Did COVID-19 derail meaningful work? And if so, should HR care about making work meaningful again?
Bottom line, yes! And yes!
When organizations re-focus on meaningful work they’ll likely take employee engagement to new highs and reduce turnover to new lows. Employees who find meaning and purpose in their work are more engaged, productive, innovative and motivated, according to research in the Human Resource Development Review.
While meaningful work has always been important, the efforts to make it a reality – the “why” behind the work or the “values” in the mission – stalled when the pandemic took over everything. That’s when we needed to make work happen, meaningfully or not.
Now, meaningful work can take center stage.
Difficult to attain meaning?
But there are difficulties in creating meaning at work. For one, you can’t just tell employees where to find meaning. In fact, the more the boss tries to tell employees what should be meaningful, the less likely employees will see it that way, according to research in the MIT Sloan Management Review. They’ll likely resent it more than anything.
“An authentic sense of purpose is not simply imposed; it is discovered,” the MIT Sloan researchers noted. “In other words, meaning-making should be a grassroots process.”
Then there’s this: Meaningful work isn’t a one-size-fits-all. It’s the furthest thing from it. What Dwayne in Accounting finds meaningful will likely be a world of difference from what Katrina in Marketing finds meaningful.
“Next to articulating a clear purpose in your workplace, having a sense of progress are two of the foundational ways to instill meaningful happiness in your culture,” says Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness and author of Beyond Happiness. “But don’t assume you know what employees need; make them feel heard and understood.”
As long as you aren’t looking for a one-size-fits all solution, HR pros and front-line managers can help make work meaningful again.
Here are four strategies to help employees on their journey to finding meaning in their work.
Talk about it
Yep, the best way to figure out how to make work meaningful for employees is to actually breach the subject.
Most conversations in the last two years were centered on remote work strategies, vaccination policies and return to work. People forgot to talk – or even think – about purpose and meaning. They’re used to talking about how the work gets done. They’ve lost touch with how they feel about work. And that can make the conversation uncomfortable now.
HR can make it easier by setting a baseline for meaningful conversations. Train front-line managers to talk with employees in their one-on-ones or performance evaluations about what’s meaningful to them.
They might try these prompts:
- “Why do you feel you’re here?”
- “What’s significant about your role in our workplace?”
- “What detracts from your purpose here?”
- “What is the most fulfilling part of your work?”
What’s most important: Don’t put words in employees’ mouths or on their minds. Ask the questions, stay quiet and let them lay out their terms. For instance, you might refer to “internal networks,” but hear an employee say “quality relationships” are important to her. So that’s what the manager needs to focus on when helping the employee find meaningful work.
Expand the view
The good news: Researchers identified four factors that are equally valuable sources to meaningful work. The bad news: Most employees only tap two of them.
The valuable sources and examples of each:
- Service to others. The work helps others (think of nursing and teaching)
- Realization of full potential. The work helps employees achieve personal accomplishments
- Unity with others. Employees love collaboration and fulfilling wins with teammates, and
- Self-integrity. The priority here is authentic behavior, self-discovery and character development.
When organizations don’t tap into all four sources, some employees don’t feel whole. So if employers don’t address the importance of each source, employees might interpret that one or some aren’t important.
Most organizations tend to hit “serving others” and “realizing potential” in their organizational priorities. Employees tend to easily understand and fulfill those in their day-to-day work.
So it’s important to speak explicitly about the other sources of meaning – unity and self-integrity. One simple way: Hold in-house workshops and use flip charts around the room, one for each source of meaningful work. Then ask people to move from easel to easel to answer questions such as “How does my job help me to feel connected with others?” and “When was the last time doing my job well mattered to someone else?” Then bring the charts together to highlight gaps and strengths, and spark the discussion.
Listen differently to complaints
It’s more difficult to detect a lack of meaning than it is to recognize meaningful work. That’s because the meaning deteriorates over time – and employees and their employers don’t recognize the gradual change.
How can HR know about a loss of purpose? Complaints. Most seem straightforward – “I hate working with Denise!” “My boss has it out for me!” “It wasn’t my fault no one told me about X, Y and Z!” But the devil’s in the details. Straightforward complaints about management often mask feelings of discontent, emptiness and loneliness – all associated with a lack of meaning.
The researchers suggested HR pros listen differently to complaints – and train front-line managers to do the same. Rather than try to solve complaints immediately, be more curious. Probe into why things aren’t working. Ask several times, if necessary, “Why do you feel that way?” and listen for potential loss of meaning.
These phrases from employees are a couple of telltale signs: “I don’t see the benefit of …” and “No one is going to buy into that” and “It’s not working out like I expected.”
The important part is to listen for meaning. And once you think you’ve uncovered it, ask if it’s right. Say, “What I’m hearing is you don’t feel X matters anymore,” or “If I understand right, you feel Y has been lost, and it’s frustrating.”
From there, employees will be more likely to identify the meaning that’s betrayed them.
Hire for fit
Despite efforts to help employees find meaning in work – and ultimately become engaged, motivated and productive – some people just won’t. They don’t care, and it’ll take seismic movement to get them to.
So make the pursuit of meaningful work part of your hiring strategy. Look for candidates who want meaningful work (and deliver it to them). Help hiring managers recognize the need for this fit, too, explaining there’s a difference between people who want to collect a paycheck and people who want to contribute.
“People with the right mindsets have an amplifying effect on the team also. They set the bar high for the team and positively influence others around them to strive for more. The whole team grows together around this person,” says GoodTime CEO Ahryun Moon. “People with the wrong mindsets have an adverse effect on the team. The whole team slows down together because of this person. So their negative impact is multiple folds.
“I think companies must hire for mindsets instead of skill sets,” says Moon.
A few signs job candidates will likely want meaningful work:
- They imagine themselves succeeding in the role. Listen for questions that show they want to be fully involved in the work. For instance, “What resources would be available to me to learn more about X?”
- They’re curious about the workplace beyond the work. They ask about – or observe – formal things, such as protocols and organizational workflow, and informal things, such as the best lunch spots and how to navigate the parking lot.
- They have a history of taking initiative. Candidates who share stories that represent they cared about projects, people and results in the past will care about meaningful work in the future.