For 23 years, Fred Vautour worked the graveyard shift as a janitor at Boston College. Ask him why he initially accepted a role there, and he’ll tell you he simply wanted a job with benefits. But ask him why he stayed more than two decades later, and the answer is very different: He did it for his kids.
Thanks to Fred’s job, all five of his children graduated from the prestigious private university—without paying a dime in tuition. As he said in an AOL interview, his intention was always to do work “not just for the money but because you want to be your best at what you do.”
What Vautour found was much more than a way to put food on the table or a means of funding his children’s education. He stumbled upon something deeper that all of us crave: meaningful work.
How much is meaning worth to us? A survey by coaching platform BetterUp found that employees would sacrifice an average of $21,100 every year of their working lives in exchange for knowing their work would always be meaningful.
So why does this matter for employers? Great question. Let’s dive in.
Why Does Meaning Matter At Work? 5 Irresistible Reasons
Sure, you can promise competitive compensation, flexible work, and career advancement to lure top talent to your organization. But if you can inspire your employees to find meaning in their jobs—you get so much more.
When people find their work meaningful, they:
- Exert more effort: BetterUp found that employees whose work feels meaningful put in an average of one extra hour of work per week. They’re also more likely to participate in job-enhancing training, according to University of Groningen research.
- Stay with your company longer: BetterUp also found that employees experiencing the highest level of meaning are 69% less likely to quit in the next six months than those experiencing the least meaning.
- Are less likely to experience job burnout: Only 6% of employees who find their work meaningful experienced job burnout in the previous six months, says SurveyMonkey. Compare that to 75% of employees who find their work meaningless.
- Boost your bottom line: BetterUp estimates that a worker who finds their job highly meaningful will produce an extra $9,078 per year in labor output to their company.
- Have a more positive employee experience: Joint research by IBM and Workhuman found that, of the six factors that contribute to a positive employee experience, meaningful work has the single greatest influence.
6 Ways Leaders Can Foster Meaningful Work On Their Team
Thankfully, meaningful work isn’t confined to specific types of jobs. It’s available to anyone who can tap into their values, strengths, and interests. As a leader, here are six ways you can help your team uncover meaning, no matter their role.
1. Get Clear On Your Company’s Mission, Values, And Employer Brand
A sense of meaninglessness often stems from a disconnect between what the employee thinks is important and what their company thinks is important. The best way to avoid a crisis of meaning in the first place? Make it clear from the start what your company stands for—and hire people whose personal values align with that.
You can achieve this by clearly defining and communicating the following:
- Employer Value Proposition (EVP). Unlike your consumer-facing brand, your employer brand is how you describe your value to your ideal job candidates. It includes an employer value proposition (EVP) that is your promise to candidates of what they can expect if they take a job with your company. Why should they choose you over a competitor as their employer? The EVP helps you filter out the wrong fit and attract the right one.
- Mission. When the road gets rough, your mission is what will keep employees motivated—so long as you and they believe in it.
- Values. Your company values are the beliefs that employees live by and the organization embodies.
Get your messaging right, and you’ll attract employees who will find purposeful work at your organization.
2. Help Each Team Member Perform A “Purpose Audit”
Now that your organization is clear on what it stands for, it’s time to make sure that each individual who works for you knows what they find personally meaningful.
In recent research on purpose at work, McKinsey & Company found that most employees fall into one of three “purpose archetypes:”
- The free spirit: “'Free spirits' tend to find meaning in situations where they control what they do and when they do it."
- The achiever: “'Achievers' find purpose in accumulating social or material resources; they often find meaning in self-improvement."
- The caregiver: “'Caregivers' find meaning in choosing how and when they care for others; they care less about material gain or what others think of them."
While there’s no test you can take to find out your purpose archetype, McKinsey does have an interactive online tool that maps out nine universal values found from its research to contribute to life purpose. The consulting company also suggests making time for your team to perform a “purpose audit.” This isn’t anything formal; just set aside time for your team to look over the nine universal values and identify which elements resonate most with them. Then, they can look at the three purpose archetypes and get a pretty good idea of which one fits them best. Lastly, have them reflect on how their current work fits in (or doesn’t) with their purpose archetype.
If you’re struggling with where to start, McKinsey recommends the following question to spark inquiry: “When do you feel most alive?”
3. Align A Person’s Work To Personal And Company Values
Okay, so you’ve defined your company’s values and each team member has defined their personal values. But what happens when there is a mismatch between values and what the employee actually does in their job? That’s another culprit for a crisis of meaning.
Work with your employees to find ways to bring alignment between values and work, even if that means changing tasks or shifting roles. For instance, you might find that one employee identifies as an “achiever” from the purpose archetypes above, and while they’re great at their job, they haven’t had an opportunity for advancement or to learn new skills in years. That should prompt a change to help them seek new challenges, whether that’s through leading a team or acquiring a certification.
4. Show Them The Impact Of Their Work
University of Helsinki researchers Frank Martela and Anne Pessi found that in order for work to feel purposeful, employees must see how it positively affects something beyond one’s self, usually other people.
But in the busy day-to-day of work life, many employees are just trying to get their job done; they rarely see the fruits of their labor. It’s up to you to show them. Here are some ideas:
- Feature customer stories regularly. This is the most powerful way to make impact feel real. In one study, organizational psychologist Adam Grant and colleagues invited scholarship recipients to meet the call center workers who helped fundraise for those scholarships. One month later, those call center workers who had met the students and heard firsthand how the scholarship money helped them spent more than double the amount of time on the phone and brought in 170% more money on average.
- Show and celebrate the impact of their work at all-hands meetings. All-hands meetings are a chance to celebrate wins in front of every employee, driving home the impact your company has.
- Send an impact newsletter. Call upon your internal communications team to craft an impact newsletter. This is something nonprofits excel at: They send regular donor newsletters that detail how donations were spent, even breaking it down into Impact-Per-Dollar measurements (e.g., “For $50, you fed this family of five for one week.”). That shows a direct tie between an action (giving $50) and a good outcome (a family getting fed).
The same can be applied to employees: How can you show them the real-life outcome of the tasks they completed in the office?
While finding the cure for a disease, ameliorating nationwide poverty, or feeding the hungry are all grand ways that one can find purpose in their work, the research by Martela and Pessi also found that, as we saw with Fred’s story, something as simple as providing for one’s family is a fantastic source of meaning.
“Especially in situations where income is scarce, a person might be strongly motivated to provide for the family,” Martela and Pessi write in Frontiers in Psychology, “and this broader purpose might make even an otherwise tedious work motivating and meaningful.”
This kind of impact may be harder to show in newsletters, but it’s something to encourage your team members to reflect upon, nonetheless. And if you’re a leader with control over your team’s salary, this is yet another reason to ensure fair pay and reward employees with bonuses and raises.
5. Grant Your Team Members More Autonomy Over Their Roles
Even if someone is getting paid well to do something that contributes to a greater good, if they have no control over how they do their job—the work will still feel meaningless to them. That’s another conclusion researchers Martela and Pessi reached.
They write in Frontiers in Psychology: “When one feels that one is just a ‘cog in a machine’ doing something repetitious with no possibility to influence the content of one's work and constantly controlled by some authority, one might find the work not worth doing, even if it would be well compensated and have a noble purpose.”
In fact, autonomy frequently appeared in much of the scientific literature on meaningful work. But what does autonomy at work look like? Some ideas:
- Nix the time tracking and surveillance of remote workers. Clocking in with punch cards is a thing of the past. Many companies are now measuring results instead of hours logged. At the start of the pandemic, when many teams went remote, companies that monitored mouse movement and the like received backlash for their overreach and lack of trust.
- Let your team work asynchronously. Asynchronous work is the peak of flexible work. It means that each member of your team gets to work when they decide it’s best—not just when everyone else is working.
- Remove unnecessary protocol. While easing up on rules can feel scary for any manager, what you’re really doing is increasing trust. You hired each employee because you believed them to be the best fit for the job—so let them do it.
Here’s an example from customer service: Customer support reps often have scripts they are supposed to follow during calls. The intention is to provide consistent quality service, but often, it creates a hindrance because the reps are not free to respond in the way they know is best but must recite the script. By removing that unnecessary layer (i.e., “follow the script no matter what”), managers show they trust their support reps, and they allow them to do their job as a human, not a robot.
Any time you can refrain from micromanaging, you grant your team the gift of autonomy, empowering them to find more meaning in their work.
6. Encourage Human Connection at Work
Researchers from the University of Groningen found that intrinsic qualities—autonomy, relatedness, and competence—are nearly five times more important to meaningful work than extrinsic ones, such as compensation, benefits, and working hours.
Of the three intrinsic qualities, though, the one that has the greatest impact on whether someone finds their work meaningful is relatedness, or the feeling that one cares about their colleagues and that their colleagues care about them too.
Even when a job starts to feel tedious and you’re stressed out, coming into work knowing there’s someone who’s excited to see you and share a laugh or a meal with you can make all the difference. That’s why fostering friendships at work is so important, especially during a time when many are working remotely.
A Job Doesn’t Necessarily Come With Meaning—It’s Up To You To Empower Employees To Find It
Finding meaning at work has little to do with the content of your job and everything to do with why you’re doing it. Few people would consider mopping floors, cleaning toilets, or taking out trash as impactful tasks. But for Fred Vautour, handing the last of his five children the diploma made possible by his job was all the impact he needed to remain a janitor at Boston College for 23 years.
What Fred’s story and scientific research shows us is that, when it comes to work—meaning is what you make it. And that’s good news for all of us with jobs because, no matter the role (nor the original reason you accepted it), you can make it count.
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