What makes work meaningful? Be prepared for a surprise

Most companies appreciate employees need a sense of direction from them. They articulate values and create mission statements to crystallise their raison d’être, explaining what it is that they stand for to employees as well as to customers, suppliers and shareholders. It’s an important starting point – but is it enough to motivate employees every single day to come into work and give it their all?

Visions, missions and values have been around for a long time now, yet there continues to be a steady stream of surveys suggesting that in some companies, sectors and even countries motivation and engagement is limping on rather than soaring. What can companies do to address this?

One answer seems to be by finding ways to make jobs meaningful – but that sounds like one of those statements that is extremely easy to make but actually really hard to do. Or is it? Employers struggling with finding ways to make jobs meaningful might want to take some inspiration from the two studies below. Both of them provide intriguing evidence about the benefits of focusing on what individuals are doing, not in terms of goal setting and identifying what they need to achieve for the company, but rather in terms of understanding how the activity they’re doing is helping others. Finding ways for employees to discover real meaning in their work could be a lot more achievable than you might think.

Amy Wrzesniewski – New York University

Amy Wrzesniewski is now professor at Yale School of Management but along with the rest of her team carried out this research while at New York University. Part of it involved looking at roles that at first glance wouldn’t seem to be deeply fulfilling, specifically janitors in hospitals. While some of the janitors didn’t find their work satisfying and said they were there mainly for the money, there was a significant proportion that did derive a real sense of purpose. Wrzesniewski set out to understand why there was a difference.

When their daily routines were examined, it turned out there was what Wrzesniewski termed ‘job crafting’ going on; in other words, a fundamental difference in the way the two sets of employees were approaching their responsibilities. The less satisfied group only did what was required of them in their job description, interacting with others when necessary. The second group, however, went out of their way to add in extra tasks and get involved with others by doing things like spending time talking to patients who seemed upset or lonely. In doing this, they ended up shaping their own jobs by transforming the significance of the activities they did and forming a far more positive self-perception of their role at the hospital.

Wrzesniewski carried out follow-up studies where assigned groups of employees across various workplaces were helped to engage in job crafting and the results of the initial study were confirmed; those employees were far happier and performed better than the other employees.

Adam Grant – University of Michigan

While at the University of Michigan, Grant studied the impact of injecting meaning into jobs which would usually be considered repetitive and monotonous and where morale can be low as a result. He looked at staff working in a university call centre whose role involved calling people to persuade them to make donations. It was low paid work that was frequently frustrating with regular rejections from the people they were calling.

In his research Grant arranged for the call centre workers to spend some time with the scholarship students who were directly benefiting from their work. It wasn’t a huge amount of time: just 5 minutes or thereabouts which gave them an opportunity for a quick chat and for the students to tell the call centre workers about their studies. Yet the impact was considerable. The staff who’d had time with the students subsequently spent more than two times longer on the phone, and managed to secure considerably more money – going from a weekly average of $185.94 to $503.22. An appreciation of how their activity positively impacted on others didn’t just make employees happy – it ramped up their productivity massively. They weren’t perceiving their job as being about making tedious phone calls; they’d reframed their work by understanding how it was making a real difference to the lives of these young people.

Grant’s replicated this finding in several other studies since. It’s inspirational stuff for all kinds of organisations and businesses. Find ways to help employees and other stakeholders understand the significance of what they do for someone else, and it could be a route to making productivity levels rise and giving employee wellbeing a big boost at the same time.