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A sense of purpose is vital when work is not in the office

Be honest, do you get up in the morning and think “I can’t wait to start work to fulfil [insert organisation’s name]’s purpose”?

And if you did, what you really mean is “I can’t wait to start work to fulfil my purpose”. Because that’s the only purpose that really matters.

As the walls and corridors we associate with work begin to fall and our workplaces become more diverse and distributed than ever, an alignment to purpose is becoming more than just a “nice to have”.

In hybrid working environments, where members of the same team are distributed between the office, home or anywhere on the planet, many teams have begun to realise just how difficult it is to bring meaning to work.

When you can no longer swivel your chair to nudge Tshepo on the shoulder to have an on-the-fly mentorship session, or walk to the water cooler primarily for something other than water or even take a site visit to interact with the very people whose lives the company aims to improve, purpose begins to dwindle.

The leaders who notice this subtle but pivotal legacy of the hybrid work environment will move quickly to assist the team members regain their sense of purpose.

Fortunately, there are a few things that can be applied to remedy this, but before I introduce three key things to consider, let’s outline what is meant by purpose.

A sense of purpose would be what someone associates as their small part in a bigger picture — or their contribution to humanity. It is what some term their reason for being and how they would like to leave a legacy on Earth.

For many this may be contributing to ending world hunger or alleviating poverty, to some it may be challenging long-standing stereotypes and ending various forms of discrimination and to others it may be associated with empowering people to achieve holistic wellbeing and giving those we care about hope and a reason to strive and live on. 

Purpose is what we wish to contribute to the world. Now take a second to remind yourself of what your purpose is.

When you think about your career, do you see an alignment with the purpose you just thought about? Does your work directly correlate with you fulfilling that purpose and making what you deem to be a meaningful contribution to the world?

Many will answer with a “no”.

But fear not, here are three key things to consider as you rebuild your sense of purpose at work and assist others to do the same.

1. Understand why it matters

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl details experiences he had in concentration camps during World War II. An interesting observation he made was that the inmates who were most likely to survive were not those who were physically fit, but those who believed in their purpose.

It could be something in the distance such as seeing their families soon or achieving something when they were eventually freed. Frankl’s purpose or goal that saw him through this tough time was rewriting his lost manuscript, which he considered to be his life’s work.

When there is a clear alignment to a higher goal, people can be unbelievably resilient. There are numerous difficulties that dispersed teams face, but when team members have a sense of purpose, their work becomes intentional and they are able to be solution-driven.

Not just this, but purposeful work “feels” better and is healthier for us. As teams transition to hybrid work and the dynamics associated with it, many are thrust further into change fatigue.

When we associate our work with a deeper meaning and purpose, our self-esteem is positively influenced, along with our attitude towards our colleagues and tasks.

2.   Conversations are key

Hybrid working means we are even more removed from each other than before, so understanding that Linda is now taking care of an ill grandmother and funding her little brother’s schooling will not be so easy — let alone the fact that she doing part-time MBA studies because she dreams of leading a nonprofit organisation to support the children in her neighbourhood.

All these things drive Linda to sit through boring meetings and slap a make-shift smile on her face every morning, but a team member who has not had a deeper conversation with her will never know.

Starting conversations in teams, whether in pairs, in function-based groups or in forums, begins the process of aligning work to purpose. 

Once these conversations have happened, it’s vital to create a system or environment where policy and culture can support and bridge the gap for everyone. It serves little purpose to start the conversation, if it is not followed by some form of systemic application.

3.   Emphasise existing links

I once worked with a team made up of passionate professionals. During a workshop, I told them about a profound effect their organisation was having in another part of the world through an exciting initiative. They were surprised to learn about this, because they had never been aware of just how much their small contribution in the organisation (client-facing or not), was making to the world.

Now I’m not advising gloating or boasting; what I am advising is creating a clear awareness in the organisation of the effect that everyone is having on the world. When we are aware of just how much we are serving the world through even our smallest contributions that may seem unrelated, it recalibrates our perspective and reassures us that we are involved in purposeful work.

This may come in the form of having photographs of beneficiaries on digital displays, the project’s effect in numbers on desktop backgrounds or mentioning a heart-warming story during team conversations.

Hybrid working is no easy feat — especially when we are used to being warm and snug together in the office together singing Kumbaya. Back then, it was once easier to feel our purpose merge and intertwine with our mundane jobs.

This is no longer the case. The warmth of a sense of purpose is drifting further and further from our grip as our workplaces become further distributed.

The conversation about purpose is only just beginning to peak and I predict it will only become prominent in the coming years. It is vital that we begin building a sense of purpose in our new work environments so that each individual feels they are part of something bigger than themselves and are making a positive dent on the planet.

So start with conversations — the proverbial water coolers and swivel chair chats — that can lead us to building a culture that nurtures our sense of purpose and reminds us that we are indeed having an effect, whether it feels like it or not.

Author

  • By day, Zanele Njapha, aka, 'The UnLearning Lady’, is an international transitions facilitator and futurist at the strategic insights firm TomorrowToday Global. She is the host of the podcast Future-Fit Fridays, conversing with global experts on the future of work. By night, she dances, cooks and writes poetry