 19:1; 20:23).

One reason cultures often set up artificial and even arbitrary rules, like a 40-hour workweek, is to prevent coercion and shenanigans. Note that in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20), employer and employees are all familiar with the standard wage of a denarius per day. They don’t have to negotiate a new contract every day; there’s a cultural rule for what’s expected, and if you want to set the rate anywhere else you have to be explicit up front.

It seems clear that the 40-hour rule no longer serves us well in the emerging context of the gig economy. But that makes it all the more incumbent on us to make sure employers and employees communicate expectations clearly.

It seems clear that the 40-hour rule no longer serves us well in the emerging context of the gig economy. But that makes it all the more incumbent on us to make sure employers and employees communicate expectations clearly.

It sounds to me like you may not have clarity with your own employer about the terms of your employment. Is the agreement “we will pay you X for work product Y,” or are you a more traditional salaried employee working under the old assumption of a 40-hour week? If you don’t know, you ought to, and so should your employer.

You may even need to renegotiate your employment terms, if some other arrangement would accomplish the best reconciliation of your legitimate interests with your employer’s. Consider asking others in your line of work for advice. If you bargain in good faith and with goodwill, there’s no reason you shouldn’t emulate the shrewd economic savvy of the Proverbs 31 woman. She is careful to deliver a high-quality work product at a fair price (Prov. 31:31), but she also makes sure she gets a good deal, since she’s providing for the needs of her household (Prov. 31:18). A godly negotiation is about finding the win-win scenario that works for everyone.

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