How can remote work bring our working lives into alignment with our personal goals, our most important relationships, and our larger sense of purpose?

That’s the question I found myself mulling one year ago, on the eve of my 49th birthday.

I tend to have my major birthday crises a year ahead of schedule, and last year was no different: I was already thinking about where I should focus my energies for the next decade.

I was also mourning the loss of the long-held dream of publishing a book before I turned 50: Since it typically takes a couple of years to get from book deal to publication, there was no way I’d have a book in print before my 50th.

The Covid crisis had sharpened my sense of urgency in other ways, too. I had spent February stocking our pantry with the recommended stores of medication and dry goods; March building a mutual support site to help in the early days of the pandemic; and April developing a report based on the lessons learned about online mutual aid.

I was convinced that we could only cope with the pandemic if each person picked up some piece of the larger crisis. But I was equally convinced that I had picked up the wrong pieces.

“I think maybe I’m supposed to be doing something around remote work,” I told a friend on one of our regular, socially distanced walks. “I mean, this weird way Rob and I have been living for the past few years — working from home and homeschooling — now everyone is trying to make it work. Maybe I can help people figure that out in a way that makes their lives better.”

And then eight days after I turned 49, I received an email from an MIT faculty member, Bob Pozen.

“I have really liked your columns in the WSJ so I was hoping we could work together,” he wrote. “I am starting to work on a new book about being productive when working from home. If you are at all interested, I would like the chance to chat.”

I had never thought about co-authoring a book, or about turning my experience with remote work into book form; even three weeks earlier, I would probably have sent a polite “no thank you”. But my recent reflections forced me to ask: Was this where I could be of service?

So many people were finding themselves thrust into a world of remote work that I’d been inhabiting for much of the past two decades and more. And I had always found that this question — where can I be of service? — served as my true north. The solitude of remote work, the lack of structure, and the lack of day-to-day accountability: All of these meant I needed something to anchor and ground me, and also (paradoxically) to propel me forward. Money, recognition, and simple intellectual curiosity could serve as drivers some of the time, but none of them sustained me for the long haul.

A sense of purpose is both the most durable foundation and the most profound reward of remote work.

Yes, you can find a sense of purpose in the work you do at an office, but the independence of remote work makes it far more necessary to be purpose-driven — and opens the door to finding and fulfilling your purpose in different ways.

In my very first experience of remote work, leading an e-government research program, my sense of purpose — helping governments figure out how to engage with citizens online — allowed me to prioritize my project and tasks, and maintain some sense of connection to the team, even though the rest of my colleagues were three thousand kilometers away.

When we launched Social Signal, my sense of mission — helping nonprofits tap the power of the emergent social web — allowed me to power through the insanity of starting a home-based business while pregnant with our second child.

And when I returned to remote work seven years ago, the anxiety and uncertainty were manageable only because I had such a clear overarching motivation: to organize my work around the primary goal of supporting our autistic son in his home learning and development.

These experiences made me a true believer in the power of remote work, whether it’s full-time or part of a career that combines home and office. At every stage in my career, remote work has given me both space and the drive to connect with a deeper sense of purpose, propelling my work towards ever-greater alignment with my personal priorities and values.

That’s why I’m passionate about helping people step back at this moment, when offices are re-opening, to take a second look at continuing to work remotely, at least part of the time.

Instead of seeing remote work as a short-term response to the pandemic, it can be the catalyst for reinventing our working lives — and bringing our work, our personal lives, and our profound sense of purpose into alignment.

Without the daily commute and the physical separation of our work and family life, there is more room for self-care, creative pursuits, and community service. Without the casual camaraderie and sometimes taxing interactions of the office, we can focus our social energies on the people and relationships that matter most. Without the watchful eyes of our boss and coworkers constantly monitoring our activity and output, we can and must turn inward to find the deep motivation to work — which can pull us onto a path in which our jobs and our missions are far more deeply aligned.

More than two decades of remote work have helped me develop that inner attunement: the ability to listen to the work that calls me deeply and to step forward when it shows up.

That’s what allowed me to hear a clear, loud, YES! when I received that first email from Bob, eight days after my 49th birthday.

And eight days before my 50th, Bob and I published Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.

Celebrate a new era of opportunity

I met that publish-before-50 goal, after all. But that’s not what I actually want to celebrate on tomorrow’s birthday. I want to celebrate the opportunities that lie ahead: The opportunities for more people to discover a working life that fits with their own sense of purpose, and their own lives, in a way that is much harder to accomplish when you have to go to an office every single day.

I’d love to hear…

  • How has this past year of remote work changed the balance between your working life and your personal or family life?
  • What are the dreams, priorities, or life goals you would like to achieve — if you can use remote work to make space for them?
  • How has remote work brought your life into greater alignment already, and what do you need to change or adjust so that your working life and personal life operate in tandem instead of in opposition?

I hope you’ll share your thoughts and stories in the comments, or via Twitter (just tag your note #remoteinc). I’d love to hear how remote work is helping you align with your purpose.