The adjustment to working remotely goes beyond eliminating your commute, practicing proper Zoom etiquette, and dealing with having no clear start or end to your workday. Working remotely — especially if you’ve never done it before — can also impact your sense of purpose, according to Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, an organizational psychologist at the Yale School of Management.
As expert in how people find meaning in their jobs, Wrzesniewski says that the recent shift to working remotely has, for some, diminished our sense of community and structure. She addressed this lesser-known side effect and ways to deal with it in a recent article in Yale Insights. Here’s what to know.
What does working remotely have to do with our sense of purpose?
We’ve previously covered some of the ways to handle the many structural changes that come with working from home, but Wrzesniewski says that there are other, more existential challenges to consider as well:
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.
Taking these factors taken out of the equation — and, in the absence of interacting with colleagues in person, a heightened focus on the actual content of the work itself — can result in a loss of purpose or meaning associated with your job, Wrzesniewski explains. Here’s how to deal with that.
Figure out what you’re missing
First, identify which aspects of your in-office, pre-pandemic job you actually miss. According to Wrzesniewski, that means thinking about will help you focus on your work, as well as your sense of connection to others and to the work itself. Much of her research has involved studying people who work completely alone (as in, without ties to an organisation or colleagues).
In a 2018 paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Wrzesniewski and her coauthors, Dr. Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD and Dr. Sue Ashford of the University of Michigan, found that people who worked alone tended to have the same strategies for maintaining their engagement and connection with their work, regardless of their occupation. Here are four you may want to try.
Have a dedicated workspace
This is a tip we’ve heard a lot over the past several months, but held true before the pandemic as well. An interesting note, though, is that size does matter, but not necessarily in the way you think: Wrzesniewski says that participants’ spaces were often quite small, which they said made it easier to focus and concentrate on their work.
Create (and stick to) a routine
Even if you’re not physically moving to another location, create some type of routine to demarcate work time from non-work time. “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,” Wrzesniewski explains.
Forge connections with others who work remotely
These individuals don’t necessarily have to be doing work similar to yours, but, as Wrzesniewski points out, could be people who remind us of what we found most valuable about our work — and that we’re still capable of it — along with the fact that we’re not alone.
Reconnect with the purpose of your work
Lastly, the participants in the 2018 study also forged connections to the purpose of their work; specifically, “finding ways to connect to what it is about the work they do that matters in the world, to them and others,” Wrzesniewski says. “If this connection isn’t possible, or connects to a sense of the work itself as not holding much purpose,” she adds, “this can be enormously challenging for remote workers.”
This article was originally published in November 2020.