The Importance of Meaning in the Workplace

Provide employees with meaning, freedom and self-management.

Outdoor portrait of a pretty dynamic junior executive

A couple of decades ago, if you surveyed employees on what they most want from their work, they would likely rate job stability and high income as their top needs. Stability and big salaries are still important, but they aren’t the only priorities for employees today. The workplace is changing, it’s increasingly global, and new generations of workers are looking for more.

The ADP Research Institute recently completed its 2016 Evolution of Work study, which analyzed key factors transforming the global workplace. They identified five basic human needs that today’s workers are looking for: freedom, knowledge, stability, self-management and meaning.

Most businesses understand the importance of providing stability and learning and development opportunities. But that doesn’t always factor in the need for meaning, freedom and self-management. As leaders of a global workforce, it’s essential that we provide these values in order to build a team of great employees who are enthusiastic about their work and workplace.

Meaning: Employees today, and young employees especially, are looking for meaningful and fulfilling jobs. In the ADP Research Institute’s study, 89 percent of respondents said they want to work on things related to their personal interests or that will impact society. That’s a huge percentage, and it means that in order to attract and retain top employees, leaders will need to provide that meaning.

One way to do this is to expand ways in which your organization makes a positive societal impact. Make sure you’re thinking about ethical and societal issues from the top down, and make sure your entire team is involved in those discussions. Another key step is to make sure that each employee feels they are making important contributions to the organization’s mission. Of course, some employees will need to perform simple administrative or clerical tasks that may not feel fulfilling. As a manager, it’s your role to connect each employee’s job to the organization’s success, particularly for those employees who work behind the scenes. Provide each team member with recognition, and, when possible, provide opportunities to perform work that is recognized as significant.

 Freedom: Employees today place a high value on being able to control their own schedules. They care about work-life balance, and one of the best ways to preserve this is to have flexibility and choice when it comes to their work. You may want to enable employees to design their own schedules or to work from home. Particularly if you are a global organization, you will likely want to incorporate ways for employees to work remotely from any location. Of course, this freedom shouldn’t come at the cost of productivity. It’s essential to balance this freedom with clear expectations about getting work done.

 Self-management: Closely tied to freedom is self-management. While employees value feedback and structure from their managers, they also value independence. More leading organizations are stepping back from micromanaging employees. You can follow suit by setting large goals and enabling employees to manage their own work on a more detailed scale. Of course, this is best done on a case-by-case basis. It’s advisable to work closely with new employees at first to determine their optimal working style and what kind of management and feedback help to produce their best work. The ADP Research Institute predicts that increasing self-management will be a significant future trend, as smart technology will enable workers to be more productive. In fact, ADP believes that technology will eventually make a workplace hierarchy less necessary.

One of the biggest takeaways from ADP’s study is that the workplace is changing, affected most significantly by advancements in technology and the increasing interconnectedness of a global marketplace. We can try to predict where these developments will take us, but perhaps the most important way to prepare is to be willing to change.