What makes work work?

Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage mugOn the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cabinet to take out a coffee mug and, to my surprise and delight, emerged with one that carried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage.

As regular readers know, I’d just left my beloved Northampton – a western Massachusetts college town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d participated in the Hot Chocolate Run several times myself, and picking up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendipitous, you might even say, a sign.

Over time, however, I’ve come to see it as something else: A reflection of the fact that I’d landed in a simpatico workplace culture.

The coffee mug incident wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I interviewed, the two future colleagues with whom I had lunch were both Buddhist meditators. The fact that my department head took time off from work to campaign for her (and my) candidate before November’s election. The fact that I love my colleagues’ distinctive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.

Much advice about career transitions focuses on the what—on figuring out what you want to do and then finding a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to counsel women in crisis? Do you want to teach kids?

Yes, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) important to consider the where and the how.

I love to write. Whether I’m working on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorption famously described as flow.

But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speaking from experience, I can tell you that I would not. My current job isn’t the most prestigious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, however, overall, one of the more satisfying.

So what accounts for job satisfaction? Over time, I’ve come to identify the qualities that matter most to me, which incidentally, can all be traced directly to workplace culture.  Here are three examples:

1. Autonomy

I’m far from alone here—lots of research suggests that autonomy is critical to on-the-job satisfaction. (One interesting recent study found that high-level leaders have less stress than those lower on the corporate food chain, with researchers hypothesizing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more control over their lives.)

That said, I suspect autonomy is more important to some of us than others. For me, it’s really important, and my most difficult professional experiences have been in workplace cultures where this creates tension. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year trying to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year trying to get out,” one supervisor ruefully remarked many years ago.) I could be writing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.

2. Balance

I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that reason alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.

It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has gotten more demanding, as layoffs and increased “efficiencies” create more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at suggestions that employees simply need to do a better job setting limits, the issue of balance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to dedicate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.

3.  Mission

A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Harvard School of Public Health—is a through-line, enriching good days and giving meaning to the inevitable minor slumps. In my experience, it’s also more likely to lead to warm workplace friendships—which themselves have been found to correlate with job satisfaction and success.

Even Cal Newport—an outspoken critic of the “follow your passion” school of decision-making—discourages people from taking a job they think is useless or actively bad for the world. His reasoning is partly pragmatic: If you feel this way, you’re probably going to have a hard time sticking around long enough to build up the sort of career capital that you’ll need to move forward long-term.

* * *

In 2011, as the Great Recession ground onward, I found myself scratching my head over a New York Times article with the headline “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.”  The piece recounted the stories of several people who traded steady jobs for entrepreneurial opportunities, launching businesses that included a Greek food stall, a wedding planning business, and an online ceramics store. As Newport might have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were overwhelmed. “I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a marketing professional turned Pilates instructor.

But here’s the curious thing: Only one of the people interviewed regretted their decisions. While the piece didn’t offer any explanation, I have an idea. Even harder than working for yourself is working in an alien culture. If that was their alternative, these choices make total sense.

What workplace culture qualities are important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.