Working Remotely Can Still Be Meaningful. Here’s How.

The pursuit of meaning is in our DNA. Imbued in the pursuit is both joy and suffering. I suppose it’s the Yin and Yang of life; for every good thing there is an opposite. Despite the possibility that the opposite of meaning—insignificance—will reveal itself, the search remains one of life’s deepest joys.


That joy, however, isn’t limited to your personal life. Meaning is an essential element in your professional world, too. Many of the research papers I read for my book, The Optimistic Workplace, revealed how prevalent the need for meaningful work was among employees. Consider this finding from the Conference Board: generational cohorts, Gen X (22%) and Millennials (20%), place meaningful work as the most important factor when looking for a job.


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Can meaning be experienced when the work is mostly or wholly done remotely? After all, a significant influence on how work is experienced is relational. The short answer is yes. It takes, however, a minor tweak in how leaders interact with their teams who are working remotely.


Working Remotely & Tips to Inspire Distributed Teams


Abandon the Pursuit of Work/Life Balance

The problem with balance is the assumption you must give up something to achieve equilibrium. Why should you give up something personally or professionally to have a life with meaning? Instead, switch your mindset to view the two worlds as integrated. How? Wharton school professor, Stewart Friedman, says you should look to develop the skills to be real (legacy, values, ideal self), be whole (service, supportive networks), and be innovative (focus on results, challenge the status quo).  These skills help you uncover significance in your life.


Leadership Action: 

Working remotely tends to lead to longer workdays. Explore what an integrated life looks like in your one-on-ones with each employee. Then empower your team to ensure both their personal and professional worlds get the attention it needs.



Define Personal Values

It’s been said, “If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything.” What you stand for are the values you hold to be true and the beliefs that guide you through life’s challenges. In her book Emotional Agility, Harvard Medical School psychologist, Susan David, calls this “walking your why: identifying and acting on the values that are truly your own, not those imposed on you by others, not what you think you should care about, but what you genuinely care about.”


Leadership Action: 

Hold a virtual team building exercise where each team member presents their three top values. Revisit these values during one-on-ones and in team meetings. Ask, “One a scale of 1-5, five being the best score, how are you living your personal values? And what can you do to maximize them in your work?” The idea isn’t to manage by personal values, but to help employees find ways to counter the deleterious effects of long periods of time working alone or the overwhelming demands of a household working and attending school at the same time.



Uncover Your Significant Strengths 

Strengths aren’t just what you’re good at, but what lights you up. The marriage of work that you’re both good at and that also lights you up leads the way to peak performance. The more you can use your strengths in your work, the greater meaning you’ll derive from it.


Leadership Action:

Much like the leadership action for “personal values,” the same approach is true for identifying strengths. Tools like Strengthscope or Strengths Finder can be used in a team building exercise. Intentionally give projects or assignments that align with an employee’s strengths. This adds more fulfillment to the workday.



Make Friends at Work 

You don’t have to build friendships at work, but those who do are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. When we’re working remotely, having friends at work seems like a pipedream. But there are ways to ensure employees have time to connect with one another.


Leadership Action:

At the company level, leaders can schedule virtual events that promote networking. HR can implement a buddy program, pairing new employees with more tenured employees. One simple solution is to allow non-work talk for the first 10-minutes of meetings.



Understand Your Emotions 

These days many of us experience a wide range of emotions: anxiety, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. Psychologist Susan David explained that we experience emotions as reality. David advocates to “feel the emotion” rather than push it away. Some tips she recommends to help people understand their emotions include:


  • Pay attention to patterned responses. Recognize what triggers the emotion.
  • Sit with emotions. Below the emotion are things we value; emotions are data, not directions.
  • Hold the emotion for what it is: “I notice that I’m feeling anxious. I notice that I’m having the thought that I just can’t handle sitting in my apartment alone one more day.” “I notice . . .” is a prefix statement and gives a little distance between the emotion and its meaning.


By understanding our emotions, we help ourselves be more genuine with others, magnifying the chance for greater meaning in our relationships.


Leadership Action: 

This is a great topic for HR to rollout programs supporting employees’ mental health wellness. Benefit companies provide webinars on topics to help everyone learn to manage their wellness.



Meaning doesn’t apply only to our personal pursuits. Working remotely has presented challenges to employees, leaders, and the organization. Adapting to a flexible work arrangement does come with a learning curve. Meaningful work is one focus area that can improve the remote work experience. Right now, we all could find ways to boost satisfaction with our work. At work, that energy can be channeled to accomplish significant outcomes.




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About the Author

Shawn Murphy
Shawn Murphy
Director of Organizational Behavior, Bluescape
Shawn is our Director of Organizational Behavior and Workplace Trends. His second book, Work Tribes is out now. Shawn's first book, The Optimistic Workplace is out now. Inc. has listed him twice as one of the top leadership speakers in America.

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