Meaningful work: Three companies empowering employees to see the bigger picture

Charlotte Nicol
Last updated on 1st September 2020
3 min read

If you seek happiness, you won’t find it, says author Tom Rath in his book ‘Fully charged’.

If you seek meaning, however, you’ll find happiness.

President of Steelcase Jim Keane takes this one step further and asks: does the same apply to engagement? If organizations seek it, they won’t find it. However, if they lead employees to find meaning – perhaps they will.

Considering approximately 70% of American workers weren’t engaged at work prior to the global pandemic, it’s certainly worth a shot.

Why? Because employees who derive meaning and significance from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations, have higher job satisfaction and engagement levels.

What is meaningful work?

Meaningful work is when employees truly feel that their work matters, that it has an impact on the organization and society, and that it means something to them personally.

An organization doesn’t have to be a not-for-profit or social enterprise to create an environment where employees feel that their work matters.

Meaningful work can differ for each employee. Sometimes its simply seeing the impact of their work or how it contributes to the organization’s overall objectives.

Particularly in light of the global pandemic, studies have found that employees are thinking even more deeply about the meaningfulness of their work than before.

We look at three organizations which are trying to make strides in this area to empower employees and help them understand exactly that.

Microsoft

Unless your employees can see the end product that their work has contributed to, then it is difficult for them to understand their impact on the company and, sometimes, wider society.

Dorothee Ritz, Microsoft’s general manager for Austria, insisted that employees understood what Microsoft technology was being used for and what impact it had on society. 

One manager spent several days out on the street with police officers to learn how they use remote data. Another manager spent two days in a hospital to see the impact of going paperless. 

Soon, employees were suggesting more meaningful solutions for customers based on their on-site visits. According to Ritz, this simple practice gave employees a better sense of the real value of their work.

Getting employees away from their desks and stations is an innovative way to help them grasp the impact of their work. 

Enable them to benefit from an informed understanding of the end client by arranging meetings with real-life customers. This approach will better equip them to offer relevant solutions to clients and seeing the impact that their work has will continue to motivate them.

Warby Parker

Unless you work for a charity, sometimes it can be difficult for employees to envisage higher meaning.

Eyewear brand Warby Parker is built on the belief that everybody has the right to see. Partnering with VisionSpring, to create the Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program, the brand is committed to helping the 15% of the world’s population without access to glasses. To date, it has given 4 million pairs to those in need. 

Doing good is central to the Warby Parker philosophy so they’ve created an environment in which every employee is encouraged to engage with the community they help, both in and out of the office.

Each employee is given 16 hours of paid leave a year to volunteer and to celebrate their third anniversary at the company they are taken to visit a country where Buy a Pair, Give a Pair has made a difference to see the life-changing impact of a pair of glasses up close.

Connect work to a higher meaning by going beyond just having your vision written down on your website and company collateral and help employees to not only understand, but strive towards, your company goals collectively by embodying them.

Software company SAS 

Empowering employees is a great galvanizer. SAS Managing Director David Bowie believes that a focus on embedding leadership into the culture at every level of business has helped create the right conditions for broader success. 

An important way in which Bowie role models this is through a program called ‘Connections’ which helps drive leadership communication and engagement across the organization. Part of this program empowers employees to come directly to him for ‘coffee with David’ to discuss ideas, issues or challenges at work. 

By teaching everyone what leadership behavior is all about, you can enable them to better lead and follow when they must well to work together and reach a common goal.

Make sure that all employees have an opportunity to grow, progress and to try out different roles and responsibilities. Arrange cross-departmental meetings and mentorship programs so that people understand each other’s different roles and learn from each other. Allow employees to have autonomy over their projects and work streams. 

Meaningful work is more than just a program

Each of these organizations has looked at new ways to demonstrate to employees the impact of what they do, or empowered them to see this for themselves, or affect company strategy.

However, this doesn’t mean that these organizations are experts at creating meaningful work.

Simply having a program to see the impact of their work does not mean that employees feel their work is meaningful and are therefore more engaged and productive.

Other aspects are vital to consider too. Not just meaningful work, but meaningful connections and meaningful purpose, too. There’s no point an employee seeing the impact of their work and how it contributes to the company vision if, for example, they’re poorly managed by someone who doesn’t support them or enable them to enjoy their job day-to-day.

Enabling employees to see the bigger picture is just one piece of the puzzle in creating truly meaningful work for employees.

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