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Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose at Work in a Global Pandemic

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose at Work in a Global Pandemic

I follow the work of Adam Grant, an Organizational Psychologist at Wharton and I’m an avid fan of his podcast WorkLife. The title of Adam’s podcast is very similar to my Your Working Life podcast, but Adam, you should know – my podcast came before yours.

Many thanks to Adam, who shared a great HBR piece by Ethan Bernstein, Hayley Blunden, Andrew Brodsky, Wonbin Sohn, and Ben Waber about the implications of working without an office.

Like many, I’ve been working from home since March and designing my own new normal each day through trial and iteration. I have found that my productivity is high, but the tendency to overwork is real and ever-present. This could be my own slippery slope relationship with workaholism, but in reading the HBR article, the data they found is compelling for all of us.

The authors conducted a survey of 600+ diverse, white collar employees from mid-March to the end of May 2020. They asked about job satisfaction, work engagement, perceptions about their performance working remotely, conflicts with colleagues, and negative emotions, among many other things.

Here is a glimpse of what the survey found:

  • Workdays are 10-20% longer.
  • The best predictor of adaptation isn't being introverted or extroverted, but being agreeable and emotionally stable.
  • Communication went up 40% with strong ties, but down 10% with weak ties.
  • If you define success solely in terms of gaining wealth, achievement, or influence, what you often lose is freedom. One of the greatest accomplishments in life is earning the autonomy to choose how you spend your time. No currency is more valuable — or more scarce — than freedom.

[Related: Work is the Key to Freedom and Independence]

Flexibility and autonomy still rank high.

A 2016 pre-pandemic Vodafone study showed that global employees value flexibility and the autonomy to do their work remotely. In 2020, Vodafone is now teaching companies how to build game-changing, flexible work strategies since the remote work phenomenon will likely be the new norm.

While some dubious employers thought productivity would drop with forced pandemic work-from-home (WFH), the above referenced survey shows that we rallied after a few weeks and found our WFH groove.

Here are some additional learnings to consider when establishing your WFH rhythm:

  • Establish clear boundaries for work time and meeting time, so you day doesn’t turn into a perpetual Zoom session.
  • Honor the urgent deadlines and crisis mitigation work that occasionally necessitate 10+ hour days and weekend time, and balance with shorter days to create sustainable patterns that won’t cause burnout.
  • Be a good egg - hone your empathy and active listening skills. This will help you be more collaborative and amenable with colleagues.

[Related: Keys to Building a Resilient Team]

Honor your meaning and purpose mojo.

Knowing how your individual role is part of the company mission can enhance your feelings of connectedness and purpose at work. Whether you are a team member or a team leader, be sure to discuss how individuals and teams make an impact.

Channeling iconic TED speaker, Simon Sinek, encourage colleagues to articulate their “Why?” Why do you work here? Why do you get out of bed each morning and come to work?

Having clarity about autonomy, mastery, and purpose feeds engagement at work, which is especially important in a WFH scenario.

  • Autonomy: Have ownership over something you can take pride in and call your own accomplishment.
  • Mastery: Stretch and develop your skills with professional development or challenging new work to stimulate growth.
  • Purpose: Know how your work is part of the mission of the organization and gives you a sense of belonging.

As we navigate the ambiguous future journey of a global pandemic, we must take ownership of what we need to feel positively about our careers. Gale King, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Nationwide insurance company, shared in the referenced HBR article:

…build both work-from-home and work-from-office muscles and share the realties – the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The next time you find yourself in back-to-back Zoom meetings, take a moment and ask yourself about your autonomy, mastery, and purpose at work. Assert the control you have but may not be tapping to honor these important values.

[Related: How the Pandemic Can Teach Us to Shape a Better Future]

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Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community College system and contributes to Huffington Post, Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, Medium, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. Her online video series about career and life empowerment for women is on YouTube. She hosts the three-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, on iTunes and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube.


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