A version of this article previously appeared on Skillcrush, an online education program for creatives, thinkers, and makers that gives total tech newbies the tools to make major career changes.
Scott Morris, Skillcrush
All Skillcrush employees spend a few hours each month helping our customer support team answer emails. It's a great way to learn more about our students and about the kinds of challenges facing people breaking into tech. I've noticed there's always a common thread in the questions I answer—people want to be happier and more fulfilled with the work they're doing. It sounds simple enough, but during the time I've worked for Skillcrush I've noticed there's something unique about tech jobs, particularly those offering remote or flexible work arrangements, when it comes to defining and achieving happiness.
When people describe their dream job, they tend to mention better pay, work that's creatively or intellectually engaging, and a job that lets them integrate their personal and professional lives. These first two things can be found in plenty of professions, but the third is elusive, particularly if you're on the 9-5 grind. Workers, both young and old, are seeking out flexibility in all aspects of their lives, and speaking from personal experience, the rewards are valuable in ways that you might not expect. Beyond making it easier to run errands or schedule dentist appointments, a flexible job that lets you build your work life around your personal life ultimately makes you better at both. Sure, it's hard to hit all three points on the "perfect job" triangle, and it's easy to settle for two out of three, but with industries like tech offering more and more opportunities for flexible work, why should settling be the norm?
In my past work experiences, "personal" was almost a dirty word— indicative of frivolous drama that was strongly discouraged from seeping into the office. But employees are people, and it's totally logical that a healthy personal life is an essential part of a successful professional one. What makes a healthy personal life, though? Part of happiness is having time to take care of yourself, and the space to cultivate relationships with friends, partners, or families, but there's another component of personal life that's often overlooked, one that—in my own life—remote work helps make possible.
Seven years ago my oldest daughter started school. At the time I was five years into my life as a stay-at-home parent and school was a big transition for us. My wife and I had both had a lot of negative experiences during our own school years, and we wanted to be supportive advocates for our daughter whenever possible—the problem was, we just weren't sure how to build that lifestyle. Since I was at home, I was able to answer the call when our Kindergarten teacher asked for classroom volunteers, and this ended up being our entry point into the world of parent volunteering. For the first three years of our oldest daughter's schooling I volunteered at least a couple times a week in her classroom, and I did the same thing when my youngest went enrolled a few years later. Parent volunteering wasn't something I had any background in or ever expected to be doing, but my role evolved naturally, and before long I found myself developing lasting relationships with both of my kids' cohorts. I helped with art projects, facilitated reading groups, chaperoned field trips, and pretended to know how to do addition and subtraction. And sometimes—my most favorite times—I'd just end up sitting around with a group of kids, talking about their days, their lives, their families, and who they were as people.
When the school day was over and I was home with my own kids, I was able to keep them occupied while my wife helped with school fundraising, email communication, and event planning through the Parent Teacher Organization. My being home gave us the flexibility to make this work, and as the years went by, we realized we'd added a whole new dimension to our personal lives—we were active members of a community where we made an appreciable difference in other people's lives, while they did the same in ours. Community is now a hugely positive aspect of my personal life that I didn't know was missing until I embraced it.
During my first year of Kindergarten volunteering, a girl in my daughter's class started calling me "Bob the Builder," a nickname that spread throughout the classroom and persisted over the next few years. Today, walking across campus, I'll still encounter 7th graders from that Kindergarten class calling out to me, "Hey Bob!", which might seem like a small thing, but for me it's a reminder of how those few hours a week I spent volunteering, formed lasting bonds in my community. I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of the depression and anxiety I was prone to before having school-aged kids has melted away in the years since. Being plugged into a larger community and feeling like I was helping others in a direct way has played a big part in making me a healthier and more complete person.
However, it can't be understated how fortunate I was being able to participate at the school—my wife's career made enough money to let me stay home with our kids and we were both on board with supporting one another to make it happen. I remember one day in a classroom when a normally chipper boy looked like he'd lost his dog. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he was mad that his mom wasn't there to volunteer. I knew that his mom was a concerned and active parent, but the simple fact of the matter was she had a job that didn't allow her to get into the classroom easily during the day. And that's exactly what gave me pause as our kids got older and I started thinking about going back to work. In every scenario I played out in my mind I saw myself having to give up volunteering. If I was going to start working outside the house it would have to be during the school day while my kids were gone, meaning I'd have to walk away from a part of my personal life that had become so important to me.
Still, with our kids on the cusp of their teen years and new expenses like college looming in the distance, our family needed to start generating extra income, so it seemed like I'd have to make a painful choice. Fortunately I discovered the "neither/nor" option of remote work, and that choice never had to happen. I now work remotely part-time, I'm able to generate the missing source of income we'd been looking for, and I can do it all without upsetting the personal life I'd established before returning to paid work. It was a solution that couldn't have come at a better time, too—right after I started working for Skillcrush my wife took a new management job with a longer commute, which meant our family's need for flexibility was at an all time high. Being able to work from home—in-between my other personal priorities—was really the only way I was able to return to work successfully, while picking up the slack at home and sticking to my volunteer commitments.
I'm thankful for this luxury that remote work made possible, but really, it shouldn't be a luxury. Having the room to participate in our communities through volunteering and service projects (and benefitting from the personal growth that comes with them) shouldn't be the domain of a lucky few—it should be embedded in the fabric of all our work lives. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that, by leading the way with remote work and alternative work schedules, industries like tech aren't just offering a small convenience to their employees by letting them commute from their bedroom to their living room. They're actually opening the door for a radical reframing of what it means to work and how our work relates to the rest of our lives.
If you put it under a microscope, you start to see that the conventional Monday through Friday, 9-5 office—with its rigid distinction between personal and professional—is a relic of extreme gendering, where males were assumed to be their family's breadwinner while women attended to domestic tasks. In that model, flexibility wasn't so much a non issue as it was non negotiable since roles were so strictly enforced. But as we grow past gender caricatures, as family models continue to expand and change, and as individuals take on the roles they're best suited for, the need and desire for each of us to wear many hats increases. Remote work then is the clear path for climbing out of the limited "Honey, I'm home" model of a previous century, and into a new paradigm where we can all live our lives in the fullest, most befitting way.
And part of that fullness is community participation. Now especially—in light of our national climate and the alienation and isolation that lurks around every corner—there seems to be a desire to get involved in causes and institutions that can directly help others, where the results of our efforts are tangible and where we can be reminded of the ways in which we are all connected. Whether that's through volunteering at a school, participating in a community garden, being a local Big Brother or Sister, or any other opportunity that speaks to you—the chances to reach out and engage are all around us, but for people with rigid work schedules it's just so much harder to get involved.
Remote jobs give people the freedom to fit a few hours here or there into their daily schedule, making it possible to incorporate community involvement into the natural rhythm of the week. But that doesn't mean remote workers aren't also committed to their paid work. Working remotely isn't working less and it's not working easier, it's just working smarter. It's realizing that the artificial constraints of a physical office aren't just unnecessary, they're also inhibiting. And that we can be productive, successful professionals while living fulfilling personal lives. That in fact, each of these roles directly supports the other.