Home 9 Regions 9 Global 9 Job Purposing and Remote Work

Bea Boccalandro explains the concept of job purposing in her engaging and critically acclaimed 2021 book, Do Good at Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing. Job purposing is the act of making meaningful work-based contributions to others or societal causes (more details are covered in my prior article about her book). I was curious about how remote work has affected job purposing so I reached out to Bea to find out more. In this conversation, Bea discusses the implications of remote work on job purposing.

Bea Boccalandro headshot

Bea Boccalandro

Remote work has so many benefits, and for many people, it’s been good for their stress levels and mental health. However, you’re seeing one downside as it relates to job purposing. What is it?

BB: Working in physical proximity to others offers us more opportunities to aid them than working remotely does. We spontaneously help our cubicle neighbor install software. We seamlessly grab lunch for a team member attending non-stop Zoom calls when we fetch our lunch. We help an administrative assistant carry boxes to her car. Unbeknownst to most of us, these small contributions to others boost our wellness and brighten our disposition. They are a form of “job purposing”, which, per our previous conversation, has been proven to drive motivation, engagement, mental health, physical health, and happiness. Remote work simply doesn’t present as many options as in-person work to aid those we work with, to job purpose. Remote work reduces the prevalence of this one proven wellness practice and, thus, can actually aggravate stress, anxiety, burnout, and physical illness.

Remote work reduces the prevalence of this one proven wellness practice and, thus, can actually aggravate stress, anxiety, burnout, and physical illness.

Remote work often gives workers more opportunities to do good for their spouses, children, and others they live with (and are, therefore, in close proximity to). Does that increase in service to household members compensate for less job purposing?

It’s wonderful that remote work allows us to be present with our families more often, including being of greater service to them. But it’s also important to realize that all workers have an innate need for work to be meaningful, for job purposing. Indeed, the workplace benefits of job purposing, including improved motivation and performance, do not accrue when our good deeds are unrelated to work. Workplace motivation, engagement, satisfaction, and performance are fueled by workplace contributions, not by family contributions.

Two workers meet in office

If having the opportunity to job purpose is so important, why don’t we hear more people saying that they want to go into the office for this reason?

Most of us are unaware of the relationship between job purposing and wellness. Our conscious mind might detect a decline in our mental and physical health, but it’s unlikely to understand the cause. It might notice that we’re more stressed or aren’t sleeping as soundly, but will blame economic uncertainty, an insensitive boss, or excessive screen time. I’m not suggesting that these adversities aren’t detrimental to our wellbeing. They certainly can be. But disregarding our need for meaningful workplace contributions is like neglecting one automobile tire. If it’s flat, pumping the other three tires won’t help.

Most of us are unaware of the relationship between job purposing and wellness.

What can managers do to remedy the limited number of job-purposing opportunities for remote workers?

Two colleagues workingThe reason in-person work generates more job purposing is structural. Physical proximity allows us to detect opportunities, large and small, to aid coworkers and other work relations. Also, physical proximity allows in-person, not just virtual, service. When working remotely, it’s unlikely we know that a coworker is struggling to install software, hasn’t eaten all day, or is shipping boxes. Even if we notice these opportunities to lend a hand, distance makes it difficult to act on them.

Many managers of remote teams, however, compensate for remote work’s fewer opportunities for job purposing by deliberately structuring alternatives. For example:

  • One manager rewards a high-performing team member at each staff meeting with a company-branded charitable gift card. The winners direct the $25 donation to the charity of their choice and, at the following staff meeting, are invited to share which cause they helped and why. Recipients talk about the youth mentor who never gave up on them, the hospice team that cared for their dying mother or a societal injustice they wish to vanquish. Such tilting of staff-meeting conversations infuses the culture with meaning.
  • A professional services director encourages each of his managers to mentor a junior employee.
  • A department manager asks his team members to take an online unconscious-bias training and develop a plan based on the content to bring more inclusivity into their job functions.
  • A chief marketing officer asks his team to select one nonprofit to support with a marketing campaign every quarter. Staff members receive their full salary, as always, but the firm does not charge the nonprofit.
  • A vice president of sales at an online technology company tells his sales representatives they can extend a 50% discount to nonprofit organizations provided they brief the sales team on the charity’s work at a weekly staff meeting.
  • A manager of a 600-person team set up an online platform where team members request and offer help, both work-related and not. Employees have asked for, and received, help inputting data into a spreadsheet, managing an irate customer, selling their used vehicle, and finding good childcare in a new city.

You get the idea. There’s no reason to forgo the many benefits of remote work on account of it being less conducive to job purposing. Remote work can absolutely be job purposed. It just takes a little more effort.

Allison Lee is co-founder of Alpine CSR Advisors, which specializes in CSR/ESG strategy and implementation, with a focus on business and social impact metrics. Allison has several years of experience in the CSR/ESG sector, and previously worked at MIT, the Center for Corporate Citizenship, Cone Communications, FSG Social Impact Advisors, ... Read more
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