Finding a purpose at work is often cited as one of the main motivations for joining a company. For example, a survey conducted with LinkedIn members has revealed that 74% of candidates want a job “where they feel like their job matters”.

But what makes work meaningful? We may not define it in the same way: for some people, meaningful work may be a positive contribution to the company they work for or to the society while for others, meaningful work is work that makes them happy or helps them achieve personal goals. Furthermore, how can the company help employees find meaning in their work? The way employees perceive their work (meaningful or not) has direct impacts on their job satisfaction, motivation, and performance. We had a chat on this topic with Andrew Spence, the founder of Glass Bead Consulting:

profile photo of andrew spence

Hi Andrew, let’s start with the basics – what is your definition of meaningful work?

There isn’t much research on what constitutes meaningful work, but the research done shows that whether someone finds work meaningful is intensely personal and individual to them. For example, we might not fancy cleaning the streets as a job, but another person with completely different motivations and needs might see it in a different way. This doesn’t mean they walk around in a contented euphoric state, sweeping brush in hand, but maybe feeling they have made an important contribution to the neighbourhood.

5 qualities of meaningful work

In research by Katie Bailey and Adrian Madden, highlighted in my article “What Makes Work Meaningful?”, the researchers found five qualities of meaningful work. Feeling a sense of achievement or pride in our work was important, and so was seeing that our work contributed to our team or a larger cause. For instance, when the researchers interviewed retail workers they talked about helping vulnerable elderly customers.

Can you explain why making work more meaningful for employees should be one of the top priorities in every organisation?

In a YouGov Survey conducted in the UK, 37% of workers found their jobs meaningless. This is shocking and sad. The anthropologist, David Graeber, has written about ‘Bullshit Jobs’– in his view, some jobs should never have existed at all. Organisations providing the work are responsible for the overall organisation design, the governance, outputs, service, and also the job design. This should include finding people who will not only accept the pay and conditions but who are also likely to perform well and stay longer in the role, which in turn, has a positive impact on productivity. So there are benefits for both individuals and organisations from providing more meaningful work.

Read also: Why You Need Empathy in the Workplace

It should be a top priority for organisations to design work that is likely to be meaningful for employees but there are a number of barriers to achieving this.

Can you tell us a bit more about those barriers you mentioned?

We have all at one time in our careers worked in unhappy organisations – I know I have! To twist a Tolstoy quote about families, “All happy organisations are alike; each unhappy organisation is unhappy in its own way.”

In terms of barriers, the researchers found some common themes from interviews with a range of workers including retail assistants, solicitors, nurses, soldiers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, and academics. Finding out why an organisation doesn’t offer a positive environment is a complex task but employees working in jobs they don’t find meaningful is likely to be a contributing factor.

Some of the factors that destroy meaningful work are highlighted in my article based on research, “The Seven Deadly Sins Preventing Meaningful Work”. The ones that resonated with me most include disconnecting people from values – a recurring theme was the tension between an organisational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work.

Giving people pointless work also ranked highly – a feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not make sense to them. Nurses, academics, and artists, all cited bureaucratic tasks and form-filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness. If people feel that they can’t trust their leaders to be fair, open and equitable, then they are unlikely to find much meaning in their work. Forms of unfairness ranged from diminutive injustices to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment.

What is your top piece of advice you would share with team leaders for creating a framework that makes work more meaningful for the team members?

I think everyone in an organisation can play a role in explaining the purpose and context of work tasks. One is to link the task or the activity to something bigger. Whether you work as a CEO, a carer or a cleaner in a hospital, you are all equally important in helping people to recover from illness as the nurses and doctors. I think by making the connection between someone’s job and the main goal of your organisation – whether that is to heal the sick or make people feel good, you can help create meaning.

Medtronic is a company that makes specialist medical devices including prosthetic limbs. Many of their employees do not have direct contact with their end customers, because they might work in product development or in finance. To help create meaning, the company shares stories of patients who have benefited from the company’s products with its employees and gives them the opportunity to meet customers at their regular ‘town-hall meetings’. In the words of a senior executive, “Our people end up feeling personally involved in our company’s mission to restore people to full life.” They can see the end result of their work and many are profoundly moved by the patients’ stories.

This has a much greater impact on morale than going through the quarterly earnings report!

According to you, how can knowledge sharing in the workplace (company news, managerial best practices, news related to the industry…) help employees connecting with meaning in their job?

Well I think that knowledge sharing can be useful in allowing employees to find purpose and meaning in their work.

Related: How Can Management Support Organizational Knowledge Sharing?

In the previous question, I gave the example of how one company, making prosthetic limbs made sure all employees had some sort of contact with the end users of the products, or in other words, the people who benefited from their work. It’s not practical to do this frequently, but knowledge sharing can really help. This could be any form of social media content in the form of videos, articles, podcasts etc. Anything that helps employees feel positively connected to the customers and creates a feeling that they are making a difference will help. And the research shows that there are individual differences in how people find meaning, so it might be a good idea to try and vary the content and messaging.

Overall, what can HR do to support meaningful work in organisations?

When I talk with HR and business leaders about designing organisations that provide meaningful work, occasionally I hear the opinion that this is just a ‘middle-class problem’, that pay is the priority for most workers and anything else is a luxury.

For an HR leader to believe that providing meaningful work is not their job is very disappointing. If anyone in an organisation should be the go-to people for questions on people and organisational effectiveness it should be HR.

There are a few things that HR can do to ensure team leaders have the right tools and skills to manage their teams effectively.

Use personality tests, hypotheses testing, and statistical analysis to hire the right people. Work out, which type of people do well in particular roles in your organisation, and measure this over time, feeding back data to improve the recruitment process.

If you really want to understand what employees think about their job, then ask them. Monitor employee sentiment (there are plenty of tools you can use to do this), and identify problem areas quickly.

HR can support teams to find connections from the work they do to the overall purpose of the organisation. Find ways to show tangible examples, like the company that makes medical devices, of what the organisation actually does whether it’s servicing customers or making products.

Keep learning about what motivates people at work – there is still a lot to learn about human psychology and how organisations work. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t just about the money, but it’s not exactly about the joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.

As an optimist, I believe organisations have the opportunity to solve current organisational issues with an evidence-based approach. With well-designed and funded research programmes carried out by academics and practitioners, we have a better chance of creating jobs that provide meaningful work.

About Andrew: Andrew is a Strategic Workforce Advisor and HR Transformation Director. He has founded Glass Bead Consulting to help companies implementing complex transformation programmes. He is often invited to speak at major conferences on People Management, HR Change and Transformation and People Analytics. He shares his thoughts and key findings in the blog HR Transformation Blog. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn!

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