In his book, “Work, a History of How We Spend Our Time” James Suzman points out that “the work we do brings us meaning, moulds our values, determines our social status and dictates how we spend most of our time.” Nothing untrue about that, especially when McKinsey brings even more clarity to the matter at hand: “Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.”
However, according to the same publication “85% of execs and upper management said they’re living their purpose at work. The exact same number of frontline managers and frontline employees told us they are not.”
With these facts in mind, we’ve decided to dive deep into what meaningful work means for employees and companies, but also to touch on the uncomfortable “purpose gap” situation which lately seems to become a new “trend” in many companies.
A brief history of meaningful work
The Cambridge dictionary defines work as = an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money.
In ancient times though, people (the hunter-gatherers, for example) were working with the primary goal to directly put food on the table or exchange it for other goods (which marks the early stages of commerce).
In his aforementioned book, James Suzman shares a very interesting point of view about how the mindset of our ancestors changed in regard to working and the results of their work. While gatherers had short-term thinking, focused on immediate return from their labour, farmers had to deal with a “delayed return economy”, because the return of their work would come at a later stage.
This has changed entirely the rules of the game, as humans were no longer working just for an immediate result (instant gratification), but they were prolonging the wait for it, thus creating incentive.
Moving forward in time, once the industrialization took over the agricultural sector, and science started recording success after success in physics, medicine or chemistry, humans have felt a bit safer regarding their primary needs, about life expectancy, and about their future in general. So, they started focusing a bit more on the purpose of their work.
Jacinta Jimenez, a psychologist, and the VP – Coach Innovation for the leadership development platform BetterUp, highlights that “as human beings, we’re wired to connect, and part of our purpose is serving others or serving the greater good, something outside of us that allows us to feel more connected. It’s just built into our DNA.”
Fast forward to present time. Science has evolved even more. Life expectancy has increased from approximately 45 years in 1850 to almost 80 years today and will continue to do so. Technology has conquered almost every sector. Humans’ preoccupations towards having a purposeful job are on a hype – especially during the pandemic. As people had more time on their hands to reflect about their goals, dreams, and needs, they came up with new ideas and an ever-increasing desire to do meaningful work.
Why meaningful work matters
In “Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work” Michael J. Pratt and Blake E. Ashforth point out that there are no less than 3 ways of interpreting meaningfulness in doing your every-day job.
1. Meaning & Meaningfulness in the workplace – which states that every human being tends to seek and achieve a minimum (at least) purpose through the work he/she initiates. This may very well refer to the actual goal of the work itself, the value, the benefits the work is having on a personal level, organizational level, or/and for the community.
Without this, the individual feels just a pawn in the organization, this affecting his/her self-esteem and productivity.
2. Meaning & Meaningfulness at the workplace – which focuses on the “Where do I belong?” question.
People have a fundamental desire to belong to a social group, in this case – the working team. By knowing one’s exact place on the team, one can focus on what needs to be done to achieve the common goal. Sharing the same beliefs, having the same target as the rest of the teammates, adds up to the feeling of meaningful work.
3. Transcendence – comes as a natural continuation of the first two, because when we talk about doing purposeful work as a team, we also talk about “making a difference together”. Thus, the feeling of being part of something bigger and doing something that matters alongside teammates with similar goals, strengthens the perception that one’s work is meaningful.
According to McKinsey, “people who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company.” So, it’s safe to say that doing a purposeful work brings many benefits and has a strong positive impact both personally and professionally.
Doing what you like, what you believe in and what has a positive impact on the society, builds up one’s character and authenticity, a value that many companies (as yours truly) are built on. By staying true to who you are and what your values are, one transfers them into the projects one’s involved or has a direct or indirect impact upon.
Besides significantly shaping one’s character and work, authenticity is also strongly tied to one’s capacity to constantly improve oneself. Being curious and a constant learner, staying interested in new ways of embracing work and making your contribution count are definitive factors that show up in the results and are perceived indirectly by the end-user who benefits from the final product/solution.
Feeling good about your work is also linked to one’s well-being. Gallup conducted a comprehensive global study of more than 150 countries, zooming in into the well-being of more than 98% of the world’s population. They focused on the 5 main categories that are essential to most people: career, social, financial, physical & community well-being.
The results showed that while 66% of people are doing well in at least one of these areas, just 7% are thriving in all five. This translates into: “If we’re struggling in any one of these domains, as most of us are, it damages our well-being and wears on our daily life. When we strengthen our well-being in any of these areas, we will have better days, months, and decades. But we’re not getting the most out of our lives unless we’re living effectively in all five.”, added the same publication.
Can companies nurture meaningful work?
When organizations invest in creating a purposeful working environment and ensuring the work itself has a meaning for its employees, they actually secure a long-lasting relationship with their employees.
“70% of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. So, like it or not, as a company leader you play an important part in helping your employees find their purpose and live it.”
“But be careful: purpose is not just “another corporate initiative.” You can’t mandate this. And if you approach your people with inconsistency, hypocrisy, or arrogance, you will likely do the organization—and your reputation—more harm than good.” says McKinsey bluntly.
The question is how can companies influence the concept of meaningful work, when the perception of what qualifies as meaningful may very well differ from one employee to another? How much control does a company have over this subject, in reality? In all due honesty, it’s the little things that can make the difference and many organizations have adopted this as a way of doing business.
Pay a closer look to your purpose as a company
Practice what you preach. Every company has a purpose, one that it’s proud of and that represents the foundation on which it all started. Remaining true to that purpose, investing towards that purpose, and treating it truthfully, not just on paper or for “marketing’ sake”, will make your employees stick around.
Create and nurture ownership among your employees
As stated in the beginning of this article, a 2021 survey conducted by McKinsey showed that “85% of execs and upper management told us in a recent survey that they’re living their purpose at work. The exact same number of frontline managers and frontline employees told us they are not.”
This raises a lot of questions regarding the concept of meaningful work in close relation with the position one is holding in a company. As the scale goes higher, people seem to feel more motivated and more aligned with the purpose of their job, but the situation is totally different for those who don’t hold upper management positions.
Without feeling a sense of fulfillment in the workplace, one eventually experiences a lower self-esteem, which then translates into poor productivity. It’s a given fact that happy employees are more productive and extend the positive impact they have on the community, even after leaving the workplace. Negative work and life outcomes for employees inevitably translate into negative outcomes for the business.
One of the reasons why frontline managers are not feeling they meet their purpose at work is due to the “shortsighted leaders” (McKinsey) that impose certain restrictions and don’t give employees the liberty to make certain decisions and contribute significantly to the outcome of the project they’re part of. The lack of delegation topped with constant constraining may result not just in a poor retention rate (grosso modo, your frontline managers will eventually leave), but also in a lower productivity which will soon go higher and higher and affect all the other departments. Much like the domino effect.
Companies need to pay more attention to their internal organization and to their recruitment process. They need to understand the frontline managers and frontline employees’ points of view, so that they can meet their needs and create a sense of unity of working together towards the same goal (which everyone shares).
Concepts like having common values or common working principles look good on paper, but they actually need to be present in every work experience in an authentic way – from shared projects to shared connections as a team.
Listen to your employees – not to reply, but to understand
Staying true to your purpose can’t be done without listening to what your teams have to say about it.
Companies can continue to retain a good collaboration with their employees and work together towards maintaining that purpose, if they pay attention. They need to see how their employees see things (through surveys, open sessions), how they’re relating to the company purpose as well as what costs, problems or difficulties they are facing in their endeavors to serve the shared process.
Companies that for example have adopted and implemented the Total Experience (TX) strategy are actually helping their employees to be more hands-on of a process or project and have control to override the system to resolve certain issues, which naturally results in a raised productivity, better results for the company and an increase in the self-esteem for the employees.
Meet your employees halfway
According to a recent survey done by McKinsey “63% of people said they want their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work.”
This can translate into many things, but it usually touches areas of improving the employees’ skills and giving something back to the community. Offering paid courses, training sessions, programs that are not specifically or directly tied to their every-day job (supporting a cause, running a marathon for a charity etc.), can strengthen the relationship with the employees and make them feel like they are part of something bigger.
The learning factor is a very important one, because people notice a better trained mind will get them to fulfill their purpose not just in the workplace, but also in their personal life. More than a necessity, learning is thus a way of surviving in a constantly changing and challenging environment. And with the actual progress in tech, what 20 years ago could have been learned and put to practice in years, can be now achieved in a few months, this adding to the sense “I need this in my life”.
Therefore, communication is key. Each employee could have a different view on what meaningful work means and how it can be achieved. Hoping to please everyone is utopic, but setting a common ground is not. And this is what companies need to do if they want to do business according to their predefined purpose.
Although the concept of meaningful work is not new, recent studies and recent happenings in the world (see the pandemic, for example) show that it is turning into something mandatory for us.
The keys to a long and fruitful collaboration, a raised self-esteem, and recording outstanding results for the company, are based on establishing a genuine connection with the company we are working with, sharing the same values, contributing to the community in a positive way through our work, being appreciated for it and being given the chance to constantly better ourselves.
However, the means to obtain all that relies on too many factors, from the actual social-economical background of the society we are living in, to the stability or instability of the political environment, the cultural pattern of the population and so on. As the concept of meaningful work itself – these factors also need to be treated specifically, so that the strategy at hand could be adapted for a better retention.