October 22, 2020

Researchers interviewed execs from Google, KPMG, and Microsoft and discovered the 10 guiding principles that make work meaningful for employees

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  • An incredible 9 out of 10 people would take a pay cut to have a job with more meaning, per a 2018 poll of over 2,000 people.
  • So how can managers and leaders make workers feel like their work has meaning?
  • University of Pennsylvania researchers Wesley Adams and Tamara Myles sat down with executives from top performing companies like Google, Microsoft, and KPMG to find out.
  • There are 10 principles that make employees feel that their work is meaningful, they found, including having leaders that model good behavior, implementing company values in performance reviews, and nurturing career growth.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The number of people actively engaged at their job is at its highest since Gallup started recording employee sentiment in 2000, per a 2019 poll. Yet, that number is just over 33%. That means the majority of workers don’t feel engaged or interested in their work. 

That’s a problem for personal productivity and happiness, as well as company output. 

Research shows that when people feel like their work is personally fulfilling and has meaning, they’re more engaged and productive at work. One survey of more than 2,000 people found that 9 out of 10 people would take a pay cut in order to have a job with more meaning. 

So how can employers make their employees feel like their work has real meaning? University of Pennsylvania researchers interviewed executives from 12 top performing companies like Google, Microsoft, KPMG, and others to find out. 

Their research suggests there isn’t one magic ingredient. Rather, it’s 10 organizational and leadership practices. 

“These principles, they’re not new. They’re not rocket science. But when you go out into the world, they’re not common practice,” Tamara Myles, workplace and personal productivity consultant who co-authored the research, told Business Insider.

1. Hire people who care about achieving the same thing as you

Setting up employees for meaningful work begins before they step into the office for their first day. 

Hiring managers should pay special attention to a candidate’s personal values, according to Wesley Adams, co-author of the research and founder and CEO of SV Consulting Group, a leadership and organization consulting firm. 

“It’s important, above all other things, above skills, above experience, that you have people who care about the same things that you care about within your organization,” Adams told Business Insider. 

These principles, they’re not new. They’re not rocket science. But when you go out into the world, they’re not common practice.

 2. Make a strong first impression at orientation 

At orientation, successful leaders show employees that they’re appreciated and welcomed. 

“It’s not just about ‘Here’s your manual. Here’s your computer. Somebody might take you out to lunch.’ It’s going above and beyond and creating this big welcome moment for them,” said Myles, author of “The Secret to Peak Productivity.”

3. Managers should act as role models 

Workers take cues from their managers and leaders. If a company says it prioritizes work-life balance, but managers consistently send emails late into the evening, employees start to believe that a company’s values are all talk. 

“It’s important for leaders to walk the talk,” Adams said. “If a leader isn’t acting in line with a company’s core values, that quickly creates cynicism and distrust among employees. And that damage is very hard to undo.” 

4. Encourage employees to embrace and participate in the company culture 

It’s not enough for managers and leaders to model good behavior, employees need to be encouraged to act in ways that reflect the culture. 

For example, an employee should feel empowered to raise questions on a business deal if there’s a misalignment in values. Adams shared the example of a worker at an eco-friendly company taking issue with a deal with a supplier that makes most of its money through the sale of oil and gas.

5. Connect individual work to a higher purpose 

“Often at work, we’re doing day-to-day tasks and it’s hard to see the bigger picture, or how our work is contributing to the overall purpose of the organization,” Adams said. 

Great company leaders show their workers how their jobs have an impact on society. 

For example, Adams cited how a Microsoft executive was able to inspire server maintenance workers there by communicating to them how their work was helping doctors and nurses exchange valuable medical information and save lives.

It’s important for leaders to walk the talk.

6. Empower autonomy 

Micromanaging makes workers feel like they don’t have any ownership over their time. The opposite, autonomy, makes workers feel like they have agency. 

At the companies the researchers studied, leaders were much more focused on the outcome than the process used to get there.

7. Engage and embrace the whole person 

From encouraging conversations around mental health to making sure your employees have the right benefits, top company leaders show their employees that they care about more than just quarterly profits. 

One company that exemplified this, according to researchers, was software company Hubspot. During the pandemic, the company supported employees with kids by hiring children’s musicians for video concerts. It also helped employees who were struggling with substance abuse disorder by providing employees links to online Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. 

8. Foster relationships across the organization

“There’s a crisis of loneliness and a lack of belonging at work today,” Myles said. 

Successful companies work to combat that. For example, when onboarding at Google, employees are matched with other new Google employees across different departments, from different backgrounds. They then encourage employees to set up time to meet up with their group throughout the year.

9. Set performance reviews that reinforce company values 

To ensure a company’s values really trickle down to employees, managers should have metrics to measure them. For example, if a company encourages employees to work with one another, managers should take into consideration big team collaborations during performance reviews. 

“It’s about rewarding and encouraging behavior that aligns with your values,” Adams said.

10. Recognize possibility and nurture potential 

Another key element to fostering meaningful work is leaders encouraging growth. When you have a standout employee, encourage them to embrace new challenges. 

“These leaders stretch their employees with goals and projects that they might not feel comfortable with, but that the leader feels the employee can do,” Myles said.