Workers Seek Meaning, Now and Year-Round


During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and year-end rush, many people seek deeper meaning in the crush of festivities.

This might be a reaction to endless present-buying and the abundant requests for charitable donations, but increasingly, that desire to find a greater purpose has become a year-round mission; employees are looking for something more than just pay. While competitive compensation will always remain a top driver to join and stay at a company, many workers crave additional motivation.

For employees, finding meaning in their work provides satisfaction; for an organization, it can lead to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity. Research from Gallup found that millennials (born between 1980 and 1996) seek "purpose over pay," while a Deloitte study reports that 70 percent of millennials want the organizations they work for to share their personal values.

Another study, from Aon Hewitt, reveals that 53 percent of the 1,000 employees surveyed want meaningful work, and a survey from LinkedIn found that while only 37 percent of LinkedIn members are purpose-oriented at work, 73 percent of those who are purpose-driven are more satisfied with their jobs.

In a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study, 79 percent of the 502 business leaders surveyed say purpose is central to business success, but fewer than half of the 1,510 employees surveyed find meaning in their daily work. This can put a damper on engagement, the study found.

"Employees are looking at the mission of the organization," said Steve Gross, senior partner at Mercer. A pharmaceutical company might have the mission of making drugs that can save people’s lives, for example. Not all companies can have that kind of built-in mission, but "they can find ways to create meaning," Gross said.

For example, Apple originally wanted to bring knowledge to the masses, and the company took hold in the education field by pioneering the use of computers in schools, according to Gross. "Other organizations try to have a mission beyond their current aspects," Gross said.

By creating meaning, companies are building the connection that keeps the employees at the organization. It can also motivate employees to go above and beyond their usual job duties, according to Gross. The differences can translate into hiring a store clerk in a mall who tells a customer to come back tomorrow because it is closing time, or a local store clerk who lets the customer in at 5:59pm and asks how to help. "That is employee engagement," Gross said.

"The brand, the reputation of the organization plays a big role," said Tom McMullen Korn Ferry Hay Group’s North American Total Rewards Expertise Leader.  Compensation is always the top draw, but employees are looking for something more to remain with the organization, and meaningful work can be very compelling, he said. A survey by Korn Ferry found that employees rank "agreeing with the values of the organization" high on their list of must-haves in a job.

Nonprofits such as Make-A-Wish and the Red Cross get a lot of people who join their organizations precisely because of their mission, according to McMullen.. "Not for profits don’t pay as well as the private sector, but the companies have a driving mission," he said.

In addition, many of these organizations are smaller so employees have more opportunity to make an impact within, or "be a big fish in a smaller field," he said.

Another company that has found a compelling mission is Levi Strauss & Company—its sustainability goal is a key reason why millennials want to work there, according to McMullen. "They do a good job at getting the story of their values out," he said.

There are plenty of smaller-scale opportunities for organizations to create more meaning for employees, according to McMullen. For example, companies can set up community service activities, volunteer days, or drives to collect food or other items.

These are relatively small steps that companies can take to help employees feel that their organization shares their personal values, and craft a greater sense of purpose in the workplace. For organizations, that can translate into higher levels of engagement, productivity, and lower turnover—a win-win all around.

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