Living through a pandemic left many people feeling empowered to move on if they weren’t getting enough fulfillment on the job. In other words, employee engagement and retention can no longer rest on cool office “toys” or a long list of perks.
So what do employees want? There’s been a lot of research around this, especially as record numbers of U.S. workers voluntarily left their positions last year. A top finding is that employees want to feel like their work has meaning and purpose.
Consider this: 46% of job seekers surveyed in 2021 said they were looking for a role where they felt better connected to a company’s purpose, the Society for Human Resource Management found.
Without feeling aligned to purpose, employees are prone to the cog-in-a-wheel mentality that drains engagement, motivation, and productivity. As a 2021 report from McKinsey & Company notes, “Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.”
It’s time to treat finding purpose at work as a business imperative that directly affects retention and productivity.
First, Clarify Your Purpose
Many companies tend to interchange purpose and mission, but there’s a key difference: mission describes what your company does, while purpose describes why you’re doing it. What’s your company’s end story – what good things are happening because it exists? What are the big-picture benefits associated with employees’ everyday tasks?
When properly communicated, purpose is what brings meaning to the everyday job duties of your workers.
Let’s start with a fairly straightforward example: A company that provides clean energy solutions. The mission statement may be along the lines of “We provide affordable and sustainable alternative energy solutions to help customers minimize their environmental impact.”
Now let’s talk about purpose – why does this company exist? How about reducing the pollution and subsequent environmental damage we know can happen from traditional energy sources? Or, taking it a step further, we could say it’s elevating the safety, health, and quality of life for customers and communities.
Here’s one that isn’t quite so obvious. Let’s say a janitorial staffing agency’s mission is to provide trustworthy cleaning professionals so that customers don’t have to worry about maintaining a janitorial staff. A driving purpose could be to help companies give employees the peace of mind that comes with a clean, healthy workplace. Another purpose could even be to match janitorial workers with reliable employment so that they can take care of their families.
Try it with your organization. Chances are, you’re good at describing what your company does. Can you extract some purpose-driven “why’s”?
Communicate Purpose through Stories and Reminders
Don’t bury company purpose in the employee handbook where it’s viewed once during onboarding and then never revisited. Frequent communication that reinforces purpose – and how employees contribute – is critical.
Social media and your internal employee portal are key channels to leverage. Here are some content suggestions:
Leadership stories. When leaders are transparent about their connection to purpose, it’s like adding a double shot of espresso to workforce motivation that’s fallen to a tepid decaf. Encourage leaders to share specific examples of times they clearly saw how their work aligned with company purpose.
Employee stories. Celebrate your employees by featuring stories that highlight their current projects, and how that work contributes to big-picture benefits for others.
Community impact stories. Spread the word about how your organization is making a difference for community members. (“Community” here could mean your immediate local community, a wider global community, your customer base, or your industry.) Tie charitable efforts back to your company purpose; quantify how your product or service is making people’s lives better. And always, always share how employees’ contributions are making it all possible.
Coach Managers to Lead with Purpose
Managers play a critical role in helping employees find purpose in their day-to-day job duties. They should be able to clarify organization purpose and communicate to team members how their work makes a positive impact.
I used to work in the corporate advertising department of a healthcare company. We spent our days churning out materials like ads for free cancer screenings, invitations to attend health seminars, and brochures describing new treatments and procedures.
Essentially, producing communications that could lead to lives saved or better health. Talk about purpose.
Except that I rarely felt like I was making any contribution toward the greater good. The goals emphasized most often were meeting deadlines and keeping top execs happy. Morale and trust in the organization ran pretty low in our department.
Would it have made a difference if managers reminded us that our work might help someone get screened in time to successfully treat breast cancer, or discover a life-changing diabetes management program?
I think it would have. We knew the company’s mission, the gist of which was to provide high-quality healthcare to as many people as possible.
But no one ever talked about the “why,” or how our work supported it.
Empower Employees to Live Your Purpose during Work
Giving employees ways to “live” your company’s purpose while on the job is a one way to build connection to mission.
Here’s an example. Let’s say a construction company’s mission is to perform high-quality workmanship on schedule and on budget. The purpose – the why – is to provide people with safe, affordable housing. One way the company could connect employees to your purpose? Give employees full pay a few times a year to volunteer with an organization like Habitat for Humanity.
Or perhaps a food services company lets employees devote some workweek hours to organizing a donation drive for a local food pantry. You get the idea.
Similarly, assess whether company culture reflects mission and purpose. A health and wellness company needs to support employees in living a healthy lifestyle. Employees at an events management company might expect a certain level of fun and camaraderie in the culture. I’ll leave you with this side note: Nearly every organization could probably increase retention by weaving some fun and camaraderie into the culture! (Along with purpose, of course.)
Need help developing portal content that bridges the purpose gap? MAC4 Communications can help.
Author: Karen Tizer