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Three Questions

How to Keep Your Sense of Purpose While Working Remotely

Many of us have been working from home since March, with no end in sight. Yale SOM’s Amy Wrzesniewski, an expert in how people find meaning in their jobs, says that working remotely can diminish our sense of community and structure—and offers suggestions for staying anchored.

A cat sitting next to a laptop on a sofa

Simon Haslett

How does remote work affect people’s ability to find purpose and satisfaction in their work?

Remote work is both an enormous convenience and terribly disruptive, sometimes for the same people at different times. The initial giddiness that many people experienced at being able to “catch up” on work at home and not facing tiresome commutes has faded into a sense of missing those we work with and who structure our working lives. For others, this time has been an extraordinary challenge that has brought home and work spheres into direct conflict. Being productive (and professional) while managing care for dependents in real time has been the reality for many as they’ve had to work from home during the pandemic.

“The workplace itself, where focus, interaction, and a sense of being fully a member of a collective is often easier to access, acts as an important input to the meaning and purpose people experience in work.”

Beyond the structural challenges of remote work lie the more existential difficulties that being separated from our colleagues can surface. For many people, the experience of work is defined by their interdependence with others, and the relationships that grow as a result are important for the meaning and purpose they find in their work. What is more, the workplace itself, where focus, interaction, and a sense of being fully a member of a collective is often easier to access, acts as an important input to the meaning and purpose people experience in work. Take both away, and it’s no surprise people may struggle with a sense of loss of meaning and purpose as they carry out their work alone (or only interacting virtually) and outside of their usual spaces. Working remotely also dials up the focus on what the content of the actual work is—the stuff of the tasks and projects and deliverables we all manage—but without the benefit of our colleagues, routines, or workspaces. For some (for example, many programmers), this is a dream, to have the chance to just immerse in the work and do so without the trappings of the rest of the job. But for many others, this puts a spotlight on the work itself, which may suddenly seem less interesting, motivating, or meaningful without the rest of the interactions and context that made the work attractive, or at least palatable.

What steps can individuals take to increase their engagement in their jobs in this situation?

Together with Gianpiero Petriglieri (INSEAD) and Sue Ashford (Michigan), I’ve studied people who work alone—completely alone, without any tie to an organization, colleagues, or the rest. We found that people tended to follow a similar pattern regardless of their occupation in how they managed to maintain their engagement and connection with the work.

First, they forged a connection with the space in which they worked, finding or making a space in which they would carry out their work. Sometimes this was a public library (sadly, not possible now); sometimes this was a closet in their home, or a tucked-away corner that didn’t have to be continually deconstructed for meals or other uses. Interestingly, these spaces were often quite small, something that our participants described as enabling real focus and concentration.

Second, they forged a connection with a routine that helped them differentiate between being “not at work” and being “at work”—even if they were not shifting to a different location. These routines varied from taking a walk to biking to just going to space in which their work happened. It’s likely that the routine of the daily commute served a purpose for many who now find themselves thrust into remote work from home—it helped them prepare to enter a different mode and level of focus, which can be lost when there are no boundaries to traverse. Creating routines enables people to have a way to demarcate work from non-work.

Third, our participants forged connections with people who helped them manage the emotions that inevitably came from working completely alone. These weren’t necessarily people doing the same kind of work, but rather, people who could remind them of what they most treasured about their work, or that they were capable of it, or simply that they weren’t alone.

Fourth and finally, they forged connections to the purpose of their work, finding ways to connect to what it is about the work they do that matters in the world, to them and others. This connects to my point above, that if this connection isn’t possible, or connects to a sense of the work itself as not holding much purpose, this can be enormously challenging for remote workers.

What can managers do to create an atmosphere in which virtual workers can continue to develop in the absence of in-person meetings, mentoring, and social interactions?

My best advice here is to take the time to check in on your employees. Even a 10-minute check in by phone (enough Zoom!) renews connection, syncs up information exchanges, and becomes a setting in which a question or concern (or even a small bit of personal news) is more easily shared and discussed. The greatest loss experienced by many who have become remote employees during this time is the sense of connection and care that is more effortlessly created when we spend more time together. When that time is taken over by formal, scheduled meetings, in which these types of connections can’t easily be forged, there’s real loss. While it takes time and focus for managers to make these conversations happen, they matter. They tell your employees that they matter, you care how they are doing, and you see the relationship as well as the work you do together.

Department: Three Questions