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Libby Marks

What is Meaningful Work & How to Create It

Meaningful work unlocks intrinsic motivation and drives high business performance. But how can you create meaning at work?

Meaningful work is a bit like being in love. If you’ve never been lucky enough to experience it, you might struggle to imagine it. How easy and right it all feels. The sense of connection, satisfaction, and self-esteem. 

Like people who’ve swiped right on the love of their life, people who love their work are happier and even live longer! They’re full of passion and enthusiasm - engaged and growing as a person.

If that doesn’t sound like your relationship with work, you’re not alone. 

Meaningful work is high on the agenda for employees and job applicants - McKinsey & Co finds 70 percent of people are seeking purpose at work - but only 15% are getting it. 

Gallup’s 2023 Global Indicator survey finds 16 percent of employees are actively disengaged from their work and only 33 percent of employees are engaged (just in work terms - they don’t delve into relationship status). 

Given the benefits of meaningful work to employers - like higher employee engagement, retention, and productivity - it’s an imperative workplaces can’t ignore. 

But how do you make work more meaningful? Find out in our article. 

What is meaningful work?

Meaningful work is employment that gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment and creates a sense of accomplishment, impact, and overall well-being.

‘Meaningful work’ is a multi-faceted concept. 

  • To employees and job candidates, it’s something that attracts them to jobs, creates job satisfaction, and motivates them to give their best.
  • For employers and workplaces, meaningful work is a way to recruit, engage, and retain value-aligned team members - and increase productivity and performance.
  • Psychologists, meanwhile, are interested in how meaningful work relates to self-realization, the hierarchy of needs, and what it says about us as human beings. 

However you look at it, meaningful work is a good thing. It’s universally accepted that meaningful work: 

  • Brings purpose to people’s lives
  • Improves their overall well-being and sense of satisfaction
  • Makes people happier at work and outside of it 
  • Delivers significant business benefits (see below)

However, while more of us are looking for meaning at work, employers are failing to provide it. And that leaves businesses at risk of turnover and talent gaps. But don’t worry, we’ve got expert tips to help you help your people find more meaning in their work. 

What makes work meaningful?

Sadly, there is no cookie-cutter that organizations can use to mass-produce meaning. 

Meaningful work is a matter of personal perception. One person may find meaning in public service, another in caring for people or animals, and someone else from recognition for their creativity or customer service.

What makes a job meaningful is completely subjective. Research quoted in Forbes found that 55 percent of the jobs deemed ‘meaningless’ by one participant were listed as ‘meaningful’ by someone else. 

It isn’t just big-ticket ‘meaning’ that matters either. It’s not just medics, blue-light responders, and charity workers who find meaning in their work. 

In Primed to Perform, Doshi and McGregor describe an experiment by Chip Heath, an organization researcher at Stanford University. Heath tested MBA students and asked them to rank the reasons they work - from a list including benefits, praise, money, skill development, self-worth, worthwhile work, pay, and security. 

The MBA students ranked their most important motivations as learning, skills, and self-worth. 

When asked to rank the likely motivations for call center workers, the MBA students said pay, security, and benefits. In other words, they felt people in roles they perceived as less meaningful  were motivated by less worthy aims.  

However, when the call center workers were asked to rank their motivators, they ranked skills, learning, and worthwhile work most highly. Just like the MBA students, they were motivated by a sense of worth, purpose, and self-development.  

Stats support the fact that Mmost of us are seeking purpose from our employment - regardless of the work we do. 89% of respondents to a McKinsey & Co survey said they want purpose in their lives and 70% of employed people say their sense of purpose comes from work. 

This is reinforced by data. Pew Research found work was the most important source of meaning in people’s lives, after family and children.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating meaning at work, studies repeatedly identify key elements that make work feel more meaningful.

Five facets of meaningful work 

Personal relevance

Work that aligns with people’s own values and goals feels more meaningful to them. Value- and goal-alignment makes people feel their time at work is well-spent. Whether that’s in the service of a greater good or personal development. 

Impact and importance

People need to feel their work has a positive impact and they personally make a difference. It doesn’t have to mean solving world hunger or climate change either. Just making a difference in a customer’s life creates meaning for many. 

Autonomy and control

People want autonomy at work - using their expertise and initiative to create impact, rather than just doing as they’re told or feeling like a replacement cog in a machine. This is what academics call self-determination.

Competence and mastery

Meaning can come from using one’s unique skills to make an impact - showcasing, using, and developing skills leads to a strong sense of accomplishment and growth. Recognition and appreciation play an important role here.

Connection and relatedness

People crave connection. Strong personal relationships at work are an important aspect of creating meaning. But connection to the larger mission of the organization counts too, creating shared goals and a sense of community between co-workers.

Why is meaning at work so important? Especially now?

After COVID, people reflected on what really mattered and what they wanted from work, heralding the ‘great resignation’ and ‘great re-evaluation’. 

People realized that they spend the majority of their time at work - and what they do with that time matters. They want work to mean something - and to give their life meaning.

Furthermore, as Gen Z enters the workforce, this younger cohort expects more meaning from their work than past generations.

In this context, meaning at work is no longer a nice-to-have but an imperative for businesses seeking advantage in the global battle for talent. 

McKinsey & Co explored this phenomenon and found five distinct pools of workers with distinct workplace priorities. 

They discovered meaningful work was one of the highest indicators of retention - and attrition - for organizations. So it represents a significant opportunity for businesses looking for the talent advantage.

However, purpose exists in a matrix of other motivators - and employers need a multi-faceted approach to target different personas.

Work personas and the value of meaningful work

  • Traditionalists - Career-orientated individuals willing to make work-life balance trade-offs for the sake of their jobs. Primarily motivated by compensation, status, and career advancement.
  • Do-It-Yourselfers - Predominantly aged 25 to 45, these individuals left jobs in favor of self-employment. To attract them back, employers need to offer ‘the freedom these workers crave, a sense of purpose, and a compensation package beyond what they have on their own’. 
  • Caregivers - Aged 18 to 44, and with more women than men, this group provides care to family members. Their priorities are ‘flexibility and support’. This cohort can be attracted by increasing flexible working, parental leave, on-site childcare - even subsidized cleaning services. 
  • Idealists - ‘Unincumbered by dependents and mortgages’, this cohort of 18 to 24 is less interested in compensation and more in flexibility, career development, and meaningful work. Anchoring professional development to purpose can attract them.
  • Relaxers - Retirees who may consider returning to work. They have completed their careers and are financially comfortable. They want ‘more than the traditional value proposition to be enticed back - including the promise of meaningful work’.

This research shows that once basic financial needs are met, people want more from their 9-to-5. With fewer financial restrictions, idealists and relaxers value a sense of meaning over money. 

In fact, Harvard Business Review reports 9 in 10 Americans would take a pay cut to work somewhere more meaningful. And they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings to have a job that was always meaningful. 

Meaningful work: The opportunity for employers 

The desire for meaningful work - and the recruitment, retention, and performance benefits it conveys, make it a huge opportunity for employers. But it’s an opportunity that’s currently being wasted.

Employees who find their work meaningful are often more engaged, satisfied, and motivated. Research shows when colleagues find their work to be meaningful, their performance improves by 33 percent, they are 75 percent more committed to their organization, and are 49 percent less likely to leave. (Source).

Plus ‘lack of meaningful work’ was the fourth most cited reason for people to quit their jobs (Source).

In a challenging economy, the business benefits of meaningful work are significant. The Brookings Institution found:

Employees experiencing their work as meaningful are less likely to call in sick and are more likely to participate in training to improve their skills. We also find that workers who think of their jobs as purposeful and meaningful want to postpone their retirement, which has important implications for policymakers faced with rising life expectancies and a greater share of older workers in the economy.

We like the positive way Gallup describes it. 

When you enjoy what you're doing, motivation to do it comes easily. It's rewarding in itself, not just a means to a paycheck. When you like what you do, the work itself is easier. Gallup research has found that highly engaged employees typically work more hours per week than their counterparts, likely because they naturally find their work interesting and inspiring. When you like what you do, you do more of it, get better at it, and increasingly reap the rewards of your labor. That doesn't mean that work isn't hard, but it means the hard work feels worth it.

But while McKinsey & Co found people clamoring for meaning in life and work, only 15% of frontline employees agree that they are ‘living their purpose at work’. This climbs to 85% of executives and upper management. 

Could this discrepancy explain why so few organizations are connecting people to purpose? Why employee engagement is so shockingly low? Because managers don’t realize their people are lacking purpose in a way they’re not?

Understanding the factors that contribute to meaningful work can be crucial for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing employee retention, and promoting overall organizational success.

So how can employers harness the power of meaning at work to improve their people’s lives and their business performance? We’re glad you asked… we’ve got five organizational practices for fostering meaningfulness at work.

How to create meaningful work: Expert advice

Encourage reflection 

Writing in Forbes, career coach Rebecca Fraser-Thrill explains that people need to reflect on their work to find meaning. A sense of meaning is often found ‘in retrospect’ rather than ‘in the moment’. But how can you find time to reflect in a packed schedule? 

She suggests employers help their people reflect on their contribution by providing time and support for people to reflect on their impact. 

One strategy is to connect people directly with those who benefit from their work. For example, charities could let back-office workers shadow front-line colleagues to see the collective impact of the organization.

Organizations can also provide facilitated reflection workshops and schedule time for journaling and reflection, whilst leaders should regularly connect the dots between individual’s work and their big-picture impact. Speaking of impact.

Communicate people’s impact

While we’ve agreed there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of meaningful work, McKinsey & Co have defined a ‘five-sizes-fits-most’ strategy for making work meaningful. And that is to show colleagues the impact of their work in the following five spheres - society, the company, their team, its customers, and their own personal success.  

  1. Society: Individuals who find meaning in societal impact are energized by the benefit their work has for their community, the environment, and humankind. 
  2. Company: Some individuals develop bonds with their organization where its norms, vision, and values become part of their identity. When this occurs, an organization’s success then becomes the individual’s success, too.
  3. Customers: Some individuals derive meaning from the impact on their customers: helping clients; exceeding their expectations; and making their lives better, easier, and safer.
  4. Team: Some individuals find a sense of meaning from their teams - driven by working in high-performing groups, characterized by psychological safety. They look forward to coming to work every day and solving tough problems with the people they work with.
  5. Personal success: Individuals also find meaning through personal growth and success. This includes receiving recognition for contributions, having opportunities to grow and develop, working in fulfilling roles, and feeling able to bring one’s best self to work. 

This shows people are motivated by different types of impact. Regularly communicate team and individual impact as it relates to these five spheres to help create meaning for different personality types.

Meaningful work = motivated people 💪

Match resource allocations to people’s personal interests with Runn. Harness intrinsic motivation for higher engagement and awesome client outcomes. 

Discover people-first resource scheduling in Runn.

Understand people’s passions

Speaking in our Putting the Human in Resource Management webinar - Ed Frauenheim talked about ‘what can happen when you tap the power of the human spirit’. By connecting people, their passions, and the needs of the business, organizations can reach new heights of success.

Fellow participant, Edwin Jansen, CEO of Fuse Cooperative explained his approach to this. His ‘role advice process’ involves asking all colleagues two questions:

  • What are you good at? Your knowledge, skills, and experience (‘Resume stuff’)
  • What are you passionate about? What do you want to do? What do you want to learn? What kind of difference do you want to make? 

This information is made available throughout the company - for Operations, HR, and Resource Managers - to align these skills and ambitions to business needs. 

He says that in the middle of that Venn diagram, you find fertile ground to create meaningful work that benefits both the individual and the business.

The first step in this process is to recognize the value of understanding people’s passions - and developing a systematic approach to collecting, sharing, and using that information. This can help you connect people to work they’ll find more meaningful.

[This could be added to your existing skills tracking process. If you have a resource management tool - like Runn - try adding a custom field to your people profiles to include personal interests and ambitions.]

Gallup concurs, advising:

Leaders and managers can help employees like what they do every day by maximizing an employee's unique personality, talents, and passions. Sometimes, this means moving team members into roles that let them do more of what they enjoy or changing job descriptions to better fit employees' work styles. Managers can also learn what people dislike most about their daily work and provide support and tools to minimize those aspects.

Here at Runn, we ring-fence one day every month for self-directed learning. Everyone gets free choice to decide how they want to spend their learning day - pursuing personal and professional interests.  

Connect people to purpose

Role design makes sure jobs within an organization fulfill a specific purpose. And since people are looking for purpose, this seems a great way to bake it into your organization. 

Take the RNLI as an example. This UK charity provides 24/7 lifeboat search and rescue services. The mission of the RNLI is articulated as ‘Saving Lives at Sea’.

They connect every role at the charity to this purpose throughout their recruitment literature. Regardless of whether the role is frontline or back office, everyone’s contribution to saving lives at sea is crystal clear. Every job description starts as follows:

  • ‘My job saves lives at sea by…Building and maintenance of quality lifeboats and components to support our volunteer crews’ (Maintenance technician)
  • ‘My job saves lives at sea by…Growing partnerships to generate a sustainable income stream to help fund the RNLI’s lifesaving work’ (Partnership account manager)

Connecting roles, responsibilities, and tasks to the bigger purpose of the organization can create meaning - from recruitment to employee engagement and retention. 

To help people connect with their ‘why’, Edwin Jansen recommends the following.

Use Simon Sinek’s format for stating a purpose. That is “to do what…so that what”. Then everyone understands their own personal purposes. Mine is “to encourage people to do their most meaningful work so that more people are fulfilled, successful, and happy.”

Gallup recommends making purpose and ‘work well-being’ part of career development conversations. 

Once they establish trust, managers and teams can dream big together - not just about career goals and development but about life and overall purpose and well-being.

Don’t manage, motivate

Intrinsic motivation is motivation that exists within us. Extrinsic motivation is external, like salary, benefits, or fear of negative consequences. As we saw above, once basic financial needs are met, money is a poor motivator for many work personas. Whereas meaningful work harnesses intrinsic motivation. 

In our webinar - What We’ve Learned from 1,000 Conversations with Resource Managers - Runn CEO Tim Copeland explains why motivation is better than management.

As we're moving to more distributed workforces, the concept of what’s intrinsically motivating to people versus what they're told to do is more important. Where resource management came from was the idea that “I'm your manager, I'm going to tell you what to do”. And that works. It's an effective strategy. But it misses the point of all the other good stuff that can come with embracing people as human beings - as the whole person. If you are an organization that can really understand who is doing the work, why they're motivated to do the work, You don't have to do as much management. People are motivated to do it themselves.

Employee motivation experts Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor say - post-COVID - organizations need to excel at ‘keeping a pulse on the motivational and emotional wellbeing of our colleagues’. You can sign up for an account on their website to run employee ‘health check’ surveys and benchmark employee motivation.

Gallup recommends upskilling managers to move from boss to coach and form more supportive relationships. 

Use proven methods to transition your managers' mentality from boss to coach. Think of this as a year-long journey that starts with learning about high-performance teams. Each manager should become an expert at setting goals and providing meaningful feedback at least once a week.

Using the Skill Will matrix can help managers find the best coaching method for different individuals. 

The most important aspect of meaningful work is that it is personal to each individual. Workplaces need to identify employees’ own values, unlock their personal passions, and develop their individual interests - all within the wider context of business needs and benefits.   

Put your focus firmly on your people with Runn - people-first resource management for the modern workplace. Centralize your people profiles and create whole-organization visibility into resource availability, skills, and ambitions.

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