The modern workforce needs purpose in their daily work. Here’s how to find purpose, message it and reap the benefits.
by Lauren Dixon
June 27, 2022
Since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed office workers home and eliminated many commutes, employees have had more time to consider what their work means to them, personally, as well as how their work relates to the world.
According to Gartner research, 65 percent of U.S. employees said the pandemic made them rethink the role work should have in their life. Additionally, 56 percent said the pandemic also made them want to contribute more to society. In other words, employees seek purpose and meaning in their work lives.
People began to consider, “if I’m going to work this hard, I want to like where I am,” says Amy Polefrone, president of HR Strategy Group LLC. U.S. workers are indicating they want to have meaning in their jobs if they’re going to devote so much of their time and energy to a company.
It turns out most people consider their daily work to be the main way they access a sense of purpose, as opposed to outside of working hours. According to McKinsey and Company research, as much as 70 percent of workers feel their sense of purpose is tied to their work.
Along with the change in working arrangements that the pandemic brought, Polefrone points out the work-related health impacts workers face due to their work. She says the pandemic led people to question the reasonableness of their workloads or the emotional challenges of their days.
According to a survey from Indeed in 2021, more than half of U.S. workers reported feeling burned out due to the demands of their jobs. Burnout is more than a difficult time at work; it can lead to mental and emotional turmoil, and stress can even manifest in physical symptoms.
Polefrone says as employees look more at their health consequences at work, they are realizing: “I don’t want to die for this.” And if a worker doesn’t like where they are, they see other companies are hiring and leave the organization in hopes of a better, healthier environment.
Rob Seay, COO at Artigem, has helped large organizations define purpose during times of change, especially around mergers or reorganizations. Although purpose has been important to organizations since before the pandemic, he says the change in work environment pushed the conversation further.
Work-from-home or hybrid workplace models muddied the experiences of unique company cultures. When workers are on their laptops in their home kitchens, “What is the distinction of me being an employee at one company over another?” Seay asks. In the office, employees could experience company culture through relationships with colleagues, as well as the office environment.
The differentiator now is the purpose the job brings to the employee, he says.
What is purpose?
Individuals can find purpose in their roles through their ability to connect the dots of how their role relates to the rest of the business, Polefrone says. That sense of purpose can be extrinsic, too, like with nonprofit work that benefits a community or cause. But burnout can still occur. Polefrone says she works with a nonprofit that recognized the emotional toll the work had on staff, so the organization has found creative ways to combat that burnout, including via their work culture, great PTO and benefits packages that include counseling.
Companies with strong purpose statements do a good job of aligning both the internal and external motivations, aligning individual values with the company’s, Seay says. “Companies that are really successful in this do have that purview and that perspective that it’s both internal and external.”
When it comes to a mission statement, core values and vision, purpose is similarly aligned. Seay finds people can get caught up in the distinction between these messages, but “the truth is that they’re so closely aligned that it’s OK if they’re very similar,” he says. The focus should be that when speaking to employees, clients and customers, they have a clear sense of why the organization does what it does, Seay says.
How do organizations identify purpose?
Identifying an organization’s purpose takes time. Seay says leaders can easily get caught up on tactical goals and the daily tasks at hand, but not having a purpose in mind for the business could have them running in circles.
When Seay assists business leaders in identifying the purpose of their organization, he asks the following questions:
- What do we want to be known for?
- What’s the impact we want to have in the industry or market?
- At the end of the day, what’s something simple that can resonate with people?
It’s also important to include employees in the conversation. Seay says he sees success when organizations get employees involved in helping to establish purpose. When employees provide input, they are more likely to have a sense of ownership and contribution. Seay recommends asking, “What is the impact you want to see from the business that resonates with you, personally?”
Polefrone adds that HR should take time with employees, gathering them in small groups to ask about what’s important to them. Ask questions such as, “What are you hearing? Where are we doing well? Where can we get better?” People will share, Polefrone says, and there might be some easy fixes employees reveal.
“Then, of course, do something about it,” she says. Leaders can show meaning and purpose in the organization by making actionable steps that employees suggest. “Really, if you’re going to listen, do something about it,” Polefrone reiterates.
Seay echoed the sentiment that leaders need to be accountable for acting on feedback. When asking employees for contributions, the leader must too be accountable to make the changes. Seay says it is the biggest challenge in purpose: bringing it to life.
Where should purpose appear for the organization?
Once the organization has a purpose statement outlined, Seay recommends taking a step back and asking how to bring it to life, via other initiatives across the employee life cycle. “It’s not a check-the-box initiative. It’s evergreen, it’s ongoing, and it requires dedication and attention,” Seay says.
Seay shared examples of where purpose can appear:
- Recognition efforts: The badges or awards given to staff should showcase aspects of purpose as a business and how people can live the purpose every day.
- Recruitment and employment branding: Highlight and showcase purpose in the recruiting process and in onboarding.
- Training and development: Invest in areas that center around the business purpose.
- Promotions: If an employee champions purpose, consider if they should have more opportunities for career advancement and development of new skills.
- Everyday communications: Embed purpose in meetings and other employee-facing messages.
When communicating the purpose of an organization, respondents in a PwC study, Putting Purpose to Work, said they most favor hearing about purpose via leadership messages and employee stories from the business leaders, team leaders and company-sponsored events.
Polefrone adds purpose should also be part of marketing open roles. She even hears companies talking about having marketing teams work with HR to better communicate the company’s purpose and align it to the employer’s value proposition. “HR needs to ask for help from marketing, and marketing needs to see HR needs help. There’s mutually assured success if those two groups are working together,” she says.
Marketing teams can help HR with job descriptions, making them more than dull descriptions of the position, muddled with legalese, she says. “It has to sound attractive, fun, and that they can see themselves in that job. That’s how you help people at the very outset.” Just from the job posting, people should be able to envision themselves working at the organization. “A humble job posting is actually not humble anymore — it’s essential,” Polefrone says.
The conversation about purpose should also be ongoing amongst staff. Polefrone says managers should be using regular meetings to show their direct reports how they’re connected to each other and the organization.
What if purpose changes?
Similarly to how businesses changed during the pandemic, personal values and an organization’s purpose might change, too, Seay says.
While thinking about purpose should be part of everyday efforts, adjusting purpose doesn’t need to happen nearly as often. Seay says whenever something significant happens in the business, that’s a good time to revisit purpose. When staff or clients start to ask, “What does this mean for the organization?” it’s a good indication to have a pulse check amongst staff or put together a focus group of customers. “Take a pulse to see if what we’re doing still makes sense.”
Seay says companies shouldn’t be changing the core values for every employee, but leaders should be clear about business values so everyone is informed up front and can talk individually about where the values don’t align.
What are the outcomes?
According to LinkedIn’s Purpose: A Practical Guide, purpose-driven companies have better talent outcomes, seeing 29 percent more applicants for their roles and 10 percent more hires. On the staff side, purpose-driven professionals are 30 percent more likely to be high performers, and they’re 50 percent more likely to be in leadership roles. The LinkedIn study also found purpose-driven professionals have 11 percent longer tenures at their company.
“At the end of the day, you really want to have the people whose individual purpose aligns with the business,” because they’re going to be the most productive, Seay says.
The 2016 PwC Putting Purpose to Work survey also found a connection between purpose and tenure. Millennials are 5.3 times more likely to stay at an organization where they feel a strong tie to its purpose. Older generations are also more likely to be loyal to their organization when purpose aligns, although at lower rates of 2.3 times. Despite the importance of purpose, the survey found only 27 percent of business leaders help employees connect their own purpose to the work of the company.
Polefrone echoes that employees are more likely to stay at an organization that shares purpose. People crave communication and having meaning in their days. With the talent market tightening, bringing more purpose to employees’ workdays and lives can help with the aforementioned costs such as turnover and productivity.
“Companies can’t afford to just dither,” Polefrone says.