Work With Purpose

Illustration by Madzia McCutcheon

“I hate my job.” It’s a sign of a warped world that most of us have heard friends, family or our own lips utter this sad sentence. London School of Economics research on tens of thousands of individuals in the UK measured the joy produced by 39 different daily activities. Work came in at number 38. Work appears to bring us less enjoyment than doing taxes, scrubbing the tub or inching along in traffic. We prefer work only to one of the 39 studied activities: “Being sick in bed.”

Chances are that four out of every five people working for you right this minute would rather be not working. This is the percentage of global workers who are not “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to work” – in other words, not engaged – according to Gallup.

Why does this matter? Disengaged workers produce less and turn over more. As a result, companies and teams with largely disengaged workers underperform financially by more than 50 percent compared to those with mostly engaged workers, according to Gallup.

Recently, I heard a 16-year-old named Matthew employed at a catering business say it: “I hate my job.” He shook his head. “We throw out so much food. Entire trays of untouched vegetables, fresh pastries … I shovel it into trash bins. Meanwhile there are families with no food.” 

I advise companies on their societal contributions and teach classes on corporate-nonprofit partnerships at Georgetown University. I thoroughly believe that companies should be sustainable and make meaningful contributions to societal issues. I recently discussed food waste with VPs at one of the world’s largest hospitality companies. Still, I wasn’t expecting Matthew – who has no idea what I do for a living – to cite weak sustainability practices as his gravest employment grievance.

To be fair, probing revealed that Matthew dislikes several aspects of his job. He’s the first to admit that donating the surplus food would not make up for the long hours or his supervisors showing little interest in him. Still, if he could change only one thing about his job, it would be its wanton wastefulness.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Matthew expects more from work than a pay cheque. From the way they start social media charitable campaigns that transform causes to the way they eschew big employment benefits, aren’t the post-X generations telling us through their every action that purpose matters? A Net Impact and Rutgers University survey, for example, revealed that 65 percent of student respondents entering the job market expect to make a social and environmental impact through their work, and 44 percent indicated they would be willing to take a pay cut to do so.

The path to “I like this job!”

Fortunately, Matthew’s supervisor – and every other manager – can make work more rewarding by job purposing. That is, they can broaden the social mission of Matthew’s work with the opportunity to serve a social cause.

While job purposing can focus on any societal issue, the environment is a strong choice for several reasons. Environmental sustainability is increasingly ranked as a top public concern. It affects everyone. Finally, leading companies and nonprofits have developed tools to make workplace sustainability turnkey [see “Copy This”].

Matthew’s supervisor could announce at a team meeting, “We produce a lot of food and have the opportunity to keep it out of the landfill and, instead, provide meals to families who are going hungry. Let’s find a way to donate leftover food.” On that day, Matthew’s view of his job will likely improve. After several weeks of helping the food pantry volunteer load up their truck, instead of taking the surplus food to the parking lot waste bins, he could be more engaged at work, more productive and more likely to stay. 

Why would Matthew be more engaged after his job was purposed? In social scientist terms, job purposing is offering a workplace opportunity for “pro-social behaviour,” which is defined as voluntary actions to benefit others or society. Millennia of evolving forces have hardwired us for pro-social behaviour. When solo, our ancestors were weak and vulnerable, unable to keep watch for predators while sleeping, hunting large game or staying warm. We’ve survived because we clumped into communities in which each individual contributes to the collective good. Primatologist Frans De Waal put it this way: “We are group animals, who rely on each other, need each other, and therefore [evolution has ensured we] take pleasure in helping.”

The joy comes from the endorphins that our brains secrete, the same chemicals produced during sex. That’s how powerful this little-known “helper’s high” is – and how primal our affinity for societal contribution is.

Lacking a purposed job, Matthew has no chemically generated euphoria. His job is a transaction, a cost-benefit calculation of his frontal cortex. His brain tells him, “Save your energy for something more meaningful, like your friends or family.” In other words, his physiology is minimizing his engagement.

65 percent of student respondents entering the job market expect to make a social and environmental impact through their work.

Can jobs I manage be purposed?

Granted, purposing a catering job is easier than most. Let’s say you manage a team that sells technology solutions to small businesses, cleans hotel rooms or drives trucks. These, and all jobs, can be purposed. Let’s take each of these in turn.

In the first instance you could offer a sales team the opportunity to help customers be more sustainable by attending online training on sustainable business practices and becoming “Eco Advocates.” Now when they sell a cloud solution to a small accounting firm, they can improve the value proposition by offering to help reduce prospective customers’ utilities, solid waste and water use and costs. This incorporation of environmental sustainability into the everyday workplace experience is job purposing and, thus, will increase team morale, engagement and performance.

What about housekeeping? To purpose the jobs of a housekeeping team, you could offer team members the opportunity to collect partially used soap, which you then deliver to Clean the World, an organization that sterilizes, recycles and distributes it to impoverished families across the globe. Now housekeepers have the option of helping, every workday, to build a world in which preventable infections no longer kill 8,000 children every day – and perfectly good soap is not wasted. They have a purposed job.

Finally, let’s take truck drivers. What if your team is delivering packages or reading utility gauges? How might that job be purposed? Well, consider the possibility of bringing in a local environmental organization to train interested drivers to spot and identify environmental red flags along their route – these could be spotting invasive species, dump sites or non-weatherized buildings. When drivers spot red flags, they use their company-provided GPS to notify a partner non-profit organization of the precise location so that the partners can take action. Thus, these drivers help eliminate elements that damage the environment every time they show up to work. They have a purposed job.

We can stop imagining now. Job purposing is real. The above examples describe teams at HP, Caesars Entertainment and FedEx, respectively. Consistent with the theory behind job purposing, HP has found that participation in Eco Advocates and other job purposing initiatives boosts employee engagement.

Drivers of success

So, yes, good news! “Doing well by doing good” is real. There is a caveat, however. The saying needs an addition: Doing well by doing good well.

I’ve seen highly productive job purposing and I’ve also seen corporate responsibility programs that improve nothing about the employee workplace experience. The typical employee volunteer event advertised on company intranets is wonderful charity, but usually does not meaningfully change employees’ relationships to their jobs. Will donating soup cans to a food drive increase their engagement? Probably not. Neither will asking employees to serve on non-profit boards of directors.

The best job purposing meets all or most of six key drivers of success, summarized in the acronym WE GIVE:

Work-native

Meld the community involvement into the day-to-day job so that the job itself is transformed. In the above examples, minimizing carbon emissions, reducing solid waste and preventable disease, and restoring natural habitat materially changed the jobs themselves.

A social impact that is unrelated to an employee’s regular tasks is unlikely to improve job satisfaction. If Matthew’s supervisor invited him to a weekend coat drive that had nothing to do with his job, Matthew might think more highly of his supervisor but he would not like his job any better. Job purposing doesn’t provide a great alternative to work; it makes the work itself great.

Evolutionary

There’s a reason that the workplace recycling program you instituted three years ago no longer lifts employees’ spirits. An endearing human trait is to continually yearn for increasingly greater achievements. The best job purposing feels fresh and is comfortably challenging to employees. 

Group-based

If the job purposing is conducted with colleagues, it automatically becomes more work-native and, thus, has a higher impact. Team activities have another advantage over individual volunteering. A key driver of workplace engagement is a strong social network. Job purposing that meets this engagement-driver will be an even brighter experience for employees. Data from HP suggests that after the work-native element, the best thing you can do to increase employee engagement through community involvement is to make it team-based.

Impact-evident

Seeing the good that results from our social efforts boosts the engagement lift. Consider what happened to a group of telemarketers raising funds for scholarships after experiencing a 10-minute face-to-face talk with a recipient who described the positive impact the scholarship had on his life. Callers raised 171 percent more revenue the following month! This result was so startling that researcher Adam Grant from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania suspected something had gone awry in his experiment. Only after replicating the experiment five times did he conclude that a concrete sense of social impact directly affects engagement and productivity.

We are group animals, who rely on each other, need each other -and evolution has ensured we take pleasure in helping.

Try to design the job purposing so that employees witness the positive social impact as directly as possible. If it’s not possible to see someone enjoy the donated meal, show them a video about the non-profit partner or share the thank you card that a family sent.

Voluntary

No one likes to be cornered – even if it’s for a good cause. When an individual does not freely choose the pro-social behaviour they engage in, their helper’s high is dampened. Try to give employees choice in relation to job purposing. This might mean making the job purposing activity entirely voluntary. Some choice goes a long way, however. It is often sufficient to provide an opt-out option for a department activity or to simply offer a choice from a short list of activities.

Employee-owned

Psychologists have established that the most motivated workers have a sense of autonomy over what they do and how. This applies to work purposing as well. Employees who have helped design the job purposing activity, even if it’s just by providing feedback or voting on various options, will likely get more satisfaction and experience a greater engagement-lift from the job purposing.

The most ancient form of human work – hunting and gathering – was inherently job-purposed. More than just a transaction necessary to feed ourselves and our offspring, bringing down and consuming a wooly mammoth was a community endeavour that benefitted dozens or even hundreds of individuals. Most anthropologists believe we did not dislike, but rather enjoyed, this ancient work.

We enjoyed work so much, in fact, that hunter-gatherer communities do not even have a term equivalent to “work.” Our modern way of bringing home the bacon, on the other hand, can be described with a plethora of negative terms: labour, grind, toil, slog. The contrast between modern and ancient work is most obvious when we consider that many of us engage in ancient work as a way to recover from modern work. We consider hunting deer, catching fish and gathering berries as leisure activities, and happily pay for the privilege.

After many years of studying the history of work, Richard Donkin, a journalist with the Financial Times, concluded, “The creatures that stepped down from the trees and began to roam upright over the land appear to have developed something beyond the need to survive … they seem to have moved with a sense of purpose.” Donkin states that this has been passed down to us. “If anything drives our organizations today it must be a similar purpose.”

Modern organizations have sterilized work into a collection of tasks out of touch with what is fulfilling. What could be more natural than helping our teams rekindle the sense of purpose that their natural history has bestowed on them?

For ideas on how to purpose the jobs your team does, see the over 150 Living Planet @Work step-by-step guides

Bea is the founder and president of VeraWorks and author of a job purposing blog. 

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