The Importance of Finding Meaning & Purpose at Work

Jul 23 2020 | Insights

When José Andrés talks about food, people listen.

A celebrity Spanish-American chef who is often credited with bringing small-plate dining to North America, Andrés has had a very high profile during the COVID-19 crisis. He is the founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit that provides meals in the wake of emergencies of all kinds. More recently José Andrés has also earned headlines as an advocate for the millions of people around the world who kept food on our tables during the economic lockdown.

In mid-March, he posted a video on his website from inside the stockroom of a Washington, D.C., grocery store at 2 a.m. that showed dozens of workers scrambling to restock shelves. “Next to the Medical staff across the world, people like them are and will be heroes to keep humanity fed,” he Tweeted to his 900,000 followers. “Thank them!”

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

In labour parlance, “essential” previously described those who worked in professions that performed heroic, crucial roles in society: doctors, nurses, paramedics, firefighters and police.

Thanks to the pandemic, we have a whole new definition of “essential” worker: grocery store cashiers and stock clerks; gas station attendant; courier drivers; postal workers; long-haul truck drivers. After making the conscious decision to continue working even as most of the world was shuttered in the safety of their homes, these workers have been hailed as heroes, giving many a new sense of purpose in their work.

There are still concerns to be ironed out. Many of these new-generation essential workers still toil for lower wages and believe they should be paid at a level commensurate with the risk they’ve assumed during the pandemic.

But there is one thing that is certain: in the midst of a great crisis, these workers now have purpose at work. That 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 that a business embraces, both in the way it treats its employees but also in how it engages the pressing social and economic issues of the day.

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. An Accenture study echoed those results, finding that 42 percent of the U.S. consumers it surveyed would stop buying a product or service from a business that does not share their sense of purpose about pressing social issues.

Those trends are not limited to the U.S.

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 customer and business. Purpose is also a critical issue in the relationship between business and employee. In fact, it is a foundational element in the creation of employee engagement.

The critical link between purpose and engagement 

Research has shown that without a clearly defined sense of purpose – a clear and unambiguous understanding of why employees show up to work each day - it is very hard to become fully engaged. And disengaged workers mean lower commitment, less discretionary effort, lower overall productivity and sagging performance.

In the EY Beacon Institute report, The Business Case for Purpose, a direct link is made between organizations that prioritize purpose as a part of its culture and critical business issues such as employee engagement, satisfaction and retention.

In total, 58 percent of organizations 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” organizations, 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 organizations have successfully created a sense of purpose. The EY Beacon report found that only 37 percent of respondents believe their organizations were aligned to a defined purpose, and only 38 percent had a clear understanding of organizational 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.

Purpose means engagement. Engagement is one of the key drivers behind business success. Can you afford to allow your employees to forge ahead into these uncertain times unsure of not only where they’re going, but why?

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