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Buzz words abound today, especially when discussing the younger workers – millennials and Gen Z. They want job autonomy, to feel engaged and believe they are doing meaningful work. Employee engagement is frequently discussed, but what exactly does the term "meaningful work" mean?
It wasn't that long ago that millions of people found meaning in work by witnessing the end result of working the production lines in manufacturing plants or producing spreadsheets filled with data. Employees could physically see and touch the results of their efforts day in and day out. Meaningful work was defined mostly in terms of meeting production schedules or producing specific job outcomes, like a balanced spreadsheet. In the age of technology, the results of work are not always so clear, especially for tech workers. You can't touch a software program that took hours of sitting at a desk to debug, and employees are far removed from landfills filled with discarded electronic equipment that pollutes the environment.
In the early days of unions, they mostly represented plant workers and addressed issues like production goals and working hours. Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z are digital natives, and much of their work revolves around tech-based work. It's interesting to note that young workers aren't joining unions at the same rate as older workers once did, but there is a glaring similarity between the generations.
Younger workers are protesting their employers work requirements, joining "non-union unions" and informally organizing themselves to complain about things like work schedules and work requirements. The big difference is that younger generations of workers have added "doing meaningful work" to their list of issues.
Millions of baby boomer plant workers were willing to do repetitive production line work or sit at desks for long hours doing repetitive work without regard for whether the work was satisfying. Back in the days of repetitive work, employee engagement practices revolved mostly around compensation, benefits and work schedules. Younger workers, on the other hand, are used to accessing work 24/7, and many benefits are now legally required, with most employers exceeding the minimum requirements. With those issues out of the way in most cases, younger employees are wanting "meaningful work," making this work characteristic a factor in employee engagement.
The question is: What does "meaningful work" mean? The definition is actually a description of work qualities. Meaningful work is work an employee can connect to an organization's mission and commitment to core values. Engaging employees in the organization's purpose requires leaders to communicate the message to all employees at every level. McKinsey points to a survey of global senior executives in which only 38 percent agreed their employees had a good understanding of the organization's purpose and commitment to beliefs and values. In another survey, 9-out-of-10 American workers didn't feel excited about their work so don't contribute their full potential.
Another attribute of meaningful work is work the employee can directly relate to business success. Your employees must believe their work has significance in some way. One of the reasons corporate social responsibility has become so important to reputation and brand is due to the interest of younger generations of workers in helping their employer succeed in ways that contribute to something like economic equality, environmental sustainability, greater inclusion of diverse people and/or community development.
In the 1950s, baby boomers producing products on production lines didn't worry about things like the impact on the environment or communities of materials sourcing or disposal practices at product end-of-life. Gen Y and Gen Z do care about the impact of business decisions on the quality of life for employees locally and laborers in far-off countries. Younger employees want to know their work results are not harmful to people, whether talking about software programs or an assembly line product, and that their efforts are important to the company's competitive success.
Meaningful work allows the employee to use innate talents which includes skills but also refers to the ability to apply or share diverse perspectives or experiences. This is becoming critical as the workforce becomes more diverse each year due to changing population demographics. It's also important because people of different genders, races, ethnicities and disabilities want a voice in the workplace and equal opportunities to succeed by allowing them to take new approaches to work (job autonomy) which can lead to innovation for your business.
Employees are happiest when allowed to bring their whole selves to work. If an employee believes he or she must leave a part of themselves at the door when showing up for work, the work has less meaning. The employee is likely to have a low level of engagement and believe the job cannot contribute to the greater good because it won't let the employee be an authentic self.
If all of this sounds very psychology based, the reality is technology has freed employees to care more about their job than meeting production goals. People can network online, share diverse perspectives, discuss their work and how it benefits or harms others or the environment and praise or question business practices, work conditions and job requirements. If meaningful work includes letting people bring their whole selves to their jobs, they will bring a much broader view of their jobs to work and how your leaders should behave and communicate. They will ask themselves, "What's the point of doing my job? Does my manager really care about me?"
The experts agree that each person will describe meaningful work in a different way because meaningfulness is highly personal. How do you, as an employer, engage employees who want recognition for individuality? One answer is communication.
As the survey mentioned earlier demonstrates, you must regularly communicate the higher purpose or mission of your organization to employees. You must also give them learning opportunities because employee training helps people shape their ideas as to how their work impacts the business and others. Plentiful employee-employer two-way feedback opportunities motivate people. The focus is on self-improvement within the broader context of helping your business succeed so that it can continue to have a positive impact on people, communities and the environment. Encourage creativity in work, networking with co-workers and sharing work experiences.
A 2018 survey of 2,285 professionals across 26 industries and at different levels, discussed in the Harvard Business Review article 9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do more-Meaningful Work, found that employees who believed they were doing meaningful work spent one extra hour per week working and took 2 less days of paid leave, equating to an additional $9,078 in productivity per employee each year. Decades ago, giving people raises helped keep unions out. Today, helping employers discover the meaning of work plays a bigger role in discouraging unionizing. Things have really changed in the workplace!
The same survey found that employees who have social support and a sense of shared purpose have a 30 percent greater likelihood of getting a raise because they are more productive and satisfied. Here is where the past and present meet. The impact of a shared sense of purpose is felt by employees holding all types of jobs, including retail workers and assembly line workers. People who believe they are doing meaningful work are much more likely to succeed. Unions become impediments and not enablers when employees are engaged.
Enabling people to do meaningful work is crucial to employee engagement. Everyone will find meaningfulness in a different way, so your goal is to help them find it and share it with others. Engage your employees in the company's higher purpose and unions are not likely to get a foothold. An engaged and satisfied employee is not going to choose a union over their feelings of job satisfaction and engagement in the workplace.
With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.