Purposeful Work: Why All Generations Want to Find Meaning in the Day-to-Day

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By Shannon Schuyler

As the Chief Purpose Officer for one of the world’s largest and most trusted professional services firms, PwC, I spend my days focused on helping the firm and our clients understand what purpose means for business. In other words, beyond making money, why are we in business?

Purpose is on a higher plane than corporate responsibility. It’s an organization’s raison d’être. The truth is, though, that you don’t have to be a Chief Purpose Officer in order to do purposeful work. In fact, I don’t think most kids dream of becoming a “Chief Purpose Officer” when they grow up – I know I didn’t! Almost every young person does, however, dream about having a job that matters, a job that has meaning and allows them to contribute to society in an impactful way.

With all the chatter around what drives employees, it’s important to note that the desire to find purpose at work cascades across all generations. In an ever-changing global business environment, that desire opens up an opportunity for executives to engage and unite employees across generations because – when it comes to purpose — generations don’t matter. Everyone wants to find purpose in their jobs. A recent PwC survey of 1,500 employees and 500 C-Suite leaders in 39 industries proved this to be true, and found some interesting trends about what purpose means for employees.

First, we found that 83 percent of employees said finding meaning in their day-to-day work was most important to them. The reality is that while they’re at work, they want to feel that their job is meaningful. This doesn’t mean they want to volunteer after work; they don’t even necessarily want to do anything pro bono. They want their actual job content to be valuable. Frankly, they don’t just want to push papers and waste their time for eight or more hours per day.

At PwC, for example, we want to help our people understand how their role fits with the firm’s Purpose: to build trust in society and solve important problems. It’s our role as leaders to help employees see how their day-to-day jobs – for example, doing risk assurance or state and local taxes – are contributing toward the greater value of the business and society at-large.

One of the more troubling things we found through the study is the fact that while executives profess support for purpose, employees don’t see enough evidence of it being used as a guidepost for leadership decision-making. But we also found that purpose is a significant reason why employees decide whether to stay at an organization. In fact, 79 percent of employees and 81 percent of business leaders think purpose can impact employee satisfaction and retention. Alarmingly, though, only 29 percent of business leaders have changed how they recruit to better align with their purpose, and only 27 percent of employees said they were recognized for showing purpose in their work.

Finally, we found that employees – again, regardless of their generation – crave an understanding of how their work makes a difference in the lives of others, and want the opportunity to personally engage with purpose. In fact, 50 percent of employees would like to hear more from clients and customers about their organization’s impact. The bottom line is that, from an employee perspective, hearing about purpose from the top-down through emails, reports or executive remarks just isn’t as meaningful as hearing stories of impact from clients, customers or even peers. We also heard that employees want to hear about their organization’s purpose and impact via social media.

Indeed, this research points to some significant gaps when it comes to engaging employees on purpose. These gaps, however, present business leaders with an exciting opportunity. C-Suite executives should strive to help employees find their own personal purpose. Are we really so worried that if people find their own purpose, they are going to leave their jobs? That could not be further from the truth, and this narrow view could prevent business leaders from realizing their recruitment and retention goals. In fact, another study released this month found that 74 percent of corporate employees say their job is more fulfilling when they are provided with opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues. Furthermore, 7 in 10 said they would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to those efforts.

Beyond retention and personal satisfaction, though, we have to ask: Isn’t it possible that engaged employees are more productive and perhaps even more innovative? Understanding organizational purpose means discovering why your organization exists. To pass that understanding on to employees could help shed light for even your most veteran staffers on exactly why they get out of bed and go to work in the morning. Surely, then, tapping that sense of individual and organizational purpose could support productivity and innovation in the workplace.

There are four ways to begin helping your employees find purpose at work, today:

  • Seek to align business decision-making with your organization’s purpose. Leaders have an opportunity to demonstrate that the organization’s purpose is central to business strategy. From there, employees can become advocates for purpose and better understand how they contribute.
  • Keep track of what purpose means to your people. By helping employees answer, “why does my work matter?,” managers can help employees understand how they as an individual make a difference in the organization and in the world.
  • Communicate the human element of your work. Personal delivery and the opportunity for dialogue is important.
  • Incorporate purpose into your recruitment strategy. A company that touts commitment to and passion for its purpose must also use it for recruitment and cultivate these same values in their people.

As demand continues to grow for products and services that deliver both profit and purpose, business leaders have an obligation and an opportunity to engage and empower their employees to find meaning at work.

Image credit: Flickr/Steven Zwerink

Shannon Schuyler is Chief Purpose Officer of PwC.

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