5 Questions to Make Your Job Work for You

We’re all rethinking work these days

Chances are, your job has changed in the past year. And it’s not just that we’ve swapped cubicles for kitchen tables, donned protective gear, and adopted Zoom for everything from board meetings to birthday parties. How we think about work — and how we feel about it — has changed, too.

In her newsletter Culture Study, Anne Helen Petersen, whose book Out of Office comes out later this year, writes: “This has been the hardest thing for people who didn’t work from home before the pandemic to visualize: your current WFH scenario is not your future WFH scenario.” She predicts an expansive approach to work that might combine a few days a week in an office with a few at home. In a vaccinated future, she reminds us, working from home might include a co-working date with a friend where you share lunch, take a walk, and fill your break times with easy conversation.

That lifestyle won’t be possible for everyone, especially folks in education, retail, and health care. But many jobs could be improved with some creative thinking and flexibility. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I didn’t survive a global pandemic so that I could sit under fluorescent lights on a beautiful summer afternoon.

Coping with a new reality every few months, remaking our lives constantly to adjust to shifting conditions, and sacrificing contact with people we love has shifted our priorities. As workplaces start transitioning back to in-person work or at least start thinking about how to do that, it’s time to ask yourself what you want the future of your work life to look like. If you know what you want, you can make a clear ask of your employer.

Here are five questions to ask yourself:

1. What has worked for me during the pandemic? How can I replicate it when my office reopens?

Since commuting again is going to be a major shift for a lot of folks, let’s use that as an example. Maybe you’re glad you don’t have to drive into the office or navigate a crowded subway platform. Check. But is totally avoiding a commute your only good option? Would you be just as happy if you could work at home in the morning and come into the office after rush hour? Or was it the afternoon crunch of child care pickup and then dinner prep that used to drain your will to live? Think about a hybrid solution you could propose: maybe no meetings after 4 p.m. or working two days a week at home. Maybe your ideal is mornings at home and afternoons in the office.

The point is not the specific setup but identifying what works for you and asking for that with specificity, whether it’s your schedule, how much and where you travel, or how your team plans meetings. You have a year’s worth of proof of concept here to back you up.

2. How does my work align with my sense of purpose?

This doesn’t require you to figure out the entire meaning of life. But research shows that when our lives have a sense of direction, purpose, and coherence, we’re happier and more resilient. Your job doesn’t have to be your sole sense of purpose, and in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. It just has to make space for, or maybe even amplify, that quality wherever you’re finding it.

Something I’ve heard from friends and colleagues is that over the past year, they have had more time and more motivation to volunteer or to engage politically and that adding this to their lives has felt really good. I concur — shifting from a full-time job to freelance work has allowed me more volunteer hours at my local community justice center, which has provided solace and community. Try talking to your manager to make sure that any volunteer work you’ve added to your schedule can remain there. You could take that one step further: Talk to co-workers about their own experiences volunteering and draft a proposal that helps support volunteerism at your workplace by, say, offering flexible scheduling, comp time, or public recognition of employee engagement.

Or maybe you’re feeling the Fauci effect and you’re ready to try something new. Applications for degree programs in public health saw a sharp uptick for the 2021–2022 school year, and applications for nursing degrees have also increased (though they have been on a steady rise for several years, and it’s unclear how big the Covid bump is). It turns out helping people for a living has real appeal.

3. How have my responsibilities shifted, and how do I feel about that?

There’s been an all-hands-on-deck quality to work during the pandemic. Entire organizations have shifted their daily work, even their revenue models or missions. Write up a job description for the job you were originally hired for. Now do the same for the job you’re currently doing. What do you do now that you didn’t do before? What don’t you do anymore that you used to? What new skills have you learned?

Which job do you prefer? If it’s the old one, will it be possible to redirect back to that place? If not, what can you change?

4. Do I need a new title, a raise, or some other form of extrinsic appreciation?

Ask for a performance review, even if it’s not when your workplace generally schedules these. Make a clear case for what you need and frame it as that — a need. If you’ve gained skills and shifted roles, that should be formally reflected by your employer even if the change was necessary or gradual.

Purpose is important. So is being appreciated in a way that is meaningful to you.

5. If I’m feeling tempted to quit, am I sure that would improve my situation?

Microsoft recently released a study of 2021 work trends gathered from surveys of 30,000 people from 31 countries. The results indicated that 41% of respondents planned to leave their current place of employment in the next year, and 46% were anticipating making a major career change or pivot.

Many of the employees who planned on leaving their jobs cited burnout as the reason. Much of the conversation around people leaving jobs during the pandemic has rightly been centered on women who left the workforce over the past year because of the twinned pressures of child care and work. And yet workers everywhere are burned out and struggling with larger questions of purpose.

Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told Refinery29 that when she surveyed college-educated Americans about their attitudes toward work during the pandemic, she was surprised by what they told her. “There’s this sentiment that people who go through employment instability are automatically going to become more economically rational and that they’re going to prioritize finding a job and salary,” she said. “But, what I found is people who encounter this kind of employment instability as a result of Covid are actually more likely to value passion and value work-family balance in a job.” It seems that the pandemic and its attendant job insecurity have caused people to rethink making their jobs the central focus of their lives.

Granted, being able to walk away from a job is a huge privilege. Most people cannot simply stop working. But you can gain clarity on how to be happier in the work you do, whether that’s changing professions, setting new boundaries around your work-life balance, or reframing your thinking about the role work plays in your life.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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