The Importance of Finding Meaning & Purpose at Work

Jul 23 2020 | Insights

When José Andrés talks about food, people listen

The famous Spanish-American chef, who is often credited with introducing small plates to North America, was very prominent during the COVID-19 crisis. He is the founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organisation that provides meals following emergencies of all kinds. More recently, José Andrés has also made headlines as an advocate for the millions of people around the world who have kept food on our tables during the economic crisis.

In mid-March, he posted a video on his website of the inside of a Washington, D.C. grocery shop warehouse at 2 a.m., showing dozens of workers scrambling to restock shelves. "Alongside medical staff around the world, people like them are and will be heroes for keeping humanity fed," he tweeted to his 900,000 followers. "Thank them!"

Of all the changes the world experienced during the global COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most profound was the way advocates like Andrés helped redefine what it means to be an "essential" worker.

In trade union jargon, the term 'essential' used to refer to people in professions that played a heroic and crucial role in society: doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, firefighters and police officers.

Thanks to the pandemic, we have a whole new definition of the "essential" worker: grocery shop cashiers and warehousemen, gas station attendants, courier drivers, postal workers, long distance truck drivers. Having made a conscious decision to continue working when most of the world was locked away in the safety of their homes, these workers were hailed as heroes, giving many a new meaning to their work.

There are still issues to be addressed. Many of these essential new generation workers are still working for lower wages and feel that they should be paid at a level commensurate with the risk they took on during the pandemic.

But one thing is certain: in the midst of a great crisis, these workers now have a purpose at work. This is an advantage that many others do not have.

What is purpose and why is it so important? 

There are many different definitions of purpose. Some describe it as the true meaning of their work. Others refer to the values a company embraces, both in the way it treats its employees, but also in the way it engages in the urgent social and economic issues of the day.

Depending on the source, the goal can have many different benefits for both the individual and the organization of the business.

A Cone/Porter Novelli study found that more than three quarters of Americans believe a company must demonstrate that it has a purpose beyond just making money; two thirds of respondents said they would switch to buy a product or service from a company with a defined purpose. A study by Accenture echoed these findings, finding that 42% of US consumers surveyed would stop buying a product or service from a company that did not share their views on pressing social issues.

These trends are not limited to the United States.

IBM did a survey of 19,000 consumers from 28 countries in partnership with the National Retail Federation and found that 70 percent would pay up to 35 percent more for a product or service from a company that had defined its purpose as conducting business in a sustainable or eco-friendly manner.

Much of the research above examines the role of purpose in the relationship between the client and the business. The goal is also a crucial issue in the relationship between the company and the employee. In fact, it is a fundamental element in creating employee engagement.

The Essential Link Between Purpose and Commitment 

Research has shown that without a clearly defined goal – a clear and unambiguous understanding of why employees report to work every day – it is very difficult to be fully engaged. And disengaged workers mean lower engagement, less discretionary effort, lower overall productivity, and lower returns.

In the EY Beacon Institute report2 , The Business Case for Purpose, a direct link is made between organisations that make purpose an integral part of their culture and critical business issues such as employee engagement, satisfaction and retention.

In total, 58 percent of organisations that put a high priority on purpose reported a 10 percent or greater increase in revenues over the previous three years; Only 42 percent of “laggard” organisations, those where purpose is not well-defined or communicated, experienced a similar growth in revenues.

“The sense of being part of something greater than yourself can lead to high levels of engagement, high levels of creativity, and the willingness to partner across functional and product boundaries within a company,” Rebecca Henderson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, said in the EY Beacon report.

Unfortunately, despite a near-consensus on its importance, not all organisations have successfully created a sense of purpose. The EY Beacon report found that only 37 percent of respondents believe their organisations were aligned to a defined purpose, and only 38 percent had a clear understanding of organisational purpose and commitment to core values.

How to create and sustain a sense of purpose 

Purpose is much more straightforward in theory than in practice. Like many important business culture issues, you can find seemingly infinite ‘how-to’ lists preaching a broad array of practices and principles.

But it comes down to this: purpose is a shared experience for both employers and employees.

No one wants to work in a job where you feel you’re just trading time for money. Individual employees must make their own efforts to identify elements of their jobs that drive them to perform better, create more and produce more. An employer cannot, on its own, be the only source of motivation when it comes to purpose.

On the other hand, leaders must be willing to fill the role of modern-day workplace shaman, making themselves available to help employees see the purpose in their jobs, particularly in a time of crisis.

Leaders can help set the table for purpose by creating a narrative for employees: explain to them not only what they have to do but also why. Leaders need to make the consequences of purpose clear so people know what they will accomplish if they pull harder on the rope. In other words, you must align tasks with outcomes, and specifically outcomes that we care about.

The goal means commitment. Commitment is one of the key drivers of business success. Can you afford to let your employees move forward in these uncertain times without knowing not only where they are going, but also why?

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