5 ways to create more meaningful work (and deliver better business results)

Creating more meaningful work takes a careful blending of individual values, strategic outputs and values, and work design

Creating more meaningful work takes a careful blending of individual values, strategic outputs and values, and work design, writes Dave Hanna

“We are in business to make a profit. Period.” A CEO once said this to me to make sure I knew what his company’s priority was.

“Great!” I said. “Why don’t you have that phrase posted in every one of your lobbies and in all employee break areas and meeting rooms? That way everybody will know what you are all about.”

In contrast to this CEO’s strategy, more and more members of today’s workforce seek a meaningful purpose for the work they do. When such individuals don’t find meaning, personal “crises” unfold, such as:

  • Skilled professionals just going through the motions to get the numbers.
  • Nurses being forced to send patients home before they are ready in order to free up bed space.
  • Lawyers being evaluated on their ability to bring in revenue rather than for helping clients.

Is it possible to have both financial viability and meaningful work at the same time? It is indeed.

Two examples of meaningful work driving better results
The work that ANZ Bank began more than a decade ago to reshape its culture continues to build its bottom line today. In the first two years of ANZ’s project, the share of employees having the sense that ANZ “lived its values” went from 20 to 80 per cent, and those seeing greater “productivity in meetings,” “openness and honesty,” and a “can-do culture” all jumped from 61 to 91 percent. At the same time, revenue per employee increased 89 per cent and the bank became the leader in total returns to shareholders and customer satisfaction. For the first 10 years after the culture initiative, its profits after tax had a cumulative average growth rate of 15 per cent, putting it well ahead of its rivals. And ANZ is still improving its results.

A Wharton School study examined a call centre to raise money for student scholarships. In this study, the workers were divided into three experimental groups. In one, the workers heard a student speak about how the scholarship money had helped her. A second group simply received letters of thanks from students. The third group had no contact with the students. After one month, call centre workers who had heard the student speak more than doubled the calls they were making and tripled the amount of money they raised. There was no change in the other two groups.

Making work meaningful
To get similar results in your organisation takes a careful blending of individual values, strategic outputs and values, and work design. A company’s culture emerges from the confluence of these elements.

One study conducted by researchers Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden helps us identify what makes work meaningful. They interviewed 135 people working in 10 occupations and asked them to share some meaningful incidents. Their summary findings are below along with a corporate example of each. Note how these all blend the values, outputs, and work design mentioned above.

1. The work is meaningful to others, not just themselves. A pharmaceutical company’s stalled efforts to deliver a life-saving drug were unleashed after all project members met patients whose lives were in their hands. Collaboration replaced bureaucracy. The drug was delivered successfully ahead of schedule.

2. Meaningful experience is richer and more challenging than just being engaged or happy. At their company’s leadership conference, senior managers spent an afternoon renovating a work centre for handicapped adults. The building was renewed from top to bottom and outdoor improvements were made. One executive remarked afterwards, “I work plenty hard for this company and at these conferences I like to have fun. But today I am proud to be a member of this organisation!”

3. There are episodes of peak achievements, but not every day. As one Turkish manager reported, “I received a phone call in the middle of the night informing me that our plant was on fire. When I arrived, hundreds of our associates were already there. We worked together with the fire brigade and put out the fire. We all still remember the night we helped save our plant.”

4. Meaningfulness is rarely perceived in the moment. Reflection afterwards reveals it. A regional division of a large global company experimented with team structures to blend individual country innovation with regional collaboration. Learnings were great. Business results improved dramatically. And that basic structure has been expanded companywide. No one suspected in the beginning they were laying the foundation for the company’s global operations.

5. Meaningfulness is often understood not only in the context of one’s work, but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. A senior executive, who had battled the establishment for years to provide greater opportunities for everyone in a very diverse workforce, was once asked why he put up with all the abuse. “I guess it’s because I have a daughter who recently joined the workforce.”

One word that captures the essence of meaningfulness is contribution. Contribute to others’ wellbeing and everyone experiences something meaningful.